For Juniper Sous Chef Dani Leiran, Nothing in the Kitchen is Off Limits

Dani Leiran is the sous chef at Juniper in the Central West End. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Dani Leiran is the sous chef at Juniper in the Central West End.

For Dani Leiran, cooking was always her refuge. As a teenager, she’d find herself in the kitchen any time she was overwhelmed or stressed, and it always made her feel better. However, it wasn’t until her high school guidance counselor intervened that she realized it could provide her with an answer to a question she’d been struggling with for some time.

“It was my senior year in high school, and I needed to decide on what I wanted to do with my life,” Leiran recalls. “It was April, and I was going to graduate in May, and I needed to come up with something, but nothing was catching me. My guidance counselor mentioned someone that was going to culinary school, and it just clicked. I was like, ‘Yes, that’s totally it. That’s what I want to do.’”

Now sous chef at Juniper (4101 Laclede Avenue, 314-329-7696), Leiran’s career in the kitchen seems like it was always meant to be. However, as a kid growing up in northeast Iowa, cooking was never really a part of her upbringing, unless she was the one doing it. Still, when she looks back, she sees that although her mom was never really a big cook, she inspired Leiran with her work ethic. Leiran realized just how important this was the moment she began culinary school; though the work was hard and the days were long, she found herself thriving in the environment and living up to the pressure.

Leiran’s culinary school, Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, provided a great education for her, and she was able to hone her hospitality skills by working at its affiliated hotel and restaurant. After graduation, she worked at a New American-style restaurant and then a country club, but no matter where she was, there was a common thread.

“The moment I came to it, I realized that I love pastry,” Leiran says. “I love decorating and the artistic side of it — shaping them, making them look pretty. Plus, they are the last thing people taste, so if they are the best part of the meal, that’s what people take away from the experience.”

Leiran was enjoying professional success in Cedar Rapids when a group of friends told her they were moving to St. Louis, and she decided to join them. She saw the move as a chance to live in a community that had a much larger independent restaurant scene, and she longed to be in a place where she could be more creative.

She found both of those qualities in Juniper the moment she walked in the door as a diner. Instantly, she was charmed by the feel of the place, and her opinions were confirmed when the food began to arrive. It seemed like the perfect place not just for dinner, but for her to launch her career in St. Louis; determined to land a job there, she inquired about staging and, following that, ended up being brought on full time.

“I never thought of Southern food as my favorite or something like that, but the people there care so much about putting out good food,” she says. “Everything is homemade; it’s a labor of love. People care, and that’s what I love.”

When Leiran started at Juniper three years ago, she was put in charge of the restaurant’s pastries and prides herself on expanding its offerings. Although she loved that side of the job, she had to give up the day-to-day pastry work when she was promoted to sous chef. Leiran admits it was hard to let it go, but that, like the restaurant, those changes are what keep things fresh.

“I love working here because it’s not stagnant; it’s always pushing and growing,” Leiran says. “It’s ever-evolving, which is cool. I love that.”

Leiran recently took a break from Juniper’s kitchen to share her thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant scene, her impressive hair-braiding skills and why in her kitchen, nothing is off limits.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I’m really good at braiding hair! Ha. And I can swim really well also.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Getting to the gym between four and five days a week. It gives me one hour a day to myself, helps me clear my mind and makes me feel alive, which helps me be the best version of myself at work and in life.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To touch anything hot without towels and/or protection. It would be so cool to reach into an oven and grab a hot tray without any repercussions.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
The movement of N/A drinks. It’s more than just a N/A Busch;, it’s craft cocktails that allow someone who is sober, taking the month off or unable to drink due to other reasons to not feel stuck or excluded.

What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I feel a little uncultured with this answer. I haven’t traveled to a coast recently to see what’s progressing and happening in that sense to know what I would like to see in St. Louis. I really enjoy the progress and passion I’ve seen happening in this city since moving here two and a half years ago. It’s full of potential.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Indo is my food crush — the place as a whole. Everyone behind Indo is so young and driven and making some serious noise with the amazing food being created, which is rightfully deserved.

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Matt McGuire and the entire team at Louie, for me personally, is always on the watch. What they do at Louie seems to be timeless. It’s a place that has kept the same menu, for the most part, with seasonal changes since they’ve opened, and it’s consistently good every time. There’s something big to be said about that.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Salt! I love salt, especially when preparing desserts. It’s used in every cuisine, dish and has no limits. I try to not limit myself to one specific kind of cooking and love learning about every kind of food and becoming more knowledgeable.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would be a barber. Working with a sharp-edged razor seems to be something of a dying art and easily forgotten in busy lifestyles.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
I can’t say I personally have an ingredient I hate and will never allow. There are things I don’t enjoy and love, but the goal is to make food for guests to enjoy and love that shouldn’t be limited by me in that sense.

What is your after-work hangout?
I work late nights, so I generally hang out at Juniper and have a drink or go home, but I love going to Small Change on Sundays after working brunch. That place is the best.

What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Domino’s. Damn, that pizza is good every single time!

What would be your last meal on Earth?
Kounter Kulture. Omu ramen for starters followed with a tofu bibimbap, but I will happily die after eating anything from there.

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected].

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Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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