Stephen Henry said he was sitting across from his dad in Dublin, Ireland, the day before he began working in his first kitchen. Henry, now the executive chef at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, was 16 and he had just finished his last day of school before summer break. He said he came home and flopped down in the chair across from his dad, who was smoking a pipe.
“I said ‘Da, I’m done now.’” Henry recalled. “And he says, ‘What do you mean you’re done? You got 40 years to go.’”
Henry said his dad told him to go talk to chef John at the Goat Grill in Goatstown, Dublin, Ireland, which is called Goatstown because it was where people went for goat’s milk in the 19th century when they were suffering from tuberculosis. (Goat’s milk was thought to treat tuberculosis back then.)
“There were a lot of goats there,” Henry said, jokingly. So he went to the restaurant, and he started shelling prawns there in the summer. He said he would shell about 100 pounds of prawns per day. Eventually, he began watching the chefs cook, and he liked the work enough that he went to culinary school as soon as he graduated from high school. His culinary program allowed him to attend school for two days of the week and then work in the restaurant for three days each week. Throughout culinary school, Henry worked at different fine restaurants around Dublin until he graduated and was offered a chance to cook as part of a program at the Chicago Hilton.
Henry traveled to the U.S. on Super Bowl Sunday in January 1986, when he was 22 years old. “As soon as I walked into the Chicago Hilton and looked up at that lobby I’m like, ‘What do these guys really want from me?’” Henry said, laughing. “I never looked back.”
Henry said that after working with the executive chef of the Chicago Hilton, he decided that one day he would like to be the executive chef at a large hotel. About 20 years later, he became the executive chef at the Palmer House Hilton.
But just attaining the position wasn’t enough for Henry. He still wasn’t “done,” as his father had said. He said that he always has to try new projects and prefers to keep his team’s appetite for doing something different “not satisfied.” So, when he found out that there were abandoned, 19th century tunnels being used for storage underneath the hotel, he knew he had to try something new with them.
At first, he tried growing mushrooms, but he said it was too hot in the tunnels. He said the tunnels had a prohibition-y feel to them, so he was thinking liquor. But he’s a chef, not a bartender, and that would have required permits. So, he kept the liquor idea by using oak barrels infused with different liquors to age 100 percent Vermont maple syrup.