Summit prep student competes, cooked on Steve Harvey’s show
The first time Molly Leighninger entered a cooking competition, she was just days away from her fifth birthday.
“I got third place,” she said. “I just knew. I loved the feeling.”
She was addicted. Now, at 13, she is a veteran of 35 cooking competitions and plans to participate in more.
âI love to cook, in general. It’s another way to be creative and show that you can really do anything,â she said. “When you think about it, you’re like ‘Wow, I made this dish.'”
The cooking is family. She is the daughter of Brad Leighninger, an award winning chef and restaurant owner known for his barbecue.
âI’m very involved with my dad and we go down to the restaurant,â she said. “It’s cool to see him work.”
Both parents competed and won prizes in cooking competitions. She was at one when she learned that there was a category for young cooks.
Molly, a seventh grade student at Summit Preparatory School in Springfield, began to learn alongside her parents.
As her confidence grew, her desire to try new things on her own also increased.
âI like to make burgers and more barbecue type stuff,â Molly said. “But one of my favorite things to do is actually spaghetti and meatballs.”
Sarah Leighninger, Molly’s mother, said they were delighted when their daughter showed interest in the family business.
She said they taught her safety skills first and were careful not to push.
“We’ve always told her, and ourselves, as long as it’s not fun, it’s not worth it,” she said.
But Molly goes to the kitchen on her own, even though other girls her age prefer to play.
“When she entertains friends her favorite thing to do in the morning when they get up is make everyone’s breakfast.”
Molly, inspired by her parents and the freedom to try new things in the kitchen, said she’s the one pushing herself.
This motivation and love of cooking has taken her far.
His eponymous creation, the Molly Burger, is a bestseller in his Parents ‘Gettin’ Basted Restaurants in Springfield, Nixa and Branson.
It’s made with wagyu beef, butter, bacon, and a special blend of other ingredients that she won’t disclose.
âMy dad was there to guide me and we looked at a lot of different ideas,â Molly said. “I found it to be the one that worked the best.”
The burger, very popular in competitions, pointed out. She was invited to cook it for Steve Harvey on his syndicated daytime TV show.
During the episode, which aired in October 2017, Harvey surprised Molly by asking her TV chief Rachael Ray will join them on stage for the tasting part.
âI met Rachael Ray. She was super sweet,â Molly said.
Ray repeatedly called the burger “amazing,” asked for the recipe, and gave Molly three gifts: a cookbook, spatulas, and a pink chef’s coat.
It wasn’t the end of the surprise.
Harvey asked Molly, then 9, to attend Food Network’s New York Wine and Food Festival as special correspondent for his show.
âI really like talking to people and I’m very energetic and outgoing,â she said in a neutral tone. “And I am bubbly.”
She is not wrong. The extrovert made the most of her time at the festival, trying different foods and hanging out with famous chefs Mario Batali, Geoffrey Zakarian, Jonathan Waxman, Giada De Laurentis and others.
âI have met a lot of great people,â she said.
Sarah Leighninger said Molly has a natural confidence in stressful situations.
âShe has always been so natural on camera and in front of people,â she said. “She never gets nervous or has any problem expressing what she’s thinking.”
Molly uses these skills in other parts of her life. She is a student-athlete at Summit Prep, participating in cross country, soccer and volleyball.
She sits on the private school student council and participates in the Science Olympiad, speeches and debates, and is a talented writer.
In 2019, Molly won first place in the annual George Washington Carver National Monument essay competition.
Molly said that despite other interests, cooking is her future. In college, she wants to study culinary arts and business.
âI really maybe want to take over my parents’ restaurants when I’m older or start my own something that involves cooking,â she said.
Her mother, Sarah, joked, “We better be careful.” On a more serious note, Sarah said the pandemic has shown the challenges of running a service-based business.
She said Gettin ‘Basted restaurants and their Downing Street Pour House, located in Hollister, struggled but ultimately survived. They managed to keep most of their employees.
“She can see a lot of it with her own eyes. She overhears a lot of conversations,” said Sarah Leighninger. “She’s right here with us. She hears everything.”
Molly said she learns a lot about the restaurant business and what it takes to do it just by watching her parents.
âThey are trying 100 percent every day,â she said. âMy dad always said to me, ‘It’s going to feel like you can’t do it, but if you keep doing it everyday, you’ll get there eventually.’ He was right. He never gave up and he did amazing things. “
Molly said cooking is a fun distraction even when she tries a new skill or ingredient and it doesn’t work.
âNo matter what the outcome of your creation is, you are always happy,â she said. “No matter what happened, you learned something from it.”
About the series
The Future of the Ozarks series, featuring amazing students in the Ozarks, will be released on Mondays.
The series will feature students with incredible talent, accomplishment or passion to help others. To nominate someone, email Claudette Riley, education reporter, with details and contact information at [email protected]