While Nigel P. Henderson is now a well-noted chef and entrepreneur, his cooking career was actually launched well before he was able to sauté, grill or filet on his own. Raised single-handedly by his mother (who worked and attended college to earn her MBA) Nigel often found himself assisting her in the kitchen, chopping and mixing and that’s where the love affair began. In 2008 he enlisted in culinary school and upon graduating from Le Cordon Bleu Nigel has branded the souls and palates of some of the most notable celebrities with his unique preparations of fine dishes infused with locally grown and sustainable foods.
Just 30 years old, it would seem Nigel could stop right there and survey all he’s accomplished. But this is no ordinary chef we’re talking about. Nigel has carried on to create Convi Collective specializing in private chef services and catering. And in the spirit of giving back, Nigel is currently based in New Orleans acting as Chef at Liberty’s Kitchen, a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk youth by building self-sufficiency and independent living in a supportive community where they learn life, social and employability skills in a culinary setting. Apparently sleep is not on this man’s to-do list.
I was fortunate to catch up with Nigel and ask a few questions about his love of cooking and giving back to a community that has served him well. Turns out Nigel is more than just a great chef; he’s a fabulous guy to get to know. (And he cooks with real butter – what a man!!)
I first learned about you in an Essence Magazine’s Single Man of the Month article. I’ve followed your work since and was pleased to discover your passion not only for cooking but also for inspiring youth. I understand you are now the Chef Instructor at Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans. How did that opportunity come about for you?
At the end of my culinary program at Le Cordon Bleu I had to fulfill an externship. I was able to secure an externship at Dooky Chase under Leah Chase. One of her family members (Omar Buckner) helped out every now and then on special events and post graduation I would fly back from time to time to help out during these events. He is the Programs/Operations Manager at Liberty’s Kitchen and reached out to me while I was on vacation in New Orleans. I stopped by the cafe and the rest is history.
With more families working longer hours and spending less time cooking and preparing meals together, are you finding that the children at Liberty’s Kitchen are thriving on that feeling of community that they may not be getting elsewhere?
The students at Liberty’s Kitchen sometimes have families of their own. So the cooking skills and philosophy of producing fresh food from scratch are taken home and utilized. The “community” or family environment we promote is hopefully passed on. We have family meal twice daily where the students produce various dishes themselves.
How do you divide your time between Convi Collective based in Los Angeles and Liberty’s Kitchen?
When I moved to New Orleans Convi Collective came as well. From time to time I’ll go back to Los Angeles for clients (based on availability), but Liberty’s Kitchen is two full time jobs, and I cater when possible.
We’re now connected via LinkedIn and you have a Twitter account. As a chef and mentor in many cases, do you rely on social media to keep you connected to your fans, friends and those you connect with through Liberty’s Kitchen?
All the various social media outlets allow me to stay connected as well as keep a pulse on the culinary trends and movers and shakers within the business. Sites like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter along with my iPhone allow me to instantaneously update and share my news, dishes, and experiences.
You’ve collaborated with some very notable artists and philanthropists such as Hill Harper and Brooke Abbott (who worked behind the scenes at Desperate Housewives) on the Manifest Your Destiny House Program. Are there plans for future auctions and events such as the one you had recently?
I’m open to any and every opportunity similar to those of the Manifest Your Destiny. They allow me to promote my business, they promote a good cause, and I get to share my culinary perspective with others.
Do you enjoy having others cook for you or are you a bit of a control freak when it comes to preparing meals?
I enjoy having others cook for me but I rarely experience this as I’m always expected to cook.
You know I can’t let you go without a kitchen question. I have no salt and pepper shakers. I’ve been grinding my salt and peppercorns freshly for years now and I find it makes even simple meals a bit more elegant. I also always have red wine vinegar and olive oil for marinades and to dash on my salads. What are your can’t-do-without basics that make everyday dining finer?
Can’t-do-without basics for me would be Kosher salt, cracked pepper, fresh herbs (basil, thyme, and oregano from my garden), and butter!!!! Of course I use my share of other fats (grapeseed oil, coconut oil, etc.) but butter makes it better!
For up and coming culinary artists, what are some tips you can offer for really getting noticed? It’s a very competitive industry.
For up and coming culinary artists I would say concentrate more on your craft and learn as much as possible, take the low paying/high education jobs for the experience and knowledge, and slowly build your brand. Observe the industry trends, and find your niche, and don’t be afraid to work!
What’s next for you? Can we expect a cookbook, TV show, YouTube channel? Come on, give me the inside scoop.
My concentration is building Liberty’s Kitchen’s food service operations, and secondly laying the groundwork for a few food-based ventures via Convi Collective (a pop up brunch, day party, etc.) down in the Big Easy.
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