With the rise of reality TV shows depicting the lives and careers of executive chefs, more African American men are showing an interest in the culinary arts.
I recently toured the MGM National Harbor Hotel and Casino in Maryland and stopped by the TAP Room Sports Bar, which offers Creole-inspired dishes deftly executed by Executive Chef Henry Dudley. Black Enterprise spoke with Chef Dudley about how he got started in the restaurant industry, and got his thoughts on the sudden rise in popularity of culinary arts’ careers.
Black Enterprise: Chef Dudley, with more than 22 years of culinary experience under your belt, I will give you your props by calling you ‘chef,’ as the connotation is like a president; once a president, always a president. Tell us a little about your history, and how you came to be a chef.
Chef Henry Dudley: Well, I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, with a single mother who worked three and four jobs, so we could make it. So, I grew up somewhat independent. To help keep me out of trouble, every summer, my mom would send me to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to spend summers with my grandmother. She was my total inspiration growing up, from a culinary standpoint. I was seven-years-old eating gumbos, étouffée, and jambalaya, and my friends in the Bronx were eating pizzas and Italian ice. This gave me a different appreciation for good food while growing up.
I would have to say the culinary arts found me—I did not find it. I’m glad it found me, because it probably saved my life. I actually never wanted to be a chef—that wasn’t my goal. I went to college in Virginia [at an HBCU]; I’m a proud Virginia State University alumnus, class of 1995. When I graduated, I wanted to pursue a career in music. So, I bounced around a couple of record labels, and I subsidized my income at night working at restaurants, because it was instinctive for me. Then, one day, a chef came to me and said, “Listen, I don’t know what you are doing with these other places—like the record company—but you need to be doing this.” From there, he helped me free up my schedule so that I could get a formal culinary education, which I did at the New York Restaurant School—a very prestigious school.
On Blazing His Own Path in the Kitchen
BE: When you think of African Americans in sports, I would think that you could equate creating a fine meal to running a perfectly executed game plan. How many African Americans have you come across in the ‘sport’ of the culinary arts over the course of your career?
Chef Dudley: Now, they’re quite a few, but I never had a real [role model] or reference point for a successful, black chef while I was coming up in the industry. I came through the field in the 1990s, and [back then], there weren’t too many. Most of the chefs that I came up under were white or Hispanic. There were not a lot of opportunities for blacks; we just were not getting them. I had to blaze my own path.
I remember when I was working for Houlihan’s, a casual dining restaurant. The corporate chef was in charge of changing menus and training people—things like that. One day, I told him, “I’m going to do that one day.” He gave me a ‘sure you will’ type of look. During the hard times, that once incident really kept me going.
BE: Here at MGM, you share top chef honors with several other renowned chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopia-born chef raised in Sweden and executive chef at the restaurant Marcus. Have you had a chance to sit down with him to trade thoughts and ideas?
Chef Dudley: No, I haven’t had the opportunity to sit down with him, though I’ve met him here at MGM on several occasions. He has a chef/partner relationship with MGM, so he’s the executive chef and partner, as opposed to a functioning executive chef that’s on the premises every day, like myself. But, that is something I’d like to do in the near future. I think he has a great concept, but I’m here to make TAP Room the best and compete with everyone.
Grandma’s Creole Influence
BE: Well you are off to a great start, as the food you’ve prepared for me was outstanding. My first selection was Lily’s Creole Gumbo, which was made with a secret recipe from your grandmother—paired with MGM Stillwater Lager. Round two: The Philly, a shaved ribeye Philly Cheesesteak with stout braised onions, aged provolone, poblano peppers, and banana peppers—paired with a ‘Feed the Monkey’ Hefferveisen. Round three: ‘Disco Fries,’ which were topped with beef short ribs, short rib gravy, cheddar curds, a fried egg, and scallions—paired with ‘Old Rasputin’ chocolate stout.
Chef Dudley: It’s a party over french fries—that’s why we call them “Disco Fries!”
BE: A party, indeed— especially with the pairing with chocolate stout. Finally, I had the TAP Burger, paired with an IPA. Even though only one dish was distinctly Creole, you still get hints of Creole flavoring in all of the dishes I’ve tried, even the TAP Burger. Am I right or wrong?
Chef Dudley: You’re right. I think you hit the nail on the head, as that was my first influence. That [Creole] influence has made such a difference in my life, when coming through the channels of my experience as a chef. When I learned Creole cooking from my grandmother, I didn’t learn the same things I later learned in culinary school. I learned that discipline [at my grandmother’s] house. So, when you go through each of these dishes, there’s a little bit of soul [in each].
When they asked me to open TAP Room at MGM, I was asked if I wanted to open the best sports bar in the country. I did not want to do just ‘sports bar’ food; I wanted to do modern, elevated, comfort food. So, this was my approach to the menu: I wanted to give it my [own take] and edge, based on my experiences, but still deliver a great sports bar product.
Advice for Aspiring Chefs
BE: I do a lot of writing for the automotive industry, and I’ve noticed that a lot of people of color have difficulty getting into the technician side of this industry, because the tools, training, and education are so expensive. How expensive is it to go to a top culinary institute, and are you responsible for buying those thousand-dollar knives you see in fine catalogs and stores? Are you responsible for your own tools?
Chef Dudley: Culinary school is a lot more expensive now, than it was back when I was still training. [In my opinion], this is primarily because we have The Food Network’ generation—seems like everybody is a ‘foodie’ these days. More people are getting exposed to good food, and think they are chefs to some degree. I don’t knock that—I think it’s fun and exciting. But now, because of the increased focus on fine dining, culinary schools have become a lot more expensive. It used to be that you just had to show that you really wanted to be a chef go to a school, and they would offer you loans. But now, so many people are trying to get into schools, it’s become more about making a profit. With the high costs, minorities have a more difficult time becoming part of the process.
BE: So, there aren’t any ‘Strayer University’ type of programs, offering culinary education at lower costs?
Chef Dudley: There are those programs, but the big names in the business are looking for graduates from big-time culinary school programs. Since there are so many graduates from top schools now, the industry can really hand-pick those they want to work with them. It’s like CIA (Culinary Institute of America) is now the ‘Harvard’ of culinary schools. There are certain companies that won’t even look at you if you’re not a CIA graduate. As far as tools are concerned, when you go to a school, part of your tuition covers the tools you need.
As far as tools are concerned, when you go to a school, part of your tuition covers the tools you need. The thing is, when you begin working, you have to ‘unlearn’ all you may have learned for two years while in school. The executive chef you end up working for will expect you to do things his or her way. It’s a continuation of the education process.
I would push anyone that wants to have this career to get a formal education first, and, if you can, try to work in a restaurant—wash dishes, bus tables, or do something to see if this is the industry you want to be in. A lot of people look at the glitz and glamor, with TV as the extent of their exposure to this industry. I always say anyone on TV can make a great meal, if given three hours and a pantry full of food, but can they make 350 meals each day, and ensure that each course all tastes and looks the same? Can they manage a staff? Can they manage a restaurant’s finances? Can they properly order the food needed? Being a chef is a whole lot more than cooking, and that’s not what a lot of people understand.
The Business of Being a Chef
BE: Which brings me to my whole experience of walking through the door. I’m a big guy—I’m almost seven feet tall—so I love the two story ceilings. They really give the space an open feeling. After I was greeted by a hostess, I really got to see the extent of the bar space, and I caught a glimpse of the huge, multipanel televisions.I imagine this place becomes packed on big game nights. As the executive chef, are you also in charge of the marketing that draws people in, in addition to crafting the menu and cooking?
Chef Dudley: Yes. I share responsibility with the general manager—we are partners. My job is to not only make sure that the food great, but I also must use my marketing skills and name to draw people in. I’m responsible for making the menu, training the staff, and the culinary aspects of the restaurant. Additionally, I sell the atmosphere and develop programs, happy hours, and other different incentives that can appeal to a wide range of guests. If you look at this place, we have a lot of real estate. So, we host happy hours for professionals and for HBCU alumni. We also have ‘Tailgate Tuesdays’ on our huge patio and terrace.
BE: For those not familiar with the property, the MGM National Harbor Hotel and Casino offers a few other chef-driven restaurants, like FISH by Jose Andres, Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse, the aforementioned Marcus. So, you get the ambiance, glitz, and glamour of the MGM Casino combined with top rated culinary experiences. Do you work with your local Chamber of Commerce or business bureaus to let others living in different cities know that, when traveling the Maryland Beltway, the MGM is an incredible option for vacation, gambling, or fine dining?
Chef Dudley: Yes we do. We are in constant contact with business bureaus, the Chamber of Commerce, as well as state and county tourism agencies, to let folks know this sparkling complex is here. We are in heavy contact with officials from our home base, here in Prince George’s County.
As you know, casinos can get a bad rep, and they are often accused of sucking the life out of a community. MGM has been totally involved in the community. Most of our hires live here in Prince George’s County, and we do a certain percentage of business with local vendors. It’s a social responsibility for MGM to come in and give back to the community, while also being profitable. I’m also working on doing things with local high schools and Stratford University to let people know that the culinary arts is a viable career option, and is greater than just something to resort to when you think can’t do anything else.