The expansive Henley’s Steak and Seafood, located on the second floor at 100 St. George Street, is well known for their upscale creative cuisine, perfect views of downtown St. Augustine, and massive variety of local craft beers. It is a bustling restaurant that rarely has a dull moment. However, there is a quiet force behind their smoothly running kitchen and carefully crafted menu. Chef Melody Stewart is the creator behind the cuisine at Henley’s, and we wanted to catch up with her and get to know the woman behind the success of this fairly new restaurant.
Chef Mel was in the kitchen learning to cook from the time she was a child, but professionally ventured into the culinary world at Cortesses Bistro. After nearly losing a finger and having to take some medical time off, she found herself at AJ’s Dinner club, formerly located where Mardi Gras is now. AJ’s gave Mel a taste of upscale cuisine in a quiet atmosphere. She worked the line at AJ’s until her chef left to go open a restaurant in Daytona, and Mel followed. This proved to be a wise career choice that prepared her to be the highly qualified and talented chef that she is today. The restaurant in Daytona brought in a French master chef to train the staff throughout the first months of it being open. The long days and intense training from that chef provided Mel with the same level of rigorous work as culinary school with an even more diverse exposure to various cuisines. Mel described, “During that year I learned so much it was ridiculous. From Asian cooking to French cooking to Italian to Kosher to Moroccan food, you name it. We learned the world.” One particular moment of experience that Mel brought with her to Henley’s was learning how to cook the perfect duck breast. Mel had never cooked duck breast before and the chef training her was rather infuriated that she didn’t know how to prep the duck. He stood over her and screamed at her for having to hold her hand through the process and cause the training to slow down. Over and over he made her massage the duck breast and rub oils inside and outside the skin until she had the method perfected. After training like that, Mel knew that she had expanded her culinary portfolio and added immense value to her reputation as a chef. Of course, Mel also can now declare that she can make the “perfect duck breast.”
After a year of working in Daytona, the price and time of the commute was no longer appealing to Mel, so she began to look again for a place for herself in St. Augustine. Mel found her niche at Le Parisien. Within a short six months Mel was promoted to being their executive chef, while simultaneously Collage had come in for the takeover and rebranding of of Le Parisian. This was Mel’s home for nearly six years. Mel’s appreciation for her experience at Collage was evident throughout my interview. She said “I loved creating the most worldly cuisine and true fine dining – I love those two things and that’s definitely my passion. I was 23 and the executive chef of a very nice fine dining restaurant in downtown St. Augustine!” That’s truly a feat in and of itself, and the rapid advancement for Mel from a line cook to an executive chef of one of the top restaurants in the area showcases the immense amount of talent that she has. Throughout her years at Collage, one of her regular diners was the owners of Cap’s On the Water. Mel joked, “They were after me for awhile and finally they said please come to Cap’s, I will pay you more and give you more days off!” That deal proved to be exactly what Mel needed at the time, and so she transitioned to Cap’s with the promise to raise the bar from the staples of fried shrimp and mahi tacos to mimic the fine dining that Mel specialized in. Mel spent a while redesigning the menu and training the Cap’s staff, until one day receiving a phone call from Pat Henley, who she had not met before. The request was simple: Pat Henley was opening a new restaurant and needed a chef. Mel, having established quite a reputation in St. Augustine for her work, was his first choice. And thus Mel’s transition to Henley’s Steak and Seafood began.
For those who have not been to Henley’s, it is a massive restaurant spanning several dining rooms, a wraparound bar, and also an outdoor seating area. For Mel, the cooking is easy and comes naturally, but the more challenging transition to Henley’s has been the managing of a new, larger staff and a fast paced kitchen serving tremendous amounts of meals daily. Every item on the menu at Henley’s is a handcrafted recipe from Mel’s arsenal over years of experience and training. She created a menu prior to opening that she nearly immediately had to expand due to requests from her customers. Mel has a daily focus of listening to her customer requests and feedback to improve Henley’s in any way possible. Mel reflected, “I was so focused on the steaks that I didn’t realize that I needed to add fresh, local, seafood from the docks. So, we added clams, mussels, peel and eat shrimp, king crab, snow crab, raw oysters, steamed oysters, you name it. We have also expanded the lunch menu to add sandwiches. We also have gluten free items, and we can accommodate allergies as well, just ask. I know every single ingredient to every single dish.” In regards to the main menu, Mel feels like Henley’s has reached the correct balance of food variety and may finally be set after her revisions. Now she hands the creative control over specials to her staff and her sous chef for daily entrees and desserts.
As far as her favorite menu items, Mel immediately lit up and sighed over “The Perfect Bacon,” which has a great story behind it’s creation. Mel told us, “Right before Henley’s opened, I was in Minneapolis with my boyfriend who was working there. I went up there every other weekend and we would go to this place that is one of the top rated steakhouses in the country. He had already gotten to know the general manager there because we went so often. I would order this slab of bacon and it was incredible! Mind blowing! So I pestered the guy, ‘how did you cook that? I’m opening a steakhouse in St. Augustine, we are nowhere near Minneapolis and I promise I’ll put my own twist on it!’” Mel’s incessant questioning of the manager worked, because on her last visit, she demanded that she was absolutely not leaving without the recipe. Amazingly, he leaned over and whispered it in Mel’s ear, and Henley’s “The Perfect Bacon” was born. “The Perfect Bacon” (course one of our food adventure) is a thick cut applewood smoked pork belly, slow braised and charred until the fat just dissolves. It’s served with a sweet apple butter to counteract the salty pork. Mel dreamily said, “It truly is just perfect.” This is by far Henley’s best selling appetizer, and to make a pairing dish suggestion, Mel always use the edges of the bacon to sautee the shrimp for the shrimp and grits. I can’t imagine anyone being able to resist those mouth watering dishes. Mel also recommends (after her stressful learning experience) the duck risotto. Mel is becoming rather famous for her beautifully crafted risottos that are the perfect melty texture. Also don’t miss their cast iron skillet steak special smothered in bacon, onions, and bleu cheese. This is a dish cooked with care – they have one small cast iron skillet that they prepare each steak in all night when this special is run.
Another unique thing that Mel has brought to Henley’s is an all female kitchen management team. This is an industry rarity, and even more special because her sous chef has been with her since her days at Collage. They then moved to Cap’s together, and after a short break found themselves running Henley’s kitchen. Mel described, “The kitchen dynamic with two women is completely opposite of a kitchen run by two men. It’s so quiet and very pleasant. I don’t know how to explain it, but my people just do what they need to do. There is no ego in my kitchen, just come in and do your job and do NOT let the girls see you do anything wrong. Since my sous chef and I have been together for 5 years, on the line it’s like we’re dancing. Together, her and I can handle anything. I also still go to her for everything, we feed off each other for reassurance on menu items and specials.”
For our food adventure, Chef Mel has focused intensely on creating “The Perfect Bite.” A theme amongst her recipes is pairing the unexpected – sweet and savory, blends of textures, or unique ingredients. Our dinner menu will showcase the best of Mel’s creations, including the aforementioned salty, crispy pork belly paired with sweet apple butter. Another menu highlight is seared ahi tuna and jasmine rice potstickers paired with a house infused sake. Mel’s infusion recipe pairs tart berries with the sake which actually creates an aroma and taste of fresh roses to compliment the ahi tuna. These unique flavors are the result of years of Mel’s experience in testing and experimenting with flavors from all over the world, and will truly make an exciting food adventure. Prepare for the unexpected, Chef Mel will deliver one perfect bite after another.