Chef Stephen Henry Brews Syrup in Tunnels, Keeps Bees on the Rooftop, and Still Has ‘More to Do’ in Chicago

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Chef Stephen Henry.

There are now six syrups brewing in the underbelly of the Palmer House Hilton: Woodford Reserve bourbon syrup, WhistlePig rye whiskey syrup, dark rum syrup, 16-year-old Lagavulin syrup, Herradura tequila syrup, and Grand Marnier syrup. The tunnels are lit with an old-fashioned cable-and-bulb style lighting to really accentuate that prohibition-era feel that Henry was going for, and each of the syrups has a subtle, but distinct, flavor.

How does he plan to use such an array of syrups? To start, the chef wants to use them in delicious desserts for the hotel. The first brownie was created in the kitchens of the Palmer House in 1893 at the request of Bertha Palmer, the wife of hotel founder Potter Palmer. Now, the hotel replicates the brownie, and Henry’s new syrups will help give it an exciting twist.

“The syrup is going to take the flavor of the barrels, and then the barrels are going to take the flavor of the syrups,” Henry said. “Eventually we can put a different syrup in there and see how it tastes.” 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?’

But even that kind of creative culinary endeavor isn’t enough to keep Henry’s appetite for new projects satisfied. He also has a rooftop garden at the hotel, hydroponic towers and bees that live next to the garden (in a nest that’s shaped like the Palmer House).

On top of that, he is part of a healthy-eating program for inner-city kids and hosts events regularly for them at the hotel. Most recently, Henry held a formal dining event for 60 children in the Palmer House’s Empire Room. The kids ate a four-course meal on place settings that cost about $30,000 each.

For each of the four courses, Henry cooked meals out of the Culinary Kids cookbook that he created for the program. One item in the cookbook, for example, is called the Secret Smoothie. It’s low-fat yogurt, bananas, fresh strawberries, honey and then — the “secret” ingredient — spinach. The cookbook, Henry said, was something that kids could then take home to their parents in the hopes that their parents would move away from fast food and toward fresh produce.

“It was just to show the kids that if you work hard and you live healthy and you eat well—if you bring your heart to work and you bring your heart where ever you go—you will be successful,” Henry said.

Henry said he also helps support local culinary programs at elementary schools in Chicago. For example, he learned that Carl Von Linne Elementary School didn’t have any cookbooks for its cooking program, so he held a book drive at the hotel. He said he “filled up the office” with more than 250 cookbooks.

He said his ultimate goal for the kids in culinary programs is to see them grow up and be chefs.

“We don’t have people coming up in our business,” Henry said. “And it’s a great career, it offers a lot. I think these children could do well too. I like to get them cooking while their young, and on the stove while they’re young, and out of trouble. And then, hopefully, maybe one day, have them on my team. You just can’t go through life just for yourself and for your family. I think there’s more out there that you’ve got to do.”

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Even though chef Henry feeds thousands at the Palmer House, keeps rooftop bees happy, ages syrup in the prohibition-era tunnels under the hotel, and tries to make a difference for inner-city kids in his community, in his mind, there’s always still more to do.