After a shift what is your favorite guilty pleasure to eat? “A six-piece chicken nugget Happy Meal with sweet ‘n sour and hot mustard! I bring the toy to my bulldog. (He’s named Chef and has his own Instagram!) Also, if I can ever get my hands on a proper corn dog, I’m all in!”
Is there one dish you won’t cook? “There’s no dish I won’t cook, but if I never had to make hummus again, I wouldn’t be mad about it. I feel like I’ve pureed enough garbanzo beans to last a lifetime!”
All-time favorite spice. “Black cardamom! The smokey complexity is everything and I love using it in desserts! My runner up is sumac, the most underrated spice of all time.”
What is your favorite music to listen to while you cook? “Depends on the mood! If I’m feeling it, you can usually catch me listening to Erykah Badu and other neo-soul artists. But if I’m having a bad day, my team will know it when they walk into me singing Disney songs instead of listening to music.”
Did you grow up cooking as a kid? “Of course! I got to help with little things at home like rolling grape leaves and picking parsley for tabbouleh. But I spent most of my childhood cooking at my Filipino neighbor’s house who would let me throw down for breakfast every morning before we would carpool to school! I made a mean fried Spam and rice!”
What cookbook is your go-to resource for inspiration? “This is a hard one for me. Cookbook inspiration isn’t exactly how I come up with my menu items, but if I had to pick for the current state of my life, I’m most inspired by my newest purchase, Suqar (which means sugar in Arabic) by Greg and Lucy Malouf.”
After all these years working in restaurants do you still enjoy going out to eat? “Going out to eat is my favorite thing to do. Cooking all day and working in the restaurants makes me not want to cook at home! Plus, food always tastes better when somebody else cooked it for you, does it not?”
Is there one chef you’d like to cook with? “Honestly, I feel like Tara Khattar and I would slay in the kitchen together!”
Name the all-time best cooking show. “I'm going to have to go with Iron Chef. To me, it is the most impressive and exciting. I’ve probably watched more Iron Chef than any other cooking show.”
What is the one tool that you always need but can’t ever seem to find in your kitchen? “A vegetable peeler! I buy them five at a time and lose them before I’ve even used them.”
Chef Mona Leena just opened the restaurant Lulu in Berkeley, California.
Interview has been condensed and edited.