Top Chefs

Six culinary greats take the fine dining experience to the next level

and awards including Chef of the Year from Restaurant Guild International in 1997.

Though he’s been a prominent force in the elevation of southern cuisine, Royal, 46, does not rest in a southern comfort food zone. In addition to turning out classic steakhouse standards and special menus for the Angus Barn’s highly regarded Wine Cellar Dining Room, he seeks shared cultural references in food from around the world. “I look at a lot of the Mexican food, Indian food, Egyptian food coming into this country, and I see things that have filtered around the world from Africa,” he says. Finding and celebrating ingredients like black-eyed peas or collard greens that appear in African American dishes is “what’s going to keep our cuisine alive.”

JEFFERY HENDERSON Executive Chef, Café Bellagio, Las Vegas
“I knew the day I walked out of prison that I wanted to be a high-end chef,” Jeffery Henderson says. Not your common release plan for parolees, but the former drug dealer from South Central Los Angeles had an epiphany behind bars. While cooking in the prison kitchen, he read about a new generation of black chefs and discovered a realm of unimagined possibilities. “I knew it was going to be a long journey to chefdom. But failure has never been an option for me.”

The terms of his parole prevented Henderson from traveling to New York or Europe for training, but he got his first break from super chef Robert Gadsby in Los Angeles. Henderson began as a dishwasher and within two years worked his way up to pastry and line cook. Over the last three years, he secured positions at several high-end restaurants and hotels. In 2000, Henderson moved to Las Vegas. He got his start at Caesar’s Palace and eventually moved on to the Bellagio, where he was hired as executive sous-chef of Café Bellagio, the resort’s upscale New American eatery in 2004. He was promoted to executive chef in less than 90 days. Henderson’s passion for food is matched only by his zeal for raising culinary awareness for at-risk youth. He plans to publish his memoirs next year.

Henderson, 41, sees a ripe market in places like Las Vegas for high-end, urban-themed restaurants. “The palate has really matured in the African American community. I see the hip-hop community coming to Bellagio eating caviar; they’re having foie gras. We are becoming ‘foodies.’” While Henderson bemoans the fact that many African Americans still don’t realize the breadth of opportunities in this field, he remains grateful for his discovery and in his view, “The sky’s the limit.”

WAYNE JOHNSON Executive Chef, Andaluca Restaurant, Seattle
Wayne A. Johnson, a self-described “Army brat,” was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, but his early exposure to food fueled his passion for cooking. Johnson set a 10-year goal of becoming an executive chef when he accepted his first position as a cook in the Colorado Marriott Hotel in 1981. “I had to understand all the steps to get to executive chef from where I was as a cook,” he

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