Sunday Conversation with Henry Chandler

Acworth chef, restaurateur puts up culinary chops in national competition

Henry Chandler will test his culinary skills against nine other top chefs from around the country at the Farm to Table Chefs Taste Challenge on Aug. 19 in New Orleans. Don’t worry. Chandler thrives on pressure. “I am a good Southern boy — I love competition,” says Chandler, owner of Henry’s Louisiana Grill in downtown Acworth. “As a kid, it was all about catching the bigger fish, killing the bigger deer.” Now it is all about cooking up the best dish for judges and 500 diners at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Now that’s pressure.

Q: What’s your story?

A: I was born and raised on a 1,500-acre cotton, cattle and pecan farm in Winn Parish, Louisiana, home of the infamous former governor, Huey Long. My mother was a Southern belle — she slept till noon every day except Wednesday when she went to the beauty parlor. From the age of zero on, I was raised by my nanny, Castell, and started cooking with her when I was seven or eight. When I was 10, I cooked my first meal, chicken and dumplings, for 18 farmhands and family.

Q: Why do you like cooking?

A: I enjoy the process, taking something that God has given you and turning it into something you can feed your friends, your relatives, your wife, your kids.

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Q: How did you get to Acworth?

A: My wife, Claudia, was an international executive with Deutsche Bank in England. I got my culinary degree from the London City and Guilds. After Claudia was sent to Atlanta, we settled in Acworth because we loved the charm of older homes and small town life. My first professional chef’s job was at Tom Catherall’s TomTom a Bistro. Ian Winslade was the chef who took me under his wing and assured me that I wasn’t going to be cooking lobster consommés the rest of my life.

Q: How did you come to open Henry’s?

A: I was a house daddy after both our kids were born and did some catering. Then a God-knows-how-old building that had been a diner became available. My wife retired and we were crazy enough to invest everything and opened the doors to Henry’s in August 2000. We had no customers and four employees, Claudia and myself included.

Q: Where do things stand now?

A: We have 134 employees and the restaurant serves 6,000 customers a week, and another 450 to go orders. We also have a full-service catering division.

Q: What about the upcoming competition?

A: It is farm to table usage. We already try to do that at Henry’s as much as we can. When we first started, I was scouring farmer’s markets for local products. I still make it a point to source from the farmers when possible. Cooking great flavored food is not magic. You have to have great products to start with and not fuss with them too much. Cooking for 500 people is magic. The competition is going to be intense.

Q: Aren’t you used to that?

A: Yeah and I love competition. Everybody likes to be the king when the kingdom is doing good. When the kingdom is not going good, that’s when you chop the king’s head off.

Q: Aren’t you the king and doing good right now?

A: I have a big ego. You have to have some humility when you are a chef. You are only as good as the last dish you put in front of the last person.

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