Chef talk: Graeham Henderson – pirate chefs need to rethink

Graeham Henderson is smack bang in the middle of a big career. So in his interview, we looked both backwards and forwards. It’s an exciting time for him with big challenges, but if anyone is up to it, it’s Graeham.

And he absolutely nails the issues the industry is facing, and the why. Beautifully.

So Graeham Henderson – where are you now?

“I recently landed the role with Le Meridian Hotel curating a restaurant from scratch. It’s exciting, and I knew Jarrett Dolimpio who is the director of operations – he’s an old friend. They had a 100 seat restaurant right in the middle of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a beautiful luxury property and they wanted to match the dining experience there to the standard of the hotel.

We all worked together and launched the new menu in Amusea couple of weeks ago – working directly with the corporate marketing team, and community outreach – crafting a strategy using social media.”


Social media has become a must do, hasn’t it? Are you happy with the launch?

“Ecstatic. The Chamber of Commerce in Cambridge have an annual competition called the Char and Bar Wars – it’s a huge outdoor burger and cocktails competition with about 20 local restaurants competing, and our burger won.

From my knowledge of the area and market, I really wanted an approachable atmosphere – food that sure, is great, but that also celebrates our local produce and seasons – so you can get a burger made from beef raised in the Amish community, from black Angus cattle, or local duck with a blood orange marmalade and a black tea rub.”

It’s wonderful to see a big hotel group allow for that paddock to plate push that has become such a platform in the industry. How did you manage that?

I work closely with Sid Wainer Specialty Foods, who owns Wainer Family Farmsand a produce house. Dr. Wainer, who is second generation head of the company, travels all over the world sourcing the best produce and specialty products he can find. They have a 50acre farm with heirloom tomatoes, specialty greens, and wild field mix, literally cutting and hand picking these as a team to order every day. I feel it’s a responsibility as a chef to make sure you source your produce from the best craftsmen you can. It’s a conscious choice, to work with farmers.”

You were born in Boston Mass., weren’t you? Have you moved around as well?

“Of course! I was raised here in Boston, but I also spent quite a bit of time in California, exploring the industry and my own interests, but coming home to family was a driver for the move home & to Le Meridian.

My first restaurant job was when I was 15. My mother divorced her second husband, who had wanted her to be a 50’s housewife. When the divorce was final, she told me, “Congratulations, I’m not in the kitchen anymore!” Haa, she’d quit, well and truly, so I had to figure it out for myself if I wanted to eat. I ate eggs for a couple of months and then started to learn some stuff.”

I sympathise with your mother. But I have to say, that’s the most unusual driver for a chef I’ve heard yet.

“It didn’t worry me, I just saw it as something I was going to have to learn – to cook. And if I wanted to eat well, I had to cook well. Mom ended up getting a job as a hostess at a local restaurant, and the executive chef said he was looking for a fresh kid who knew nothing, and my mom put me up for the job. That’s so rare and random, isn’t it? A chef actually wanting a blank slate that he could train.”

It sure is, and can be a great or a bad thing.

“For me, it was a great thing. Kenny the chef was a great mentor, but Jarrod Moiles was my first day to day chef and is still a dear friend and was the older brother that I needed. That experience and that first restaurant were really Narnia for me, because it seduced me into the industry…the darker corners, I found later. I learned how to work hard there, but they also gave me a lot of creative freedom. From their point of view, as long as it made sense it was fine. Jarrod was such a talented cook with his efficiencies and habits and abilities, those benefitted me to this day.”

It’s an ongoing discussion in the industry, isn’t it? That chefs need to go back to the old mentorship mentality with young staff, but with a kindness that used to be lacking.

“I have had an embarrassment of riches with the people who’ve mentored me.

I went to Johnson and Wales University to do a culinary degree, but I didn’t last a year, I missed the industry. I soon had worked out that finishing culinary school would have left me staring down the barrel of a gun, owing $200k to qualify for a job in an industry that would never, could never, really ever repay that.  I worked out you could still learn on the job from a master craftsman and not owe them $200k at the end.”

Wow, that’s some smarts for a boy, to have worked that out.

“It just didn’t grab me, so I went back to work with Jarrod, who moved into Boston and I followed him there and that’s where I really grew up in the industry. It was still a great experience, but the curtain really came back there.

I got a job working sauté at a huge new mall restaurant, which in spite of being in a mall was pretty high end, and it was enormous. We had a burger kitchen up front as the showpiece, and the rest of the kitchen was on display to the dining room in the back and we had radios to communicate table pickups.  In hindsight, it was madness, but it was the only thing I knew, so I went, “Okay that’s normal”.


The scale must have been massive?

“When we first opened we were doing 1500 – 2000 covers a day. It was Saturday night every night. As a team, we were going out and drinking after work, commiserating in the foxholes, and it was as much a learning curve as a challenge at the time. My big boss was testing me as a budding culinarian, and when I didn’t start a French onion soup early enough he back handed me and bruised my sternum, and that’s the culture that we’re up against.”

Was that the catalyst for your approach now? To make a better industry?

“Possibly. When Food and Wineput the article on twitter that I wrote, there was a thread of fellow restaurant workers, on of them described chefs as, “being like glorified pirates”, which is insanely unhealthy, but it’s the norm. I dare anyone to go into the big cities and not find, the drugs, alcohol and collateral damage of broken families. It’s the stain of our industry. That sort of buccaneer mentality precludes self-examination, so it’s passed on. And any sort of doubt or hesitation ends up being wrapped in a veil of weakness.

So the focus of where I’m at right now – the currently prevalent notion that ‘there’s no good help’, is so intellectually dishonest it staggers me. It removes any accountability from those of us creating cultures, so the shipwreck is passed on, and no one worth investing in is going to want to be a part of a sad, broken industry. They can do other things without the stress and abuse and suffering, and a side hustle – that’s how they work now – we lost a whole generation.”

Incisive! This is the issue, isn’t it? You’ve nailed it.

I’m a millennial – and if we were a dog, we’d be a husky – they need to understand why they’re being motivated. They love being part of a team and having a team goal. Millennials will dig in and do the work but there has to be a reason.

I’m sure if you called back all the bad bosses I’ve had, they’d probably tell you I was their worst employee – an absolute shit. Because I was outspoken to the fact that if they didn’t know what they were doing – or weren’t doing their jobs –  I’d call them on it. But people who were great leaders that I worked for? I would go ‘to the mattresses’ for them.  But For a shitty boss? Forget it.”

Going to the mattresses refers to the traditional Mafia gun stash? In other words, you’d follow them into battle?

“Haa, yes. And so I created my own path. Following my idols and ditching the dross. I again followed Jarrod to San Diego, to a place calledRancho Valenciawhich is world class, and I worked with chefs who’d worked for Thomas Keller. I was the only manager in the kitchen who hadn’t been an executive chef somewhere – it was a crazy talented environment. But family is really important to me, and I wanted to try the 9-5 thing so I found a company that worked as a contractor at Google Food and through sheer luck I wound up under the wings of two incredible mentors there: Bill Billenstein & Debbie Castro, they no doubt shaped my leadership style into what it is now.”

What’s that?

“It’s all about being genuine and leading from a place of quality character – good character – is a necessary character trait that people will want to be motivated for. Then there’s transparent communication, if you’re genuinely interested in the wellbeing of the people working for you, and that means listening as much as you’re dictating.

Everything you do, is rubbing off – if you’re expressing your joy on a daily basis then that rubs off, but if you’re stale, and angry and toxic, then that unfortunately is a lot quicker to infiltrate your culture.

The skills that are required of a chef in management are massive and diverse.”

So very true, and too many chefs have been thrown in at the deep end either without the necessary make up or training. It’s a huge issue.“Operationally, it’s constant triage – you’re prioritising all the time, and there’s these dozens of factors that never really stop that you’re coordinating. It feels a lot like being a football coach really. There’s this multitude of units that have to work in unison towards the same goal, using the philosophy that you’ve implemented.

That’s where my masochism gene comes in!”offthehotplate-chef-talk-graeham-henderson-scallops


“Yes, from playing sports – digging in to that ‘band of brothers’ thing that you get in sportsmen, that’s what set me up as a chef to handle that pushing beyond your comfort limits and willingness to go into the red zone, and knowing that you can do it physically as well as mentally. Because ultimately there will be times when you have to, and not question it.

We talk a lot to our teams about how we expect things to roll. We had big training when I came on – it’s on me as the leader to give our people the why, but we also qualify it with there might be times in the heat of service when I ask you to do something you may not agree with, or understand. I’ll always be willing to give a why but we can unpack it later. I ask them to trust me, and if you are trustworthy they will.

I think I’ve always had a mindset and a mouth to advocate, but I only discovered the voice for that recently. It had always been in parallel, but not really connected to my professional life.”

That watershed moment, of losing Bourdain way too early drove that, didn’t it?

“Yes. It was being back in Boston with family, and stunned with Bourdain’s death – I found out when we had a giant banquet at work, and I felt I had something to say and needed to say it. Badly. It turned out to be the article I wrote, ‘I watched our heroes die’. I was writing it for the industry, but in that process it continues to matter to me, at the core, that we need to go forward.

If we’re already looking at a talent crisis, and if we want chefs to be a thing going forward other than being elite palaces of fine dining, we’ll have to give people a reason to want to be a part of this. And we haven’t done so. Not yet. “

Well said, and thank you Graeham Henderson. Let’s create an industry that millennials and generations after them, have a reason and desire to enter. Shouldn’t be that hard.