Brandi Henderson: The Architect of Her Own Dream Job at Delancey

The Pantry at Delancey owners (from l. to r.): Henderson, Pettit, Land.
Many of us talk about ditching our full-time jobs for something that is more fulfilling, while others actually put those desires into action. Meet Brandi Henderson. Her name might not be well-known in Seattle (yet), but she is making her mark on this city's culinary scene with gusto.

Henderson moved from San Francisco two years ago to take a job as Delancey's pastry chef, leaving behind a decade-long career as an architect. She recently took over the space behind Delancey: The Pantry at Delancey. It's a warm, inviting space that encourages eating, learning, and a true sense of community. But the real star of the small kitchen is a huge farm table Henderson calls "magical."

In this week's Grillaxin, Henderson talks about why she traded in a lucrative career for pastry, the junk food she is "obsessed" with, and how she ended up as an artisan food maker despite growing up with terrible Southern eating habits:

SW: How did you get the pastry chef job at Delancey?

Henderson: A good friend of mine is the architect of Delancey. So one night, when I came up to visit her, I was having dinner with [owners] Brandon [Pettit] and Molly [Wizenberg] and they asked me if I wanted to be their pastry chef. Me and my fiance were looking to leave San Francisco anyway, so five weeks later we moved up here.

Tell me about The Pantry at Delancey.

We opened three-and-a-half months ago, so we're brand new. We like to think of it as a culinary community space. We host family-style dinners, we do cooking classes, we held a kids' culinary camp this summer, we offer catering services and we host private parties for people who want a place to hold a birthday parties, anniversary dinners, that type of thing. We built the space around a 16-foot long farm table to get people around the table cooking together, eating together and meeting each other.

How did the whole idea for The Pantry come about?

[Co-founder] Olaiya [Land] and I both had the same vision and just happened to meet. I'm from San Francisco and I knew I wanted to move into the culinary field and I thought I wanted to be a baker. I trained at a bakery and I realized I did not want to wake up at 4am every morning and make the same thing every day, so I then started looking at a business model that incorporated all of the good things about being a chef. Traditionally, the food career involves slogging away in a basement, no one's talking to you, and you're working really hard and you don't have health insurance, high production with low satisfaction. I wanted to find a way to reach the community, educate people, get them excited and make it very social. Our dinners at The Pantry make it feel like you're at a dinner party and that's what we want. The classes are very informal. It's the whole idea of getting people not afraid of food. I have a true love for the artisan food craft movement of cheese-making, meat curing, bread baking, pickling, jamming and canning, so I wanted a space where those skills are being taught.

How did it all come together?

I actually took a business class around this business model a few years ago when I was in San Francisco. I originally thought I was going to move to the south, I'm from Alabama originally, and open a business like [The Pantry]. I knew I wanted to do something around food education and community building. I moved to Seattle instead and kept pestering Brandon about opening up what I was calling The Delancey General Store. I told him it was the next big thing. He wasn't really interested because he was opening Delancey at the time and had his own plans. Olaiya used to teach cooking classes in Delancey on nights when they were closed and so one day, not too long ago, I said to Brandon, "Do you think Olaiya would team up with me? She would probably love a place of her own to teach her classes," and he was like, "Of course she would!" [Olaiya and I] had our first meeting a week or two later and realized we both had a really, really similar vision of the space. We started researching other spaces and then the tenant who was occupying this space gave their notice that they were leaving and then it was just like, "Wow. We're doing this right now." And because I used to be an architect I could sort of take over the build-out and bring this space together.

Did you have a clear idea about what you wanted this space to look like?

At first, no, but then we started ripping up the carpet that was in here and we could see a beautiful floor. We knew we wanted something that reflected our tastes. I tend to like things that are very modern, clean lines, simple. Olaiya likes things that are a little more rustic, feminine, soft. So, we wanted to find that overlap between us. A warm, inviting, comforting space where you can relax and learn.

Photo by Brandi Henderson
What prompted you to give up architecture for a life of food?

I think it was always in the back of my mind. When I graduated high school it was a choice between culinary school and architecture school and I decided that I could always have cooking as a hobby but I could never have architecture as a hobby, so I decided on architecture. But I was never really happy having a desk job. I didn't really ever plan on switching careers. When I turned 30, I decided I was going to do what I always wanted to do and go to culinary school, so I bought myself tuition to a small part-time pastry program in San Francsico. While I was there--I didn't anticipate switching at all--I had an opportunity to intern at Tartine bakery which I couldn't say "no" to. While I was taking my leave of absence from work, that's when the economy basically dropped and all of my friends lost their jobs at the architecture firm and my bosses were like, "You don't really have a job anymore" and so I said, "Okay. I'm a pastry chef now." I feel like I've been very lucky. Everything that's happened in my career in the last four years has been very serendipitous.

How do you decide what you're going to put on the dessert menu at Delancey?

My desserts tend to be very fruit-focused. It's really about going to the farmers market, tasting the fruit and then getting ideas from the fruit.

What's on your menu now?

We're actually switching this week. We're finishing up with wood-oven roasted figs with honey mousse and vanilla caramel sauce; a plum galette with maple syrup and a whipped maple cream. We're switching over to a pumpkin mousse with bananas and whipped banana cream and pecan streusel and a honey-roasted Bosc pear with a cardamom oat tuile and creme fraiche.

What's the most advanced class you offer at The Pantry?

One of the classes we opened with was a four-day pig butchery and charcuterie course. We teamed up with Rain Shadow Meats and [proprietor] Russ [Flint] did a pig break-down at his butcher shop and then the next two days he came over here and cooked all the parts, so we made sausage, porchetta, prosciutto, pates and head cheese. We took that pig and cooked every bit of it.

What would be on the other end of the class spectrum?

We teach this class that we really love called Back to Basics. It's really, simple food but it's about how to make it all from scratch, like how to brine and roast a chicken, how to roast vegetables and toss them in homemade butter, how to make homemade mustard and then how to make a salad dressing out of that.

If you had an extra $20 to spend at the store, what would you splurge on?

I have an unhealthy addiction to Jo-Jos. I really am obsessed with those things. But I wouldn't spend the entire $20 on them. You can get a lot of Jo-Jos for 85-cents.

What is the best thing about living in Seattle?

The lifestyle is really nice. It's a really fun community of like-minded people. The culinary scene is exciting. There's a lot of energy here. And a lot of support. I feel like people here are excited about new businesses and that's really refreshing. It's not an over-saturated, over-competitive community. It's very welcoming and warm and there's room for more. I like that a lot.

Photo by Brandi Henderson
Did you grow up in a foodie household?

No! My family is very Southern. I grew up with pretty poor eating habits. There was a lot of fast-food and Hamburger Helper. We had a garden, so there were some things I had, like fresh peas which I still bring back with me when I go home in the summertime. We had some good things, but for the most part, it was pretty bad.

How do you think you ended up being such an artisan?

In a way, it could have been rebellion. My mom didn't cook and wasn't comfortable with me being in the kitchen. That just made me want to be in the kitchen more. I was always artistic and using my hands and I always liked to make things. Food is just another thing to make and eventually I just got good at it. I like feeding people. I love that feeling of making something and seeing someone eat it and get really happy. That's very satisfying to me.

Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin as Brandi Henderson shares her Browned Butter Pecan Pie recipe. Also, check out her blog, Look! I Made That!

Follow Voracious on Facebook and Twitter. Follow me at @tastebud1

comments powered by Disqus