Dwight Henry has acting roles in two internationally acclaimed films under his belt, another major role in the pipeline and offers for future film work coming in all the time.
But on a recent morning in the kitchen of Wink’s, his new French Quarter bake shop and café, he also had his hands full. A batch of buttermilk drops burbled and bobbed in the fryer while orders for croissant breakfast sandwiches and oatmeal stacked up on the prep counter. Working away with a flour-dusted apron on his lanky frame and a crisp New Orleans Saints cap on his head, he looked like he was in his element.
“Some people have the wrong idea about success,” Henry said. “Just because I’ve had success, I’m not supposed to be working every day? They don’t understand why I do it. But that’s what I did before, that’s what made me happy.”
Henry seems happy, and by any measure he’s thriving.
The 51-year-old New Orleans native and father of five embodies the ultimate Cinderella story of Hollywood South. With no acting experience, he was discovered and actively recruited by producers of 2012’s Oscar-nominated independent film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” in which he played the lead role of Wink. That breakout was followed quickly by a smaller part in a much bigger film, the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” He’ll appear next in the forthcoming Marvin Gaye Jr. biopic “Sexual Healing,” playing the R&B singer’s father.
But first — and, to Henry, foremost — he is a baker, and he’s been busy building this realm of his career too. With one bake shop rolling along in the Seventh Ward, he expanded earlier this month with Wink’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Bistro near the French Market. In mid-August he intends to open a second edition of Wink’s about a mile away in the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the newly redeveloped mall near the cruise ship terminal. He’s also planning to open another bake shop and cafe this fall in Harlem in partnership with the high-profile New York restaurateur Richie Notar.
“I want to give people a New Orleans bakery,” Henry said. “People all over the world want to know what New Orleans food is about, and these are the cakes and pastries people in New Orleans grew up eating.”
Star power, willpower
It’s common for celebrities to lend their names and star power to restaurant concepts, but Henry’s case is different. Just call Wink’s on any given day and the person answering the phone is usually Henry himself. He’s almost always working in the kitchen or behind the counter and he still keeps baker’s hours, often starting his days at 3 a.m. to get the first batches of donuts ready for the breakfast shift.
“My bakery comes first,” he said. “In the long term, everything I do is for my family. I can pass a bakery down to my kids. I can’t pass down a movie role.”
Henry’s attitude and energy amaze his supporters, but also sometimes confound them. That includes his agent, Rocky Arceneaux.
“He’s got that old-school work ethic, he wants to stay here at all times, have his hands in everything,” said Arceneaux, whose firm, the Alliance Management Group, represents athletes and entertainers around the country. “We’ve been trying to wean him off a bit, show him that we can do more. He’s turned down so many movie roles. It’s just hard to get him out of the bakery.”
For his part, Henry says that’s because he worked so hard to get into his bakery.
Before he made the rounds of red carpets and publicity junkets for his film roles, Henry worked a different sort of circuit as a journeyman baker. He started at age 16 at Risings Baking Co. in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where he grew up, and after graduating high school went on a succession of baking jobs, from Tastee Donuts and Alois J. Binder to Dorignac’s Food Center and Whole Foods Market. He learned the specialties of each along the way, including a stint at the main bakery for the longtime local chain of McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes. When McKenzie’s abruptly closed in 2000, inspiration struck.
“McKenzie’s closed 60 stores in one day,” Henry remembered. “I’m a baker. I told myself ‘it’s time to open a bakery.’ I knew there was a niche.”
While he saw an opportunity, persuing it proved an uphill battle. Turned down time and again for loans, he settled into a long grind. He worked two jobs concurrently, one to pay his family’s bills, the other to build a bakery fund, and he bought used kitchen equipment one piece at a time, stowing them away until he could outfit his own operation. He finally opened his first Henry’s Bakery & Deli in a battered old storefront on St. Claude Avenue in 2004, long before that commercial stretch began to see its current redevelopment momentum. But with a menu of New Orleans flavor touchstones and the proprietor’s own perpetually warm welcome, the bake shop quickly won a loyal following. That included the filmmakers in town working on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” who encouraged Henry’s first audition.
Henry later moved the business to the Seventh Ward, changing the name to the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café, where he now serves his baked goods and breakfast dishes. At the new Wink’s, the bakery case is augmented by a small lunch menu of po-boys and pot cooking.
Movie posters decorating the walls tell the tale of Henry’s film career to date, and he readily shares stories from his experiences on the set with fans and well wishers who drop by for a buttermilk drop and a brush with homegrown celebrity. These stories, however, always have a way of coming full circle to his bakery.
“Being in that first movie was life changing, but it didn’t change who I am,” Henry said. “I’m still the same person and that’s a person goes to work, loves what he’s doing and builds something for his family.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.