Chef profile: Creole Kitchen's Henry Butcher

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Henry Butcher's passion for cooking began around a big, black wood-burning stove. Set in the middle of the kitchen in his childhood home in Freeport, Louisiana, his grandmother would combine fat and flour to make brown roux for red-eye gravy and black roux for gumbo.

Six-year-old Butcher would look on, fetching wood for the fire, peeling potatoes and washing pots and dishes. "That was the start of it there," he recalls. "My passion for culinary really came from her."

Though he didn't understand the meaning behind her methods at the time, they'd come in handy years later as Butcher looked to open his own restaurant paying homage to his roots. Opened in 2006, The Creole Kitchen is the go-to place in the city for authentic Deep South flavors.

Butcher's carryout in the King-Lincoln neighborhood has the authentic charm of a hole in the wall in New Orleans. The 950-square-foot space is little more than an order counter and stainless-steel kitchen. New menu prices, typed on bright colored paper with barely an item more than $10, are taped to the menu painted on the wall. A gray-haired Butcher, glasses rested on the edge of his nose, greets customers by name. Regulars trickle in for jambalaya, etouffee, po' boys and, in the morning, arguably the best beignets in town. They leave arms heavy under white plastic bags filled with generous portions. There's a sense this place has been here forever.

Feeling so engrained in the neighborhood is the reason Butcher and his three children, who run the restaurant with him, have decided to expand Creole Kitchen with plans to offer a sit-down restaurant in early 2015, in addition to carryout. They've leased the vacant space next door in the Mount Vernon Plaza, where they will offer lunch and dinner and possibly Sunday brunch.

Sitting in the shell of the space in mid-August, 67-year-old Butcher can't hold back his excitement. He's got a good friend who will come in and play live jazz. He'd love to have a raw oyster bar in the corner. He's had new dishes planned for more than year, many blending his Creole upbringing with his formal Italian culinary training. It's what he likes to call bringing a little boom to the cuisine that was the focus of most of his career.

Though he still has a hint of a Southern drawl, Butcher has spent most of his life in Ohio. He moved here when he was 13, his dad looking to create a better life for his 11 kids-nine boys and two girls, with Butcher falling fourth in line. Their move from bayou country in Louisiana to what was then a flourishing Hilltop neighborhood had a significant impact on Butcher. His neighbors were doctors, lawyers and politicians. He says it showed him the possibilities of what he could become.

He got his first job in a kitchen at 16, working for a local burger joint. While he hated the job, he loved the madness of the kitchen. "The pressure of the line, God, it was just… " Butcher says, trailing off into a hum with a grin. "It made an impression on me."

He entered the culinary training program at Central High School and then continued on to a two-year culinary program. Graduating at 20, he moved around the country, working at hotels in New Orleans, Atlanta and Seattle before settling back in Ohio. "The experience of learning what they do in different regions, that's allowed me to be creative," Butcher says.

But if his grandmother sparked his passion for cooking, then it was the Columbus chef for whom he came to work who fueled the fire. After watching the master chef compete and, according to Butcher, dominate in a culinary competition, 23-year-old Butcher knew he had to work for him. So he walked into the Nationwide Inn kitchen and asked "chef Jacques" (the only way he knows and refers to his former boss) for a job.

"I don't have anything," Jacques told him. A week later, Butcher tried again but got the same response. After a month, the chef finally gave in. He started Butcher washing dishes for less than $2 an hour. He worked this station, if somewhat impatiently, for more than a month until Jacques came in one day and said, "I see you really want to be a chef." "So we went downstairs, he gave me my whites, and he started me cooking," Butcher says. "He was one of the most influential people in my life. I thought I really had it going on until I met him."

Butcher would eventually make a name for himself at restaurants like Ollie's Grandview Inn, a chichi French restaurant with crystal chandeliers and silver-domed plate covers. This is where he learned the importance of presentation, he says. In the late '80s, he took over the kitchen at Tony's Ristorante in the Brewery District, then a restaurant struggling to turn a few dozen covers on the weekend.

"I was in dire straits," admits restaurant owner Tony Scartz. "Henry turned things around through his strong work ethic. He knows how to flavor food, and he was exceptionally good with sauces. He knew how to make everything from scratch and put it all together." Tony's still uses some of Butcher's recipes today, including veal stuffed with prosciutto and provolone.

After eight years, Butcher left to teach cooking (his second passion, he says), then worked a few odd jobs throughout kitchens in Columbus, finally landing at Michael Oliver's Restaurant inside the Delaware Hotel for nearly a decade. All along the way, he earned accolades from local food critics, especially when dishes like jambalaya found their way onto classic European menus. Opening his own restaurant was always on his mind.

Butcher cleared out his life savings, $50,000, to open Creole Kitchen on the near east side. His kids-two daughters, Tonya Butcher and Antoinette Parks, and son, Henry Jr.-have been with him since day one.

"He's a pretty stern person to work for," Parks says, chuckling. "He'll give you step D, and you need to figure out A, B and C to get to D. He likes for you to figure out how to get there."

As the years have gone by, she says he's relaxed. "But I'll tell you, he's always been a workaholic. It's what he loves to do," she says. His passion for cooking rubbed off on Henry Jr., who works side-by-side with him in the kitchen.

Adding the dining room is more than simply growing the business. Butcher wants to offer healthier fare to a neighborhood where fried food is a popular offering. It's also a chance for him to provide job opportunities for area teens. "To be able to give them that opportunity to work and create a good worth ethic," he says. "I want to give back like [others have given to me], so they have the opportunity to decide. You may not want to be a chef, but at least you have work ethic. Work ethic will get you where you want to go."

On the new dining room menu, Butcher will mix his Italian training with his roots in dishes like white-wine and butter sauced Chicken Angelo seasoned with Creole spices, and Pasta Angela with shrimp marinated with jerk flavors. "The full flavor of Italian and the spice of Creole, I think those are two things that go together good," he says. "I just take Italian and put a little boom to it."

Butcher doesn't expect the expansion to stop at the dining room, either. He'd love to get more space in the shopping plaza to open a coffee and beignet shop, and maybe a spot for wine tastings and cooking classes.

"I feel reborn," he says. "That's what I feel like this is doing for me."

Photos by Tim Johnson

Butcher's Kitchen Secrets

On what he can't live without: "The cast-iron skillet. With that you can do anything. When I was coming up, I thought those were the only types of pots in the world."

On cooking 'gator: "Anytime you can get the whole 'gator tail, which is hard to do, brown it on both sides. Put it in a sauce with onions, marsala sauce and just let it simmer. Wrap it up like a pot roast, and it gets real tender. Then serve it with rice. We just fry it here because I can't get the whole tail. We do it with a 'gator sauce-orange marmalade, onion and horseradish. People love it."

On the bread pudding: "My grandmother worked at Antoine's (in New Orleans). I got the bread pudding recipe from her. We take Italian bread and cut it up. Bread pudding is basically sugar, cinnamon, raisins (dark and white) and vanilla. The key that my grandmother brought to it, she brought in lemon zest. That's what brightens it up. Then we do a bourbon butter sauce on it."