At eight-years-old, LeeAnn Leavitt’s mom gave her a pound of hamburger, a few vegetables from the garden and told her to make a meal for 10 people. She did –- and she’s been cooking ever since.
“I made hamburger soup that day,” LeeAnn said. “My mom was a master chef and I was the oldest of eight so my mom always had me in the kitchen right beside her learning how to cook.”
This first experience at cooking fueled a passion LeeAnn pursued throughout her life, cooking in various capacities from treatment centers to four-star restaurants. Her career also gave her opportunities to work alongside some of the world’s top chefs.
LeeAnn’s enthusiasm for the culinary arts along with her love of helping others spurred her to recently open her own culinary arts school, Culinary Arts Professional Academy (CAPA), and restaurant, G.I. Jo’s. The restaurant located at 5 North Main Cedar City, will serve as both a training ground for the students and a place for veterans and members of the armed forces and their families to come and eat. The menu includes breakfasts and lunches along with homemade breads and soups and deserts, with everything only costing 99 cents. All the proceeds from G.I. Jo’s is donated back to help veterans.
G.I. Jo’s was, in part, named after LeeAnn’s daughter, Shyanna Jo Morgan, and in honor of her husband and four children who have all either served or are still enlisted in various branches of the armed forces.
Shyanna, along with her twin sister Savanna Rae Morgan, just recently graduated from Parowan High School and both enlisted in the military. Shyanna, following in the footsteps of her brother, Specialist Russel S. Morgan, enlisted in the Utah National Guard 141st Military Intelligence Unit out of St. George. Savanna chose instead to pursue a career in the US Air Force like her father, Craig Evans Leavitt. Craig served from 1969 to ‘75 and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. LeeAnn and Craig also have another son, Benjamin J. Leavitt, who is a former member of the Marine Core.
LeeAnn and her students recently gave the restaurant a trial run during the end of May by inviting members of the armed forces, their families, veterans, and community members to come in and try out the new menu, which is all made from scratch.
“Nothing gets reused or taken out of the fridge in the morning,” LeeAnn said. “Its all made fresh every day and made from scratch.”
Sgt. 1st class Brent Bergener, who enjoyed two bowls of homemade chicken soup during his visit at GI Jos, said he was excited to have a place he could go to get a homemade meal. He also thought the concept behind the restaurant, in both helping veterans and in providing a hands-on opportunity for students attending CAPA, was great.
LeeAnn’s husband joined in the day’s events as well, laughing and talking with everyone who came in to eat that first day. Craig shared jokes and stories with customers, as well as his wife’s dreams and goals for the school and restaurant. Even as he was filled with joy and pride for his wife and her accomplishments, Craig had to pause to fight the tears back when conveying some of his own feelings about the veterans in America.
“Most of the people we see sitting on park benches who are homeless, are our veterans. And I think there is something wrong, something really wrong,” he said, his voice cracking, “when men and women are going hungry in a country they fought to protect.”
There are currently three students enrolled in CAPA and they will be the first class to graduate. LeeAnn however, is expecting a lot more. Now certified as an accredited school with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, she will be accepting students through their program as well as Deseret Industries (DI), who she has already been working with through their on-the-job training program.
Larry Carter, who was referred to CAPA through the DI, has worked in the food industry for over 15 years, yet he has never had an opportunity to learn to cook from scratch.
“Cooking has always been like my favorite thing to do. So when the DI offered me this opportunity I jumped on it. This program has made me a lot more confident in what I’m doing and has taught me more than I learned in 15 years working in the restaurant business,” Carter said.
LeeAnn enjoys watching her students learn something they want to do. “You can go get a job doing anything, but there’s nothing like getting up in the morning and wanting to go to work. When these guys are done with their schooling they will get to go to work doing something they love to do. There isn’t enough money you can pay someone to replace that feeling of pride and joy in their work,” Leeann said.
Coursework at the school takes about four weeks and then students have four weeks they spend in the kitchen at G.I. Jo’s applying the knowledge they’ve learned in a real work environment. Part of this training includes learning to work with others and communication skills.
“They can know how to cook but if they don’t know how to get along with other people they’re not going to make it in this business,” LeeAnn said. “We teach them team work because that’s key to long-term employment.”
Upon graduation, LeeAnn helps her students with resumes, letters of recommendation and job placement.
The grand opening for the restaurant is June 4th and will be opened daily from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.. Any leftovers from the day will be served from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. to anyone who comes in to G.I. Jo’s at that time and can’t afford to pay for a meal. On Fridays, when the restaurant closes for the weekend, anything leftover from the week will be divided up and given to those who may be struggling to eat or feed their families.
“We don’t want any food to go to waste and we don’t want anyone to go hungry,” LeeAnn said.
Tracie is an investigative reporter, photographer and media relations consultant. She has written for several publications including the Deseret News, the Spectrum, Elan Woman, and New West. During her career, Tracie has covered various beats including education, politics, crime, courts, cops, government, lifestyle, arts and entertainment, and environmental issues.