Miami alumna shares her path to working as director of Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s

By Jesús F. Jiménez, assistant director of editorial services
Jungle Jim's director of Cooking School, Leigh Barnhart Ochs '83
Leigh Barnhart Ochs ’83

Leigh Barnhart Ochs ’83 started experimenting with food at a young age.

Her father was a microbiology professor at Miami University and her mother worked as a nurse at the health center on campus. Oftentimes, Leigh and her siblings would get home from school first.

Mom left basic cooking instructions for Leigh, and she started enjoying the process.

Cooking was always a part of her life, but as she got older, her hobby turned to passion, and passion turned to a career change.

Leigh, a longtime social worker, has spent the last 11 years as the director of the Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio.

As we near the holidays, she looks back on her career path while offering one of her signature holiday recipes, her potato gratin with cheddar, shallots and rosemary.

“I guess you have to be willing to take a chance, and I was never afraid to do that,” Leigh said. “Social work was a career, and this to me is what has started to be a career, but this is more fun.”

‘I always played around with food’

Leigh spent her early years in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before moving to Oxford when her parents were hired at Miami.

Leigh majored in sociology and started her career at Fort Hamilton Hospital before she earned a master’s in social work at the University of Cincinnati and opened a rehabilitation business.

During her free time, Leigh often experimented in the kitchen.

“I had always played around with food,” Leigh said. “It started when we were young. We would get home before my parents did, and my mother would leave a list for a roast or chicken and we’d get home and put it in and I started to enjoy doing that. Cooking has really evolved. It’s a lot more fun now.”

‘Someone left this flyer on my desk’

Leigh traveled around the country to attend cooking classes. Once a year, she attended a 10-week course from Anne Willan, the owner of the LaVarenne Cooking School in Burgundy, France, who offered a course in Greenbrier, West Virginia.

Leigh developed a reputation as a good cook, and one day, she found a flyer on her desk about working as a personal chef.

Around 2000, Leigh closed her rehabilitation business and decided to try working as a personal chef.

“People knew me as a good cook, and someone left this flyer on my desk,” Leigh said. “I decided to try it because I was in between careers.”

Initially, Leigh focused on her career as a personal chef, and later started teaching one class at Jungle Jim’s about every three or four months.

“I had a menu that people could choose from and it had everything from meatloaf to lobster,” Leigh said. “People just wanted home cooking and were too busy to cook for themselves. Generally, the food was homey.”

That menu inspired Leigh to write a cookbook, “Be Your Guest,” in 2005, which sold at Jungle Jim’s and featured book signings with Leigh. During her time as a guest instructor, Leigh was invited on a trip to Italy, where she met Carol Tabone, the director of the Cooking School at the time. Tabone retired in December 2009, paving the way for Leigh to take over the next month.

The Cooking School

For 25 years, the Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s has offered a variety of cooking classes.

Jungle Jim's the cooking school is back with virtual classes.

“When I started, more people would just sit and watch – and of course, ate,” Leigh said. “You started to see that switching to where more people enjoyed the hands-on experience rather than just sitting and watching. We also schedule private classes for groups of people who want to do team building and things like that.”

The school offers grilling classes year-round and has a deck that overlooks the charcuterie and wine departments. Her favorite dish is smoked salmon. The most popular dish? Steak.

“Steak and potatoes sell out every single time,” Leigh said. “People want to go out and have a good time and they want to eat a steak.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, classes have moved to a virtual landscape, and Leigh said there is an opportunity to offer both in-person and virtual classes once things return to normal.

The school also offers an option where participants can purchase a kit that has premeasured ingredients in advance of the course.

Leigh still cherishes her time at Miami and credits her degree in sociology for opening many doors. She still has her social work license and is a partner in a geriatric care management private practice but hasn’t practiced in about a decade.

For now, she is enjoying her time with the culinary arts and looking forward.

“The transition from social work to cooking school happened very naturally for me,” Leigh said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what changes we will make in the next year or so to stay current with cooking trends and meet our students’ expectations. I’m most excited about resuming our annual culinary trips to Italy!”

Miami University has a wide range of alumni working in the food industry. As we near the holiday season, we are highlighting a few of those alumni and asking them to share their favorite holiday dishes so that you can make them at home. This is the second of three stories in the series. Look out for the third story on the series later this week, and in case you missed it, check out our story on Sarah Black ’76, who has made a career out of breadmaking.

Miami Alum Leigh Barnhart Ochs' holiday recipe for Potato gratin with cheddar, shallots and rosemary

Potato gratin with cheddar, shallots and rosemary

Ingredients (serves 8)
  • 2 cups whipping cream
  • ½ cup finely chopped shallots
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 3 lbs. new potatoes with peel, thinly sliced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 8 oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish
  3. Combine cream, shallots and rosemary in a medium bowl and whisk to blend
  4. Layer half of potatoes in prepared baking dish
  5. Sprinkle with salt and pepper
  6. Spoon half of the cream mixture evenly over potatoes
  7. Sprinkle with half the cheese
  8. Top with second layer of potatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper
  9. Pour remaining cream mixture evenly over the top
  10. Sprinkle with remaining cheese
  11. Bake 60 minutes, until bubbly and top is browned
  12. Remove from oven and allow to rest 10 minutes before serving

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