If Chris Henderlight had his way, downtown Maryville would have even more restaurants than it does today.
While some might see another restaurant as competition for Henderlight, who is the executive chef at Swanks at 100 Court Jazz Restaurant and Club, he has a “more the merrier” attitude -- especially since he believes more restaurants and businesses will bring increased foot traffic from customers.
“We’ve gotten lot of feedback on the live music, and I think all around it’s helping with the revival of downtown,” Henderlight said. “I hope more businesses think about coming down and opening. It can only help everybody else.”
The changing demographics of Blount County caused by the influx of new residents from across the country are good for restaurants and establishments like Swanks that offer something different in terms of the food and the music, Henderlight said.
“I think with all the people moving into Maryville will help Swanks. The food I do here is not common to Maryville with the exception of I’d say Blackberry Farm. They are on the same level, but they’re Southern fare, and we’re more Paris and New Orleans style,” he said. “I think it creates a unique place for Maryville to come and enjoy good food and enjoy jazz.”
Henderlight is well known in Blount County for his work at another Maryville restaurant, Luce’s. He owned the restaurant three years before he lost the lease on the South Washington Street building. Since then he has worked at a Townsend wedding and catering establishment and also worked as a private chef for hire. But Henderlight’s path to becoming a chef began 300 miles away in Atlanta, in the dish room of an Italian chain restaurant.
“I started my restaurant career at the age of 14. I started busing tables at an Olive Garden in Atlanta. My mom said, ‘Get a job’ and the only place that would hire me was a restaurant busing tables. I kept busing tables until I was old enough to be a server,” he said. “I always looked at servers and said, ‘You guys are making all kinds of money.’ They were making $100 a night, and, at 15, that was a lot of money to me.”
At the age of 18, he moved on to working at Rio Bravo, a casual restaurant with Mexican cuisine. After waiting tables at that location, he was moved to the Rio Bravo Grill in downtown Atlanta. That location had a little more upscale clientele, and the cuisine was better, he remembers. He then moved up to training servers.
At Rio Bravo, Henderlight decided he wanted to become a chef.
“I always liked cooking -- ever since I was a little kid. I asked my mom to put me on the counter so I could see what she was making. In high school, I got a lot of dates to come to my house by cooking dinner for them,” he said. “A lot of guys didn’t think it would impress the women, but I got a lot of dates from that.”
The chef at Rio Bravo encouraged Henderlight, so he applied and was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America. It was during this time he ran into a French chef named Serge Coante and then ate at his restaurant.
“I liked it so much I asked if I could come sit in his kitchen and offered to wash dishes if he would teach me what he knew so I wouldn’t feel like an idiot when I went to school,” Henderlight said.
Coante ended gave him a job washing dishes and peeling potatoes for $5 an hour. In the meantime Henderlight also went to work at a nearby Applebee’s restaurant to make ends meet.
“I worked for the French chef from 9 in the morning until 10 at night and left and was a fry cook at Applebee’s to pay my rent,” he said.
At the time, Henderlight was 21 and the year was 1993. “I wasn’t getting home until 4:30 in the morning. It was a rough life but, after a couple of weeks, Coante said if I was serious, he would teach me more than any book at the Culinary Institute of America could teach me. I took him up on his offer and ended my two jobs,” he said.
Initially, all Henderlight did was peel more potatoes and carrots, cut onions and wash dishes.
“Then one day he decided to teach me how to make soup, and I progressed after that,” he said.
After about a year Henderlight’s mentor surprised him. “He said ‘Everything I taught you was wrong. Now I’m going to teach you the right way.’ I didn’t understand the reason he taught me the wrong way, but then I knew the difference between right and wrong,” Henderlight said.
Henderlight ended up working for that chef for six years. He then went to work for Randy Harris, a Culinary Institute of America graduate.
“I saw what I missed by not going to school. He was very, very tough on me, teaching me the institutional ways,” he said. “At the end, I had two teachers with different backgrounds, so I got the flip side of food education.”
Henderlight said Harris was interested in catering and so he and Henderlight went about building two types of business clientele. “We did institutional catering as well as high-end catering. The institutional catering was for day-to-day business at colleges. On weekends, we did high-end catering. Monday through Friday was our bread and butter,” he said of the work they did for a college.
Henderlight was the executive sous chef. “We created menus and created a way of working together to get things done. We got it down to where three of us cooked for 1,l00 students a day and were able to walk out the door at 2:30,” he said. “We started at 5 a.m., which was nice.”
At age 30, Henderlight decided to start his own restaurant and went to Asheville to try his hand as an owner/manager. It didn’t work out well at all.
“It was called La Petit Bistro. That was wonderful, but it lasted all of about 6 months. I made a bunch of mistakes and lost money. It was a learning curve. I chalked it up to a bad location -- and I didn’t know what I was doing!” he said. “I didn’t know about taxes, payroll. It was an eye-opening experience.”
When he closed that restaurant he moved to Maryville because his mother and grandparents and father lived in the Knoxville/Maryville area.
“I was very familiar with Maryville. My grandparents’ house was empty, so I moved in. The first job I had in Maryville was at Belle Aire Grill waiting tables,” he said.
Within about three to four months Henderlight met Lucy Sherrod, then owner of Luce’ and went work as her executive chef. He was there for about six months before he bought the establishment and changed some of the focus of the restaurant.
“We went to a white table cloth restaurant and changed the menu and went a little more upscale,” he said. “Unfortunately, while that was a good business decision, we lost our lease. I was the owner for the last three years of the business.”
After he closed the restaurant, he did mainly catering and worked as a private chef for hire, a business he still does on the side when not working at Swanks. Before long he went back to work at a restaurant, this time as the executive chef at the Lily Barn in Townsend.
“I worked at the café and did all the wedding catering and food. I was there for a year and left and went back to private catering and private chefing, and I still do some of that,” he said.
In November of 2007, Henderlight and Swanks Jazz Club and Restaurant owner Allen Swank spoke and Henderlight came on board as executive chef.
While helping establish downtown Maryville’s newest restaurant takes a good bit of his time, Henderlight said he and his wife, Cori, also are in the process of starting a line of sauces.
“I’ve got trademark on the sauces - the Chardonnay Tomato Sauce and the Red Onion Marmalade, and I’m working on a cream pesto sauce,” he said. “My wife and I are currently creating labels. It’s a lot of work to get into food manufacturing. All the sauces will hopefully soon be available.”
The slumping national economy and rising gas prices have affected most everyone and restaurants, even local establishments, aren’t exempt from those pressures, Henderlight said. He added, however, that he’s optimistic the new restaurant can weather rising food prices and a fledgling economy.
“I see Swanks being able to maintain and hang on. Food is astronomical right now, and I’m still trying to maintain a fair price for the quality of food,” he said. “You get what I think is better than most. I try to keep fair prices. I think Maryville is lucky as far as the economy because it hasn’t been hit as hard as on a national scale.”
Rising fuel prices also are keeping in Blount County people who previously went to Knoxville for food and music venues at home.
“Fortunately for us, people don’t want to have to drive. They can come here and have a good time,” he said, “That goes for Brackins and Two Doors Down, too. People are not wanting to venture out of town. If we, as entertainment businesses, can offer the local public a good time, we’ll be able to maintain good business. They’ll want to spend money with us rather than go out of town and spend money with everyone else.”