Edible New Orleans — Winter 2011
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David Ramsey


Local baker Dwight Henry's star is rising

Photographs by Andy Cook

When a group of young filmmakers, newcomers to New Orleans, began showing up religiously at Dwight Henry's old bakery on St. Claude Ave. a few years ago, he had no reason to expect that they were about to change his life. After all, feeding all sorts of folks from all sorts of places is just what Mr. Henry does. It's what he's been doing all of his life.

"White, black, Chinese, straight, gay, gutter punks, whatever," he tells me when I visit him at his new Seventh Ward bakery and cafe, The Buttermilk Drop. "I feed anybody, work with anybody, cater and market myself to all. Back then, after the storm, anyone around there knew, if they didn't have money, come by me and I'll feed you. I would love to feed you. I love life and I love people and I love cooking. The older I get, man, the more love I have."

When Mr. Henry–I'm not being formal, everyone calls him Mister–when he gets going like this, there's no stopping him. He's a handsome man who looks both older and younger than his forty-six years. He has the hardened face of a self-made man who's been working fourteen hours a day since forever. But when he speaks he slides into an easy, boyish smile, and his muscular, wiry limbs jab with every syllable, as if he simply has more energy than a body can contain.

"I love when people love what I do," he continues. "I love when people eat one of my pastries and go mmm, and ooh, I loove this." Mr. Henry is practically singing the words now, taking delicious joy in every vowel. He is rhapsodic, so hungry to satisfy the hunger of others that one begins to suspect that every moment spent away from his bakery is a little bit painful. "That makes me feel so good that they feel that way," he says. "I'm connecting to them."

Which brings us back to those filmmakers. Court 13, a film collective that had settled in New Orleans and made several music videos and short films, opened a workspace in the Colton School in late 2008, when Mr. Henry still had Henry's Bakery on St. Claude. Working just across the street, they decided to check the bakery out and, well, the mmm's and ooh's–that connection–began. They became thoroughly addicted to Mr. Henry's ever-changing rotation of soul-food lunches and hand-crafted sweet treats. And it wasn't just the doughnuts and smothered pork chops and hash browns that kept them coming back. It was the affable man behind the counter, Mr. Henry.

"He's the sort of guy, you meet him a few times and suddenly he's like an old friend you haven't seen in years," says Michael Gottwald, a film producer in Court 13.

"That was our lunch of choice," Benh Zeitlin, a director in the collective, remembers. "It had that great feeling of a family operation–not literally a family but Mr. Henry's posse–this ragtag crew of doughnut makers. You'd swing by after hours and someone would be sleeping on the couch. It seemed like it was as much an inn as a food store."

Later that winter, Court 13 began negotiations with Cinereach, a film-production company and foundation, to fund Zeitlin's first feature-length film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, with what eventually became a budget of more than a million dollars. It was an ambitious project, a piece of swampy magical realism that would tell the story of Wink and Hushpuppy, a father and his six-year-old daughter fighting to survive after their town has been decimated by a flood. The story was set in an imaginary bayou village–not exactly the Gulf Coast, but the allegorical connection was clear enough, and in casting their film, Court 13 knew they wanted a heavy presence of local actors. Gottwald began to put up flyers around various neighborhoods in New Orleans to recruit folks to audition. One of the first places he went was Court 13's old standby, Henry's Bakery.

"I told Mr. Henry, hey, you should come by too," Gottwald says. "I always said that, but I wasn't thinking anyone was going to actually do it. And then he showed up."

What followed wasn't a traditional audition–Mr. Henry essentially arrived and told a good chunk of his life story while the cameras rolled. But when Zeitlin began to look through the various audition tapes, he started fixating on Mr. Henry.

"He was talking about waking up in the morning, trying to hustle some restaurant equipment and he just had this attitude," Zeitlin explains. "He decided what he wanted his life to be, and, no matter how illogical or difficult it might be, he was going to do it. And you just fall in love with his inherent magnetism. That's what you're looking for in an audition tape–I knew as soon as I saw it, that he could do this on the screen too."

As Zeitlin and the producers debated choices for the lead role of Wink, including close looks at various established professional actors, they kept coming back to Mr. Henry.

"We realized we had a choice to make," Gottwald says. "We could go with a professional guy who does this for a living, who knows what he's doing, who can accommodate the fact that he's acting with a six-year-old child. Or we could go with Mr. Henry, a guy who's a dynamic screen personality, who's kind of volatile and wild, and we all loved him–but he's never acted a day in his life."

Six weeks before shooting was scheduled to start, the film's producers and Zeitlin met to make their final choice. "We said, this is insane, this is much riskier and totally unsafe and not a smart choice to make whatsoever," Gottwald says. "But it's such a more inspiring idea to try to make this movie with Mr. Henry."

So that's what they decided to do. They had already cast a first grader in one starring role. For the other starring role in their first feature-length film, they wanted a baker. Dwight Henry grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, where he got a job as a teenager at the neighborhood bakery. At the time, working at the Rising Sunrise Bakery was something of a rite of passage.

"Anyone down there in the Lower Ninth lived in that bakery," Mr. Henry says. "My brother started working there, everyone I knew started working there. I got a job there in the eleventh grade, and that was the start of my story."

For most it was just a summer job, but for Mr. Henry, baking became his life. He started working at Rising full time, then took on a job at Alois J. Binder Bakery, then at Dorignac's, and slowly worked his way through gigs at just about every bakery and catering company in town.

"I was always curious and I learned something at every job," he says. "If I was in the bread department, I'd walk over and see what's happening with pastries and the doughnuts. That's just my nature, I picked up something at every spot."

After a while, he started working as a sous-chef at local hotels and added cooking to his repertoire. He moved around as a baker and chef throughout the Gulf Coast, cooking in the daytime and baking at night.

"I was a pastry chef here, head chef there, head baker here," he says. "My résumé had a little bit of everything. I had so much in my head, I was just so ready."

Mr. Henry is an unreconstructed dreamer, the sort of person who maps out far-fetched entrepreneurial plans while he's kneading dough. Hustling his way through all of these jobs over the years, he knew he wanted to have a place of his own. He had ideas, knowhow, and charm in spades, but what he didn't have was money.

"I had the hard road," he says. "No bank wanted to finance me. They said I was risky. So I always worked two jobs–one check to support my family and one check to go toward the shop."

Without the capital to start a bakery all at once, he began in the 1980s to buy equipment one piece at a time. He'd thumb through newspaper classifieds and pick up used pieces from restaurants and hotels.

"I'd buy something, a doughnut pump or whatever, put it in storage, wait a month, then buy another piece. I couldn't buy the new stuff, because I was poor. I'd get stuff that other people thought was too small or too old, and I'd clean it up, paint it, make it look good."

In 1999, after two decades in the business and years of planning, Mr. Henry finally opened his own shop, Henry's Bakery. "I walked through the neighborhood, knocking on doors, passing out flyers, shaking hands," Mr. Henry says. "From the railroad track to Elysian Fields, I think I covered every house." This scrupulous grassroots marketing worked: within the first three months, Henry's Bakery was paying for itself.

Over the years, Henry's established itself as a cult favorite in the Marigny, but when Hurricane Katrina flooded the building, he had doubts about staying in New Orleans, wondering whether he should pack up what he could and get out.

Luckily for the city, Mr. Henry is drawn to the impossible. "Everything that's everything to me is here," he says. "My family is buried here, I was raised here–I just had to come back."

He began working construction jobs during the day to save up money to invest into re-opening his shop, and went at night to gut and rebuild the place himself. Working by generator, he salvaged what he could and replaced what he couldn't, wheelbarrowing debris out to the neutral ground as neighborhood regulars came by to offer any help they could. The only place open in the area at that point was a tire shop. When Mr. Henry re-opened, folks lined up down the street.

"People were so glad, they were tired of eating Red Cross," he remembers. "And it meant so much to them that somebody was able to fight through all the problems going on. We did it as a small business, not a big franchise–we were from the neighborhood."

Mr. Henry succeeded with a unique mix of innovation and tradition. He made king cakes for Carnival season, of course, but experimented extensively to make them unlike any other in town, and his impossibly soft cakes, moist and abundant with cinnamon flavor, became a new favorite among king-cake connoisseurs.

"I want you to know it's mine," he says. "I don't want you to think about nothing else but, 'oh, this is Henry's, I gotta have one of these.' Certain people that are making them commercially, they end up dry because they're making too many, they got to make them quick. I ain't naming no names but you know what I'm saying. I put love into mine. I ain't making millions. I take pride in each and every one. Mine stay soft, even after you've had it for days. You don't have to have no milk or nothing."

Mr. Henry's true knack, though, was for re-creating old favorites. He brought back raisin squares, an old hit from the beloved bakery at the old Woolworth's on Canal. And, most enticingly for local sweet-tooth fanatics, he set out to re-create McKenzie Bakery's famous buttermilk drops. For years, folks had been bemoaning the loss of the now-defunct bakery chain's little round cake-doughnut holes, sharply crispy on the outside and dense and velvety in the middle.

"That's a pastry that people really, really missed," Mr. Henry says. "I'd tasted them, I'd loved them, and I knew I had to come up with my own version. I don't know how they did theirs, so I tried this way and that way, and kept experimenting until I had it perfect. When people bite into it, I want them to go back fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago to what they used to love at McKenzie's. People that used to eat there have tried mine and they tell me–I got it. We're running neck and neck."

Before long, the buttermilk drop was Mr. Henry's best-selling item. So, when he moved his operation to a larger building just off North Broad, he named it after his new pride and joy: The Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café. The new shop had been open only a few weeks when Michael Gottwald, trying to finalize casting for Beasts of the Southern Wild, came knocking. Court 13 looked at more than a thousand people for the part of Wink, so Mr. Henry was of course flattered when he was offered the part.

"But I was just opening this new bakery, working around the clock," Mr. Henry says. "I told them I was so honored, but I just don't have the time, I don't think I can do it."

Zeitlin, Gottwald, and the rest of Court 13 were filming a fantastical adventure featuring an epic flood and mammoth ice-age beasts on a shoestring budget–in a remote bayou community in Terrebonne Parish literally sinking into the sea. Now, they were casting a co-star who told them he couldn't take the part.

Gottwald repeatedly attempted to set up callbacks with Mr. Henry, but had trouble getting him to show up. Eventually, Gottwald realized that he was setting up appointments in the afternoon, which is just about the only time of day that Mr. Henry, who bakes all night and runs the shop all morning, has to sleep. So Gottwald began showing up at the bakery in the wee hours to chat with Mr. Henry about the project and run through scenes from the script as Mr. Henry prepared food for the next day.

Still, the courtship was stuck in neutral. Gottwald would cajole, Mr. Henry would demur. One late night, all the producers showed up at the bakery and, before Mr. Henry could say his usual no, they laid out in more detail their vision for the project. Most importantly, they developed a plan that would work logistically and financially for the bakery. If the movie was their baby, the bakery was his, so anything that would compromise the Buttermilk Drop was a non-starter.

"Up until that point, I think he had sort of imagined that we were just amateur fools making some movie in our backyard, and we liked our local baker and we wanted to put him in it," Gottwald says. "And that's not totally far from the truth! But we explained that we weren't just pissing around, that we knew what we were doing, that we had a significant amount of money invested in it, we were bringing in talented people from the independent film world. Once we framed it in a serious way, that it was an opportunity and a partnership, it became real. From that moment on, he was totally committed–he's the most industrious man I've ever met."

The filmmakers, already swamped with the demands of preproduction, had to learn to accommodate the unrelenting schedule of a baker. Gottwald and others took turns running lines with Mr. Henry between three and six in the morning; acting coaches were brought in to practice technique with Mr. Henry as he cut doughnuts; and Zeitlin would show up in the middle of the night for multiple-hour rap sessions, drawing out stories and experiences from Mr. Henry's life that would help him with his role.

"We would talk about everything," Mr. Henry says. "How I grew up, what I've been through–you know I can talk–and we'd go back and forth until the bakery opened at six. It would get emotional, man, we'd get into things I can't talk about without getting upset, but he used that to help me get to the emotions I needed. All of that shows up in the movie."

For Zeitlin, these marathon chats were vital. "I would take something from the script and tell him what I was pulling from, and we'd find something from his life that related to that moment. We went through that way beat by beat, line by line, and it ballooned into him telling me his life story."

This process provided a shared language between the two men–before long, Zeitlin could explain to Mr. Henry the motivation in a scene with the ease of long-time friends sharing ancient stories–and getting to know Mr. Henry re-shaped the character Zeitlin
had created as well.

"He completely changed Wink," Zeitlin says. "The character became him. As I learned about him, his own experiences during the storm, his relationship with his father, the character became much sweeter, much more human, than I had originally imagined."

Once shooting started in April in Terrebonne Parish, Mr. Henry moved down to the bayou, leaving the bakery in the hands of his employees. (On his days off, though, he'd ignore advice to get some rest and head back to New Orleans to bake.) The film's headquarters was based in an abandoned gas station on Highway 55 in the town of Montegut, thirty minutes southeast of Houma. The motley crew of eighty-five was a strange mix of film professionals, amateur artists, and local roustabouts.

"I wasn't used to such a big crew with a formal schedule," Zeitlin says. "I was used to–maybe everyone's tired, everyone's hungry, you go for it, hopefully you get the scene shot before you get arrested. And Mr. Henry, he was like me. He wasn't used to the idea of breaks. I remember once they called for lunch and he just said, 'Hell no. You're staying here, we're working the scene through lunch, and then we'll nail it when they get back.' From that point on, he took the reigns. He was the one who rallied the troops."

If the character of Wink had begun to slowly turn into the actor playing him, on set, Mr. Henry began to morph into Wink. "He's a leader of the people, things mean something to him," he told me when I visited him during shooting. "Like I got my employees, if I shut down, that's ten people that can't feed their family." Later that afternoon, preparing to shoot a scene with an unruly alligator, Mr. Henry strode by and whacked the gator on the tail, announcing, "I'll wrestle it, me." He put his arm around me and told me, "That's the kind of guy Wink is–he's the kind to wrastle a gator. He's the leader."

And then he started laughing, at himself, at me, at the gator, at a life that has led to spending the afternoon in Montegut, Louisiana, with a film crew and an angry alligator. When people say that Mr. Henry is charming (and everyone does), this is what they're talking about: his puckish bravado is always undercut by his warmth. He looks both like someone you wouldn't want to mess with and someone you would want to hug.

"He's a tough guy that makes things happen his own way and doesn't take any b.s. but, at the same time, he's so goodhearted," Zeitlin says. "He has this single-minded purpose–you could probably tell the same story about someone creating a terrorist organization, but with him . . . it's all about making doughnuts."

The film shoot wrapped up in mid-summer, and Zeitlin and a team of editors are now working on post-production. For all of the challenges posed by working with a non-actor, Zeitlin is thrilled with his choice of Mr. Henry. "You can't find someone like him in Los Angeles casting," he says. "You don't have actors that have lived the life he has. He's this New Orleans superhero that rose out of the ether down here and is totally specific to this place. That sort of life breathes its way into the film."

"The way you feel when you're going to his bakery, you're settling into this world that you love and you want to come there every day of your life," Zeitlin says. "I think he brought that to our movie. I want people to watch his performance and think, I want to stay in this world, with these people."

Mr. Henry is back in New Orleans now, running the Buttermilk Drop seven days a week. He offers breakfast and lunch, shifting what he cooks depending on his mood in the morning. His only promise: "It's gonna be something you love." Folks still line up in the mornings for fresh doughnuts and pastries, and, when the weather heats up, Buttermilk will be offering sno-balls.

"I'm not finished, my story is not over," Mr. Henry tells me during one of our late-night chats–like Gottwald, I had discovered that if you want to talk to Mr. Henry, you have to find him at work after midnight. "We'll be talking ten years from now, about what we talked about today and all I've done since then. I'm so confident, I know I'm going to get there. Nothing but the Lord can stop me from obtaining the goals I want to make, the heights I want to get to."

Maybe that sounds like standard-order inspirational talk, but Mr. Henry is a deeply effective proselytizer on the boundless possibility of his own life. Proud, inexhaustible, brimming over with exuberance: The man talks like he cooks. Sitting with him, his eyes wide with contagious joy, his hands drawing up imaginary plans–I see what Zeitlin must have seen in that audition tape a year ago. Even in the middle of the night, in an almost-empty bakery heavy with the sweet smell of newly fried doughnuts, it's obvious: Dwight Henry is a star.

When people bite into it, I want them to go back fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago to what they used to love at McKenzie's. People that used to eat there have tried mine and they tell me–I got it. We're running neck and neck.

"We realized we had a choice to make. We could go with a professional guy who does this for a living, or we could go with Mr. Henry, a guy who's a dynamic screen personality, who's kind of volatile and wild, and we all loved him–but he's never acted a day in his life."

Gottwald and others took turns running lines with Mr. Henry between three and six in the morning; acting coaches were brought in to practice technique while we was cutting doughnuts.