The first time Molly Leighninger entered a cooking competition she was a few days shy of her fifth birthday.
“I got third place,” she said. “I just knew. I loved that feeling.”
She was hooked. Now, at age 13, she is a veteran of 35 cooking competitions with plans to enter more.
“I just love cooking, in general. It’s another way to be creative and to show that you can really do anything,” she said. “When you look back on it, you’re like, ‘Wow, I made that dish.'”
Cooking runs in the family. She is the daughter of Brad Leighninger, an award-winning chef and restaurant owner known for his barbecue.
“I’m very involved with my dad and we go down to the restaurant,” she said. “It’s cool to see him work.”
Both parents have competed and won prizes in cooking competitions. She was at one when she learned there was a category for young cooks.
Molly, a seventh-grader at Summit Preparatory School in Springfield, started learning at her parents’ side.
As her confidence grew, so did her desire to try new things on her own.
“I like making burgers and more BBQ-type things,” Molly said. “But one of my favorite things to make is actually spaghetti and meatballs.”
Sarah Leighninger, Molly’s mom, said they were thrilled when their daughter showed an interest in the family business.
She said they taught her safety skills first and have been careful not to push.
“We always told her, and ourselves, the moment it’s not fun, it is not worth it,” she said.
But Molly goes to the kitchen on her own, even when other girls her age might prefer to play.
“When she has friends over, her favorite things to do in the morning when they get up is cook everyone breakfast.”
Molly, inspired by her parents and the freedom to try new things in the kitchen, said she has been the one pushing herself.
That drive, and love of cooking, has taken her far.
Her eponymous creation, the Molly Burger, is a top-seller in her parents’ Gettin’ Basted restaurants in Springfield, Nixa and Branson.
It is made with wagyu beef, butter, bacon and a special mix of other ingredients she will not divulge.
“My dad was there to guide me and we went over a lot of different ideas,” Molly said. “I found that was the one that worked best.”
The burger, popular at competitions, got her noticed. 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 TV chef Rachael Ray to join them on stage for the tasting portion.
“I met Rachael Ray. She was super sweet,” Molly said.
Ray repeatedly called the burger “amazing,” asked for the recipe and gave Molly three gifts: a cookbook, spatulas and a pink chef coat.
That was not the end of the surprise.
Harvey asked Molly, then age 9, to attend the Food Network’s New York Wine and Food Festival as a special correspondent for his show.
“I really like to talk to people and I am very energetic and outgoing,” she said, matter-of-factly. “And I’m bubbly.”
She is not wrong. The extrovert made the most of her time at the festival, trying different foods and rubbing elbows with famous chefs Mario Batali, Geoffrey Zakarian, Jonathan Waxman, Giada De Laurentis and others.
“I got to meet a lot of awesome people,” she said.
Sarah Leighninger said Molly has a natural confidence during stressful situations.
“She’s always just been such a natural in front of the camera and in front of people,” she said. “She doesn’t ever get nervous or have any sort of issue articulating what she is thinking.”
Molly puts those skills to use in other parts of her life. She is a student athlete at Summit Prep, participating in cross county, soccer and volleyball.
She serves on student council at the private school and competes in Science Olympiad, speech and debate, and is a gifted writer.
In 2019, Molly won first place in the George Washington Carver National Monument annual essay contest.
Molly said despite other interests, cooking is her future. In college, she wants to study the culinary arts and business.
“I definitely want to maybe take over my parents’ restaurants when I get older or start my own something that involves cooking,” she said.
Her mom, Sarah, joked: “We better watch out.” On a more serious note, Sarah said the pandemic has showed the challenges of running a service-based business.
She said the Gettin’ Basted restaurants and their Downing Street Pour House, located in Hollister, struggled but ultimately survived. They have been able to keep most of their employees.
“She gets to see a lot of it firsthand. She overhears a lot of conversations,” said Sarah Leighninger. “She is just right in there with us. She hears it all.”
Molly said she learns a lot about the restaurant world and what it takes to make it just by watching her parents.
“They put in 100 percent effort every single day,” she said. “My dad always told me ‘It is going to feel like you can’t do it but if you keep going at it every single day, you’ll get it eventually.’ He was right. He never gave up and he’s done some amazing things.”
Molly said cooking is a fun distraction even when she tries a new skill or ingredient and it does not work out.
“No matter how your creation turns out, you’re still happy,” she said. “No matter what happened, you learned something from it.”
About the series
The “Future of the Ozarks” series, spotlighting extraordinary students in the Ozarks, will publish on Mondays.
The series will feature students with an incredible talent, accomplishment, or passion for helping others. To nominate an individual, email Claudette Riley, education reporter, with details and contact information at [email protected]