At 3o years of age, most people are finally settling into a career; finding themselves on something of a path and leaving behind the uncertainties of their youth. Most 30-year-olds aren’t already at the apex of a career path. But such is not exactly the case for Chef Lee Hendrickson. Because I could also accurately call him Executive Chef Lee Hendrickson of Charlottesville, VA’s celebrated Red Pump Kitchen.
Related: Chef Andre Lima De Luca
Yep, Mr. H is the top chef at a successful restaurant specializing in “Mediterranean, Tuscan and Italian inspired dishes.” How did he pull it off? By being a good chef, which is another way of saying by working good and goddamned hard to learn his craft and to never stop learning and innovating.
Also, he loves food, which helps. You can tell that from the first few minutes of a conversation with the chef. And it’s an infectious passion: after getting off the phone with Hendrickson, I immediately went downstairs and made myself a large bowl of pasta and meatballs. This is not something I’m writing to be cute, this is truth, plain and simple. I ate so much pasta I felt terrible and wonderful all at once; I only wish it had been the handmade pasta the chef had so lovingly described.
So, where did this passion for food begin?
I was introduced to cooking at an early age. I grew up in a big Italian family, brothers and sisters, my grandmother around all the time. There was no such thing as breakfast, lunch, and dinner; there was lways food on the table, antipastis, pastas, sauces cooking all day. My mother and grandmother were always cooking. And my cousins and friends all seemed to grow up the same way, it was what we all did all the time.
When did you get on the path to work in kitchens professionally?
I basically always worked in food. I started dish washing when I was a teenager, and then by 16, maybe 17, I was in the kitchen making pizzas, working at a small mom and pop place. I guess I wasn’t really serious about it, about the cooking aspect yet, but it was a job, I was a kid making money. But I was definitely comfortable there, being around food brought a comfort level, it was something I knew.
Then when I was 18, I started working at my first four star restaurant. It was at a resort hotel, Keswick Hall, and it was intinmidating at first. It was one of those hotels with a kitchen where you walk in and there ar 20, 25 white coats (that’s kitchen talk for cooks, FYI, dear reader — he’s not referring to doctors) head down, working. I was on the line, making staff meals, helping with large parties. It was an epiphany being there, seeing a kitchen like that. I was exposed to a famous, successful chef for the first time; I got to see what they [chefs] were really doing in their kitchens. I started reading, reading deeply, really exposing myself to and learning about the famous inspiring chefs, guys like Jose Andres for example, the big guys.
I cooked under chef Dean Maupin and I learned from him and really looked up to him. He treats people almost as a brother, as a mentor; he was building a family at the time and had this big brother kind of way of teaching. If he yelled at you, it wasn’t old style chef yelling, it was proactive, he wanted to help us rise from pedestal one to a higher tier of culinary arts. He made the gears turn in my mind. I came home every day wanting to read, to learn, to know. I studied flavor balances, I wanted to know why reductions made sense, to know the details of it all.
Pretty soon my friend, and a great chef, Amalia Scatena, told me she was going to open a place down in Charleston, South Carolina. I’d always wanted to go there, and we decided to do it together. I became sous chef at Cannon Green in downtown Charleston and it was a new step for me. I was in control of banquets and was running the kitchen, and it was in a very new environment, inside the restaurant and out. It was difficult to find good cooks down there, frankly. No one knew who we were, and they didn’t want to work for us, really. But we took our time, we made our reputation one person at a time; whenever anyone came in to help out a bit, when they heard or saw what we were trying and doing, we made a name over time.
I was there for six months, and then the opportunity at Red Pump Kitchen came along, and here I am.
What does it mean to you to be an executive chef?
I said this to my sous not long ago, in fact. It’s not how good you are at cooking that makes you a great chef, it’s how many great chefs you can create that does.
What is your favorite food or meal to prepare?
It would have to be pasta — handmade pasta. I love teaching how to make it, making it myself, every time I make pasta, any kind of pasta, too, it’s connecting again with my grandmother, with my mother, with childhood. I think about family every time I touch a piece of pasta. Sometimes I’ll be rolling pasta and I just have this huge smile on my face that I don’t even bother explaining to people. I tell my mom that I always think about family when I’m making it or cooking it.
Do you have any favorite kitchen hacks?
Sure, cyrovacing and sous-vide cooking. It saves some cooking time, and it’s a great way to dial in the consistency you want. It also helps maintain proteins in foods.
Are there are any current food trends you particularly like?
I do love the whole food truck thing. I don’t think there’s a food truck I’ve ever been to that wasn’t good. From tacos to sliders to a truck selling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or whatever, they’re just always good. The food tends to be innovative, unique, and they’re just fun.
How has the food scene in Virginia changed in recent years?
Everything is just on another level now. From the craft beer scene to sourcing foods more locally to what you can do in the kitchen these days. I tell people Red Pump is food that’s approachable, but with intricate plating styles. You might have my grandma’s recipe for eggplant parm on a plate, but it’s plated on a slate board with flowers and people see it and they’re blown away by it. You have to cater for the clientele, you can’t have foam on every dish. You don’t want to scare people away, it has to be approachable.
What is something chefs often do wrong?
I don’t think people submerge themselves in the process, reading, studying, always learning. Cooks put the white coat on and then think they know everyhting. They stop learning. I also don’t like when a kitchen tries to play itself off as fine dining but is not cooking from scratch. We never open a bag here, it’s always from scratch. But some kitchens try to play themselves off as high end like that when they’re just not cooking that way.
If you hadn’t become a professional chef, what would you be doing?
I would probably be in construction. You meet a lot of chefs who did that, in fact, who came from that world. I used to frame houses with my dad, in fact. I always had a knack for that, for the geometry, the lines. So I’d probably be in construction, or maybe an artist, a pen and ink artist. I even studied art for a year at JMU, and you can see that sometimes in my plating, the colors.
And with that, we bid our goodbyes, and it was time for me to eat too much. Or maybe we talked about lots of other stuff, but now it’s time for you to go eat dinner. And if you find yourself in Charlottesville, VA, one good place to do that would be…
Try the Whole Branzino with Spring Asparagus, Caper Brown Butter, and Pickled Fennel