The iron chef of Church Street’s Leunig’s Bistro

Her favorite part of being Executive Chef of Leunig’s Bistro? Being creative. Donelle Collins believes that anything can be done in the kitchen with some time and experimenting. In fact, every dish she cooks she makes herself, making every dish special to her in some way or another. Collins presents this cooking motto to every student she coaches in the kitchen, reminding everyone that anything can be done.When she began discussing her work with students who come to the kitchen to learn, it was clear this is her passion. “It’s really fun for me to watch them evolve. When they’re like, ‘I can’t put these two ingredients together,’ and I’m like, ‘Why not?” she said. “You should never say you can’t do anything. Try it, play with it. Add more of this, less of this. Make it work.”Collins said she likes to create dishes that take a long time. Her favorite dish to cook is Beef Bourguignon in the classic French style, which takes two days. “[We] soak it in red wine, and then we braze it. It’s a lot of work. People love it,” she said.She discovered this last summer, when the dish became a hit, selling more than ever before.Collins stands out in the crowd of happy eaters at Leunig’s Bistro, which is situated on the corner of College St. and Church St. Her spiky hair, white chef coat and air of confidence in the small, dimly lit, upscale restaurant draws everyone’s attention in her direction, as she emerges from her “office,” the kitchen.Working in restaurants her entire life, she knows how it feels to be in the dining room, and kitchen. “I went from dishwashing, to bussing tables, to waitressing and then just really liked the kitchen,” she said. But, she was ultimately pushed to stay in the kitchen by a German chef for whom she worked. “She was pretty snot-nosed and rough around the edges, and she just pushed me into the kitchen, and I liked hanging out with her. That’s how it all evolved,” Collins said.A painter her whole life, she wanted to attend a culinary school where she could also be surrounded by art. She found a perfect fit at Newbury College in Boston. After school in Boston, Collins went back to her hometown of L.A. and cooked there, but ended up in Burlington and has made a home here in Vermont with her partner and two children, ages 12 and 15. “I think that I have landed here for a reason,” she said. The only thing she doesn’t like about the job? Long hours. “When you get to the level of being an executive chef, and having a family, it’s hard.”But she and her partner can also share the joys of cooking when she leaves the kitchen. Though she loves to teach others about the joy and creativity cooking can bring, her partner was able to teach her about the extensiveness of vegetarian cuisine, which Collins said really helped further the creativity within her dishes.It is clear that Collins’ future goals do not include leaving Leunig’s anytime soon. “The owner of this restaurant is a retired chef,” she said. “He’s kind of passing the torch to me as a business owner. We’ll see what happens.” “I love it here,” she added. “It’s a great restaurant. It’s beautiful, it’s busy. It’s on the best corner in Burlington, I think. Because we’re busy, I get to do a lot of fun things in the community.” She continually auctions herself off for numerous amounts of fundraising. She participates in cancer walks and the March of Dimes. “[I do] whatever I can do to help out,” she said.Despite the community work she does outside of the restaurant, she makes sure to also keep the Leunig’s guests happy with her delicious meals. She loves walking through the dining room to see just how much the guests are enjoying their meals. Although she doesn’t have a special recipe, “I develop all my recipes here, so I guess they’re all kind of special to me,” she said.Her final words show that Burlington is in her heart, and echoes the thoughts of all true Burlingtonians, “I just love what I do. I love working in Burlington. I love the community.”