His father wanted him to become a civil engineer but Henry Chandler III followed his heart, filling a fry vat with alligator and thrilling crowds hungry for Cajun food.
"We love fried food! Hell yeah, we're from Louisiana, baby! We'll fry your kids if we get a chance!" said Chandler, chef at Henry's Louisiana Grill in Acworth, Ga., and winner of the title "Nightline" People's Platelist.
Chandler grew up on a 1,500-acre farm run by his hard-working father, who hoped his son would go into engineering. Instead, he was inspired by the kitchen skills he learned at the elbow of his childhood nanny and Cajun friends' families. He became an outstanding chef.
"I'm a red Cajun -- little bit of redneck, little bit of Cajun," said Chandler. After growing up in "redneck" rural Saint Maurice, La., he went to college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (known locally as "Ooh La La").
It was there, deep in the heart of Cajun country, that Chandler learned to wield the cayenne and fresh peppers that are the trademark of his restaurant today. Nursing hangovers during his hard-partying days at college, Chandler relaxed in the kitchens of local friends' families, absorbing Cajun cooking insights that would inspire today's signature dishes, like his Ooh La La! Shrimp.
"I started cooking with the old families down there. That's where I started cooking jambalaya, the gumbos, the etoufees," Chandler said. "I learned basically from my friends' parents, grandmas, neenaws."
But first there was Castelle. She was the black nanny who raised Chandler on the family's sprawling cotton, cattle and pecan farm and whose memory brings tears to the eyes of the 51-year-old chef.
"Nanny Castelle – she was a great woman," said Chandler, choking with emotion. "My mother was a Southern Belle. My mother slept till noon every day but Wednesdays, when she went to the beauty parlor. My nanny, on the other hand, was there about 5 o'clock in the morning. She got the breakfast started, the house in order, made sure the kids were dressed for school… She was like my mother."
Not only was his nanny the one who got the kids on the schoolbus, sewed their clothes and "put the Band-Aids on," she also taught Chandler how to cook. As the youngest child, he was tied to Castelle's apron strings and watched her cook three times a day for as many as 25 people. She shared her cooking secrets with the intrigued child, and by age seven he was thrilled to help with his first meal: chicken and dumplings.
"We made just basic dumplings -- water, flour, pepper dumplings. She wouldn't use any of the fancy stuff that Mama gave her. She wouldn't use a rolling pin. She wouldn't use a dishwasher. So she used a wine bottle and she let me cut them out myself, all different shapes and I dropped them into the boiling cream sauce, added the chicken. That was my first full meal. I fed 18 farm hands, my dad, farm foreman. That was it. That's where it started," Chandler said.
From Oil Rig to Chef's Whites
Chandler was formally trained in culinary arts in Europe, working in London before moving back to the U.S. to work as a corporate chef in Atlanta and cook Italian food in Marietta, Ga.
"I had no idea how to cook Italian food but I told 'em, 'I'm the best Italian cook in the world!'" he said. "After three weeks of reading cookbooks and practicing everything, I learned how to cook Italian. I turned out lasagna, man. It may have been a bit Louisiana but it was good."
While Castelle had an enormous influence on his career choice, Chandler said it was his father who instilled the work ethic required to make Henry's Louisiana Grill a financial success.
"He didn't really fancy the cooking -- he didn't think that would be a good career for me because to him that wasn't a manly thing," he said. Chandler invites the help of his own son Liam (a nickname for William Chandler IV) and daughter Danielle Grace, both teenagers, in the restaurant he runs with his wife Claudia.
Chandler's friendly nature -- he is known to visit every table in the restaurant to be sure all diners are more than satisfied -- was nearly his downfall earlier in life. He was a far bigger partier than a student in college, flunking out repeatedly and racking up about $6,000 of fun on his mother's credit card. His father decided to straighten him out, a hard lesson that Chandler said was invaluable.
"My father sent me offshore to a pin drilling company to work," said Chandler. "I went from the easy life to (an oil rig) 125 miles offshore. The first day I was out there I was hanging 300 feet off the ocean pounding in giant spikes. That's the day I was praying for a 2.0. Let me tell you, it is a life change! Big time."
Chandler's father also took his earnings to erase the credit card debt, something the son only realized when he visited his foreman, expecting a raise.
"'You so stupid. Your Daddy's been garnishin' your check'," Chandler recalled the foreman telling him. The life lesson is what gave Chandler the confidence to pursue his dreams years later and open his own restaurant.
"He instilled that in me: Hard work is going to pay off. So we made the plunge. We decided to risk everything on that small venture. That's how America is built," Chandler said.
Chef Henry Chandler's 110-hour Work Week
Success hasn't made it any easier, he said. "You sacrifice your family time, your time with your spouse, your health… You do about 110 hours a week if you're a good chef. There's no way around it. You leave at 3 in the morning, you're back at 6:30 to check the vegetables in. If you're not dedicated, never get in the business."
Hard work was blamed for his exhaustion two years ago. He told his doctor about it during a routine physical, and the diagnosis he got back shocked him.
"Primary liver cancer. The doctor basically said you may last six months, you may last a year," Chandler recalled. He and Claudia decided to keep it a secret and try experimental treatment but when his skin turned "highlighter yellow," he had to tell his children.
"We spun it: Daddy's going to live. We just don't know how yet," said Chandler.
He found another doctor, who tried a chemotherapy treatment that put him in a coma for several days. His family and medical team launched a search for a donor liver but his chances seemed slim.
"We had no chance for a liver. Basically, I had last rites on Sunday. Ten o'clock in the morning Monday, a liver came in and they transplanted me," said Chandler, wiping tears from his eyes. "Recovery was tough. God is good to me."
Today he is an outspoken advocate and fundraiser for LifeLink of Georgia, a non-profit organ and tissue recovery organization. His social charm and his cooking talent have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the charity.
The support he felt from the community during his cancer treatment was re-energized when "Nightline" kicked off the People's Platelist competition. Chandler was thrilled to receive the most votes – more than 10,000 – and win the contest.
"Friends, family, everybody has come together so much for us. Everybody at one time prayin' for us, pushin' for us, votin' for us. That's what Platelist is all about," said Chandler. "Everybody who cared about us and who has ever eaten here one time, a thousand times, it doesn't make a difference. Puttin' them all on one big plate. That's the best thing about it."