You’re Only As Good As Your Last Plate Of Food…
The Great Story Behind Henry’s Louisiana Grill
Long before Henry Chandler was wearing a white chef’s coat, slinging red beans and rice, and tossing beads at guests, he was watching his nanny cook fatback and butter beans on his family’s Louisiana farm. Henry knew he wanted to cook for a living by the time he was 8 years old, and he wasn’t in it for the glory: “When you’re a farm boy, especially back then, there’s no Food Network, no prizes,” he says. “It’s a blue-collar job.” (Of course, that didn’t stop Henry’s from raking in awards and recognition over the years.)
After a stint in Europe where Henry attended culinary school, Henry and his wife Claudia came back across the pond, where they fell in love with Acworth. A few years after that, the couple took a leap of faith to pursue a dream, and Henry’s Louisiana Grill was born. Now, nineteen years after the Chandlers first opened their doors to Main Street, Henry’s is one of Acworth’s most beloved restaurants — and an essential part of the community. We sat down with Henry and Claudia to talk about what they love about Acworth, their fondest memories over the years, and exactly how many gallons of “Ooh La La” sauce they go through each year:
How did you two land in Acworth?
Claudia: I’m from Missouri, he’s from Louisiana, and we were both working in Dallas, Texas when we met and married. I was working for Deutsche Financial, and my boss and I were sent over to England to open an office. So that gave Henry the opportunity to go to culinary school and get his French culinary arts degree.
Henry: I’d never had an opportunity; I was self-trained. It was amazing.
Claudia: When we moved here, we were ready to buy our first home. We had lived in a house that was originally built in the 1600s when we were in the London suburbs. So, we did not want a cookie-cutter house. We wanted something with character.
Henry: We found a 1939 home that had been lived in by the Lacey family, which owned Lacey Drugs here. We’ve been there 25 years now.
And when did you open Henry’s?
Henry: August 15 of 2000 — we’re in our 19th year. Back then, there were maybe 10,000 people in Acworth, and Main Street was empty except for a few shops. It was a forgotten community like every other community was at that time, when the big box stores took over. But we found the perfect house. And we opened Henry’s four doors down from here. We stayed there three-and-a-half years, and then we moved to this location. We had 45 seats at the original location, and we went to 170 seats at this one.
What was it like opening a restaurant for the first time?
Henry: When we first rented the space, all our neighbors would come help us paint, scrape, and clean. We had an ice chest full of pop and beer, and I’d cook red beans and rice in Crock Pots and pass out French bread. To this day, some of those people, we have no idea who they were. Just people who wanted Acworth to have somewhere to eat.
Claudia: One of our friends told us “we knew you guys had made it when we were dining there and we didn’t recognize everybody.” Because at first, it was all the people who’d built it, all the supporters.
Henry: There was a hunger for something different. We had no money to advertise, so it was all word of mouth, and the word started spreading. Everything felt like a step in, we hoped, the right direction.
What was it about the restaurant that drew so many people from the beginning?
Claudia: Henry. His personality, and his cooking talent. I always say, the two things he loves the most are cooking, and people. So, he’s meant to do this.
Henry: And consistent food is what brought them back. People come in who’ve eaten here for years, and they say it tastes exactly like it did years ago. That’s what brings ’em back. And we’re not boring.
Claudia: We’ve always been about the whole experience… we want you to be happier when you walked out than when you walked in. It’s the culture of welcoming you, greeting you. We have FOH staff that doesn’t turn over a lot, so they get to know regulars, and the bartender may have your drink waiting as you walk up to the bar. That’s just a part of the culture where we are. And we really do consider our staff and our guests an extension of our family. A lot of families have gotten started here.
Henry: I think we’re on at least 9 couples that have met, married, and have had children after working here.
Tell us about the food you cook, Henry.
Henry: It’s Southern, fusion, and Cajun. My first job back from Europe was in a fusion restaurant. The Southern part comes from my upbringing — for 18 years I was brought up on a farm and my nanny did Southern cooking six days a week. I learned from her. Then I moved to Lafayette. That was my first taste of true Cajun food… I’d eaten Cajun food, but not in the Lafayette style. We have Southern, Acadian, classical French, and fusion, all together. That’s where you get a dish like Louisiana alligator flash-fried with a hoisin sauce, topped with remoulade. We do traditional gumbo, etouffee, and jambalaya, but then we have Nanny Castell’s fried chicken plate, served over whipped potatoes and gravy. That goes back to our roots.
What are the crowd favorites?
Henry: Ooh La La. We sell over 12,000 gallons of the sauce a year, just that one sauce. I’m a trained professional chef, but my passion is cooking fish and making sauces. And dishes like the red beans and rice: the red beans are from Harahan, Louisiana, which is the best kidney bean in the world — all the Louisiana people will testify to that. We use sausage from Opelousas, Louisiana. We combine them in a chicken stock, cook ’em for 3-and-a-half hours until the beans cream out. My nanny cooked pinto and lima beans the same way — she may put fatback or ham hock in hers, but it’s the same cooking process, low and slow ‘til the bean makes a gravy. If the bean doesn’t make a gravy, you’ve just got boiled beans.
Y’all must have seen a lot of change in Acworth over the years.
Claudia: You know, before we bought the house, we went to the park. And we were just imagining, if we buy this house, and we raise our kids here, we’ll be bringing them down to this park, and there’s the beach… it just felt right. And it was right. And now we have the gazebo, and the concerts, and kayaks on the lake, and the walking paths… and of course, the downtown, which is the jewel of Acworth, I think. And now with the pedestrian bridge to go over the tracks and connect more green space to downtown.
It must feel good knowing Henry’s was a part of this growth.
Claudia: It’s a privilege, and a responsibility. We’re always trying to look at ways to give back to the community, because it’s allowed us to raise our kids.
What have been some of your fondest memories here?
Henry: I’m a liver transplantee, and the whole city basically got around it with their prayers to get me well again. When I came back home, there was a homecoming. That was one of them. And then the move up here [to 4835 N. Main] — it was hard, but there was that satisfaction of being able to move from a smaller space to a larger one, and sitting down one night after we’d done it, and say, ‘wow, we really did it.’
Claudia: Another one was being at the bar watching the TV to hear the winner of that contest for ABC Nightline. We won favorite local chef in America in 2010 and there were over a hundred people here watching it.
Henry: I still cry when I watch it. Recently, one of our biggest accolades in a long time was Open Table’s top 100 restaurants for a night out in the nation, all based entirely on reviews. We may have won a lot of accolades, but from day one we’ve been community-driven, and we still are.
What is it about this place that connects with people?
Claudia: I think people are attracted to the sincerity here. Yes, Henry’s in the dining room, throwing beads, but he’s also reading tables, gathering feedback. We’re always continuing to improve. It’s like Henry always says—
Henry: You’re only as good as your last plate of food.