Fermenting Change: Talking with Brad Leone of “It’s Alive with Brad Leone”
To the uninitiated, explaining a show like It’s Alive with Brad, let alone the show’s host, Brad Leone, can leave one at a loss for words. The best way to describe this highly addictive online series is part cooking show, part travel show, part Pop-Up Video and part continuous blooper reel—all delivered in a thick upstate New Jersey accent. Even though the series is produced by upscale food magazine, Bon Appétit, It’s Alive feels completely different—a renegade in the sometimes dry culinary world. And while the series focuses around fermented foods, (beer, kimchi, pickles, etc…) , the show has began featuring food, chefs and craftsman from all aspects of the food chain. Whether watching Brad visit a local brewery, travel to Ecuador to see how chocolate is made or make fermented hot sauce back in the kitchen, each episode feels fresh, unique and educational, but like one of your funniest friends is the one on the other side of the lens.
But before diving further into this interview, it might be best to watch an episode first. Just one though. Try not to get sucked into the YouTube void. After watching one (or binge watching all) this interview will read completely differently, and true to Brad’s contagious personality.
Who are you, where are you from and how did you get started in cooking?
My name is Brad Samuel Leone the 1st. Born and raised in upstate NJ, “the pretty part” up where the Appalachian Trail runs through the state and we have a ski resort called Mountain Creek (the old Action Park). A lot of greats and dirt bags came from here, and I find myself comfortably in the middle. I grew up in the countryside of the state and lived there until I moved to NYC when I was 26 years old.
I grew up cooking my whole life, both my parents are good cooks, too, so I wasn’t eating BS. I mean my mom was definitely buying the cheapest meats and produce, but we didn’t have tons of money. I had a bunch of jobs: carpentry, roofing, paving, glacier and a bunch of catering companies, etc… Then I took a chance, and a loan out, and moved to the Big Apple to try to make it in the food world. I worked at some restaurants, went to an “eh” culinary school and took an internship at Bon Appétit magazine as a dishwasher. That was about seven years ago and I no longer have to wash everyone’s dishes (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Tell us about the YouTube series you host, It’s Alive with Brad. What is it about and why should someone watch it?
Yeah, so I host a show called It’s Alive – with Brad and it’s on the Bon Appétit YouTube page. It’s a three person team: Vinny (camera guy/producer), Matt H. (main editor) and myself. It’s a fun, unscripted show about kitchen fermentation experiments and out-of-the-kitchen food adventures. Its great. Just watch it. We have fun. We usually show a dog. Good clean education entertainment.
Aside from hosting It’s Alive, you’re also the Test Kitchen Manager at Bon Appétit. How did you land in this role and what exactly does being the kitchen manager entail?
I worked my way up and kinda created the position out of necessity. Besides the show, I help keep the kitchen flowing. Do the ordering, clean, shop and source ingredients, and do the budget. It’s myself and Gaby, who is the kitchen manager assistant. She’s the best.
Bon Appetit isn’t new to video content, but It’s Alive feels pretty unique. How did the series come about and did it take some convincing of the higher ups to keep it kind of wild like it is?
Turns out I’m not too good at the “traditional” way of shooting video, but luckily my bosses and coworkers are the best and gave Vinny and I some wiggle room.
The editing style of the show really stands out. Was that a decision between you and the team, or did they surprise you with the first edit?
I hated it at first and thought it was too goofy. But I got better and so did the videos, I feel. I can take no credit for the creative editing process. That’s Matt and Vinny’s thing. I mean we share creative input, etc… but I don’t even own a computer.
It’s Alive has a lot to do with fermentation. What was it about fermentation or “alive food” that originally interested you?
It’s just very rewarding and fun to do. Fermentation is such an old technique that people probably would have died without. Before refrigeration, fermentation is how you preserved the seasons. It’s super good for you, too. Good guy health baby!
With all those gasses, fermentation can get kind of messy. Can you tell us about one of your most disastrous kitchen experiences where fermentation was involved?
Yup, it is. I tried making a backyard Brusco one time—you know, a nice carbonated funky wine. Well a bottle blew up in my hand and literally turned to sand. A coworker of mine was standing next to me… he still isn’t the same. Miracle no one got seriously hurt.
A lot of the series is based in the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen in NYC, but you’ve also started to travel quite a bit for some of episodes. What was one of your favorite trips and why?
Honestly all the trips have been so great. I like being able to tell people’s food stories and show the passion and hard work that goes into what we just buy in stores. Alaska and Ecuador were very cool.
Based off creeping on your Instagram, you spend some of your free time surfing and woodworking (and eating really good food). How do you think the discipline and patience of these activities relates to cooking?
Man, I wish I was as good at surfing and woodworking as I am at cooking (I ain’t even that good). Surfing is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I love it. I didn’t pick up surfing ‘till I moved to NYC, oddly. I grew up spending tons of time on the ocean but never surfed. A buddy of mine from Omaha bought some logs and we taught ourselves how to surf.
I’ve always been into arts and outdoor kind stuff, and woodworking just turned into a nice creative outlet for me. My uncle in-law is a master woodworker and has a sweet mill, so it’s awesome to be able to work wood from log to piece. A surfing buddy of mine and old friend, Adam, and I split a shop in Bayonne, NJ. We rent from an old Greek guy—”Nicky the Greek,” we call him.
Lastly, if we wanted to impress some friends with a good meal, what is one of your favorite go-to’s we should try out?
A solid roast chicken or whole grilled fish! Maybe some perfect ribs and rice!
Subscribe to the channel to keep up to date with Brad’s adventures. Trust us, you don’t want to miss this series.