The Confined Chef

The Confined Chef

Catering business opens retail location behind a King Street flower shop.

Charlene Dantzler-Henry beams with pride as she invites people into her commercial kitchen, which is larger than the cooking space one might find on an aircraft carrier yet much smaller than the standard commercial kitchens. The room 9-foot-by-10-foot room has a window that overlooks the intersection of West Street and King Street, filling the room with light that radiates from the stainless steel surfaces.

"A good chef likes confinement," said Dantzler-Henry, owner of Catering by Charlene. "They want everything right where they are."

Without a doubt, everything is right next to Charlene Dantzler-Henry in her compact 250-square foot retail space, part of a growing trend of caterers who open retail locations. Dantzler-Henry calls her establishment a "food bar," a place that can act as the headquarters for her 20-year-old catering service, as well as a Nantucket-inspired retail location for customers to buy what she calls "gourmet food to go." Her original tagline was "home-style cooking for your kitchen," but she said she had to change it because it left the impression that she specialized in Southern cuisine.

"My food does not taste like catered food," she said. "But my style is American regional cuisine, not Southern cooking. So I changed the sign to say gourmet food to go."

A NATIVE of Uniontown, Pa., Dantzler-Henry received an undergradute degree in design from the Atlanta School of Design before moving to Washington to be near family members. Like many young people fresh out of school, she took a job in the food-service industry. But she fell in love with food, discovering a lifelong passion that led her to launch her own catering business more than 20 years ago. Since that time, Catering by Charlene has blossomed into one of Alexandria’s most prominent catering services.

"There really is no menu," said sous chef Billy Baker as he pounded a chicken last week. "With this job, there’s always something different every day you do it."

The service has catered events at the United States Capitol, Mount Vernon Estate, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Lee-Fendall House, the Carlyle House as well as a wide assortment of Washington’s power elite. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi likes bitter chocolate — the darker the better — and she will head for the desert tray before eating the main course. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) is a meat-and-potatoes eater who tends to avoid vegetables. And Sen. John Warner is a sucker for a crabcake. But don’t ask her about the conversation she overheard during last night’s cheese course.

"In this business, you are only as good as your last job," said Dantzler-Henry. "But people have got to eat. So this is much more stable than a software retailer or a clothing store."

THE TINY SPACE now occupied by Charlene’s Kitchen was once the office and storeroom of K Aubrey Flowers, a longtime retailer in the 1400 block of King Street. Owner Kevin Aubrey knew that Dantzler-Henry was looking for a retail space to expand her catering service, so he suggested that she consider moving into the back of his flower shop. Blueprints were drawn, applications were submitted and public hearings were scheduled. At one point, Dantzler-Henry found herself purchasing an $850 trash can before her special-use permit could be approved.

"I was looking to reduce my overhead, and she was looking for space," said Aubrey, who is a fan of Dantzler-Henry’s grilled shrimp. "So it was kind of a light-bulb moment."

The caterer used her design background to craft a retail space inspired by New England clapboard houses that creates a quaint environment to sell takeout food and gourmet items. Customers can order meals packaged with jars of honey and packages of scones that arrive in distinctive environmentally friendly bags. And they can buy cooking supplies, such as the brand of champagne vinegar she uses to make her lemon sauce. In the future, she plans to open a bed-and-breakfast in Pennsylvania and write a cookbook of her recipes. For now, though, she is waiting for one of the many foodie television show to feature her streamlined kitchen.

"I’m waiting for one of Paula Deen’s sons to come in here and discover me," said Dantzler-Henry. "I would say I’m like Barefoot Contessa in many ways, except I talk faster and I don’t have my own television show."