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.
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."