by Amber Leja
Meet Leon Johnson. For the past 25 years he has been an educator and an artist – teaching at universities all over the world, including in Maine, Oregon, and Berlin. He came to Detroit three years ago to be the chair of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies, but decided to leave that position after only one year, becoming “disenchanted” after spending so much time working in the education system.
“The school seemed really hesitant to engage the students in the city,” he added “I wanted to engage young Detroiters into culture through the ways of food.” So last year, after a tough year off, he developed Market Studio Kitchen, a new way of educating and a free program offered to youth throughout the city. “I loved teaching, I had to find a way to believe again.”
“There’s a critical challenge,” Leon said speaking of the city he, along with his wife and two sons now call home. “Many children within the city are facing a diet exclusively based on fast food or microwaved meals.” Leon originally started the program with 45 students, to teach them the responsibility of their own health and welfare, develop new eating habits through the production of pleasure through food and immerse them into the world of culture that goes with it. Today, he works one-on-one with a student a time.
out of his home within the Eastern Market, the complex is called Salt & Cedar, which he described to me as having a “different element of engagement from each room inside.” The main door is off of Riopelle Street; when you walk in you will see a gallery of art with tall industrial walls – the first element of engagement. The next room houses a printing press, which Leon joked “that’s how we pay the bills.”
Followed beyond that is a large, open room with a long center table; there Leon hosts events, which students and other members of the community are welcome to attend. “This room is social engagement, we have film screenings, pop-up dinners,” he explained. He seemed proud of and was excited to tell me about the “Book and bread” dinner, where everyone will learn to bind their own 18th century journal, "Six people even flew in from New York for it! The events give the students a chance to meet influential people within the community,” he added. The last room of the complex, with doors opening to the alley of Orleans Street, is Market Studio Kitchen.
“I let the city tell me what it should be,” speaking of Salt & Cedar and what it has evolved to be, “I love Detroit and Detroiters, and wanted to mirror what I’d learned growing up my own mother’s kitchen table to educate through the engagement of food and pleasure.” Leon went on to tell me about his first student to graduate from the program, 16-year-old Marcel Henry.
“Marcel had come to me from Henry Ford Academy, we’d spend a few hours together on Saturday mornings where we’d go into the Eastern Market, find fresh food to prepare a meal, and then buy two sets,” he said that together they would prepare a meal and then Marcel would take the other set of food home to prepare for his family. “Marcel was able to shift his entire dynamic, for him and within his family,” Leon said proudly of his student.
“I know what it means for my own family, if the pleasures in your own life are useful, beneficial,” Leon told me when I asked him what his goals were, “We have no aspirations to be big, we just want to make a difference.”