Tony Henderson covers some freshly cooked corn on the cob in the kitchen of Manna Meal, where he is now the lead cook.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At age 50, Charleston chef Tony Henderson has been cooking professionally for more than two-thirds of his life. He entered his first kitchen at age 15, bussing tables in a restaurant where his stepfather worked as a waiter."This was the late '70s. I'd go into the kitchen, and I'd see these guys with their earrings and fire, knives and cold beer. All the girls really liked those guys. I wanted to be one of those guys," said Henderson, talking about the chefs in the Southern California restaurant."So I asked the chef. 'How do I get to do that,' and he told me to show up the next morning. My first day as a professional cook I peeled 500 pounds of potatoes, 500 pounds of carrots and 500 pounds of onions."Born in West Virginia, Henderson was 2 when his family moved to California. After a divorce, he decided to make the move back to West Virginia for a fresh start. His first cooking job back was at the Red Lobster in Parkersburg.
"I was a prep cook. I stood breading shrimp for nine hours a day."Then he got a big break."I landed a job as executive sous chef at the Blennerhassett Hotel. It was a great place to work. I loved that building and the history."But Henderson did not stay there or anywhere else for very long. He said the turnover rate in professional kitchens is high and the demand for talent is intense."There is always a job somewhere with better pay, better hours, better benefits."After working several years as a cook at The Charleston Marriott Town Center, taking on the responsibility of purchasing the hotel's food, he began to yearn for the excitement and creative outlet of the kitchen,"I'm a cook. I love to cook. Not only is it how I made my living for most of my life, but I can't sing, I can't dance, paint, draw or take pictures. I can't do anything like that. Cooking is my creative outlet. That's my art."He decided it was time to move into the private sector and start cooking on the more local, less corporate scene.He was with Robert Wong at the Bridge Road Bistro for a while, and then went to work for Bill Sohovich at the Blossom Dairy, and later at his other ventures at Billy's and Soho's."Both men [Wong and Sohovich] did a lot for the culinary scene in West Virginia and specifically in Charleston," he said. "They inspired so many different cooks. Their deaths had a huge impact on this town."Henderson's next stop on his culinary journey was the Quarrier Diner.
"I have lived in the heart of downtown ever since I moved back to West Virginia," he said. "I used to walk past the building that housed the Quarrier Diner for years. It was a gorgeous space. I always wondered why no one had done anything with that space."Then one day he noticed construction crews had begun remodeling the Diner. He approached the men and learned that the Pollitt family planned to reopen the diner and downstairs bar.Henderson left a resume and was quickly hired with the understanding that he would operate as executive chef and as a kind of mentor to a family who had no previous restaurant experience.Unfortunately, the Quarrier Diner never quite found its footing in Charleston and the pressure began to mount. Trying to run a kitchen, oversee costs and manage a restaurant left Henderson burnt out."It led to a point where I had had enough, I hit a wall. It was an absolute low." Henderson walked away from his job with no safety net and no backup plan."I applied for everything within a 10-mile radius. Sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring wasn't helping. Then a friend suggested that maybe doing some volunteer work while I was waiting would help take my mind off the applications."
Henderson had known Manna Meal executive director Jean Simpson for years."I used to jokingly say to Jean 'When are you going to hire me?' and she would say, 'When we can afford you!'"He volunteered for a few weeks, then Simpson offered him a job as lead cook for the soup kitchen. He is now in charge of all things food: receiving donations, prepping food, serving food and storing food.Henderson says working in a nonprofit has taken some adjustment."I still have to quiet my inner chef quite a bit. We rely heavily on a volunteer workforce. You can't yell at volunteers. People say 'Oh, do you watch Gordon Ramsey?' I tell them no, I lived like that for too many years. I worked for people like that. I was a person like that. I don't need to watch it." This is a different kinder, gentler world for Henderson."I am very happy here. It took some getting used to, but I see myself staying here as long as they will have me."He said, "The people of Charleston are incredibly generous. Donations come in all shapes and sizes, from a single box of cookies left over from a party to a 400-pound donation from a local grocery store." Henderson compares the challenge of not knowing what is coming in to participating in a daily episode of "Chopped.""You open the basket and that is when you know what you'll have to work with." Henderson said his advantage is his experience. "I can take a variety of items and with just a little finesse and skill make them into things you wouldn't normally find in a traditional soup kitchen."Henderson speaks highly of the Manna program and staff. "The great thing about Manna Meal is that no questions are asked. Anybody can come to Manna Meal. Our primary purpose is to feed hungry people. That is what we do. Your social standing, the status of your bank account, that doesn't come into play. If you are hungry, we will feed you.""They say it started with one peanut butter and jelly sandwich feeding one person. Now we feed hundreds of people."Henderson has found a peace and joy giving back."In my career I have made better money, but there are things that come with this job that are more important than money."Anyone who would like to volunteer at Manna Meal, should contact Camellia Snover at 304-345-7121.Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at email@example.com or (304)348-1249.