Dwight Henry at the Sundance Film Festival. All photos by Jess Pinkham
The first time I heard about Dwight Henry, the baker and actor, was in a text message four years ago. “Have you ever had a buttermilk drop?” my friend, Michael Gottwald, asked. After a few minutes had passed and I had not responded, he followed up with a thorough, “If you’ve never been to the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café, you have to go!!!”
The insertion of the third exclamation point was well deserved. The truth was I had a been a few times—it was the only place in New Orleans that had managed to revive the New Orleans buttermilk drop, a deep-fried donut that looks like a giant teardrop that happily cried into a fryer. If you’ve never tasted one, it’s crispy on the outside, but sweetly soft like a pound cake inside. It’s always glazed with an icing that magically, or scientifically, coagulates when it hits the piping hot “drop,” becoming a translucent, sweetly coated veil for the whole thing. Its true selling point comes into play if and when you accidentally leave it in the backseat of your car for an entire day—it remains perfectly crispy and structurally sound whenever you rediscover it.
At the time of Michael’s text message, I was living in New Orleans working as a line cook in a kitchen in the French Quarter that lacked air conditioning, the kind of environment where sugary food items were the only trick to not blacking out on the line. Michael was busy producing his first feature film, _Beasts of the Southern Wild, _and his office was conveniently located across the street from Dwight’s bakery, the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café.
Trailer for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Fast forward to 2014 and Dwight Henry has transformed from a 20-year veteran baker into a breakout Hollywood movie star who continues to straddle both worlds. Rewind your television calendar to the Oscars last year, and you’d catch Dwight on the red carpet alongside his pint-size co-star Quvenzhané Wallis, where Beasts of the Southern Wild had been nominated for four Academy awards. In the film, Dwight plays the role of Wink, the hot-tempered father to six-year-old Hushpuppy in a fictional southern delta community known as “the Bathtub” at the edge of the world. Since Beasts of the Southern Wild, Dwight has landed roles as Uncle Abram in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Marvin Gaye Senior in the upcoming Sexual Healing.
The Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café
With my knowledge of Michael Gottwald's overall confectionery addiction and frequent visits to the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Café, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the charismatic Dwight was offered the role of Wink from behind his bakery counter. Both novices to acting, Quvenzhané and Dwight were discovered by Court 13, the independent collective of filmmakers co-founded by Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin. But after Benh and Michael offered him the part, Dwight turned the roll down three times because he didn’t want to gamble with his children’s future.
Between his hectic movie schedule and baker’s hours—you can still often find him at the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café during the graveyard shift—Dwight’s expanding his baking enterprise. There are two additional Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café locations expected to launch in New Orleans and another café in Harlem.
This week, Dwight is in New York for both film and bakery matters, so I met up with him to check-in on the progress of his upcoming Harlem bakery that’s tentatively going to be called “Mr. Henry's.” Owned by Dwight and Richie Notar, the New York location is going to be a New Orleans–style café that will serve his famous buttermilk drops and other New Orleans staples like gumbo. According to Dwight, it’s currently just “a matter of construction and some final paperwork” before the Harlem café will open.
When we sit down to have a chat, we discuss some of the secrets behind his technique for making buttermilk drops. Dwight tells me that he had his first encounter with all things gluten during his junior year of high school, when his older brother worked at Rising Sunrise Bakery, the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood hub for freshly baked French bread in pre-Katrina New Orleans. He watched the muscle memory of the bakers at work, rhythmically stretching the dough against the surface of the flour-dusted counters. With his brother’s help, he landed a job there, where he was taught how to create classic New Orleans baked goods like pistolettes and muffaletta bread.
Baking takes patience, focus, and a tolerance for working long hours when most people are sleeping. This is the same reason why I have never become a baker. When many New Orleanians were out drinking themselves into a hangover at midnight, Dwight was fastidiously working on proofing his dough. By 6 AM when the bakery opened, he’d already rolled out the dough, deep-fried the donuts, and prepared his café items like smothered pork chops or po’ boys for daily service. For Dwight, “Things have to be so precise, or else you have to throw it in the trash. You have to take your time with it.”
When McKenzie’s—the bakery chain known for first creating the buttermilk drop in New Orleans—shuttered in 2000 from a scary health department report, a group of local investors purchased the company hoping to recalibrate the business. Originally, there were 49 locations. The revival resulted in bankruptcy, when the McKenzie's name and its formulas were sold off to Tastee Donuts, a longtime rival. Dwight, who grew up on buttermilk drops, noticed a serious opportunity. “You leave a void in the industry, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see a hole that you can fill,” he says.
But when McKenzie’s closed, Dwight was working two jobs—at a donut shop and Southern Hospitality Catering Company—when he began to collect used bakery equipment from advertisements in the newspaper. Every last tool, mixer, and whisk began to consume his grandmother’s garage over the course of the next three years. He opened the Buttermilk Drop Café & Bakery in 2004 shortly before Katrina hit. When the storm destroyed the space, he was forced to close until he was able to relocate to St. Claude Avenue in 2009, which was directly across the street from Court 13 headquarters at the time. The bakery has since relocated to the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans.
Even though the fame machine can often influence the ego with the rollercoaster of success, Dwight continues to tread forward between his acting roles and a grounded approach to reality. “I still pinch myself when I see people come into my bakery. I am blessed and very thankful for everything that I have.”
Like musician Mark Ibold of the band Pavement (who’s been known to bartend when he’s not on tour), in terms of his dedicated work ethic, Dwight explains that he will never give up baking in this lifetime, no matter how busy his acting career can become. “It’s difficult managing both acting and baking now, but it’s all about teamwork. I’m surrounding myself by competent, wonderful people who are helping me manage both industries,” he says.
He’s also working on producing buttermilk drops for online shipping so that he can provide them to customers all over the world. “You can mention Café Du Monde anywhere in the world, and 95 percent of the tourists that arrive to New Orleans are going to make that their first food stop in the city. I want the Buttermilk Drop Café & Bakery and my buttermilk drops to be as popular as the beignets at Café Du Monde.”
When I ask if any of his diet-conscious co-stars like Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor have gotten hooked on his deep-fried confections, Dwight smiles. He politely divulges that both Steve McQueen and Quvenzhané are addicted to the buttermilk drops. He starts laughing and tells me that more than any other customer, “that Michael Gottwald, man, he is a buttermilk drop fiend. It’s almost an addiction with him.”
We start talking about tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony, and I ask him if he ever intends to retire from the baking business. “You can ask Benh Zeitlin or anyone in Court 13. When I’m picked up for something movie related in a limousine, I’m picked up at the front door of the Buttermilk Drop, and I get dropped off at the front door of the Buttermilk Drop. That’s my baby, and it always will be my baby, so I’m never going to let it go.”