Food Insider: Shane Henderson of Ben E Keith

With our Food Insider series, we typically try to bring the personalities from the kitchen out for people to get to know. Chances are unless you work in the food industry you have never come across Shane Henderson. If the kitchen is the behind the scenes portion of a restaurant, what Henderson does is even further removed from the public eye. Yet his position as food distributor Ben E Keith’s executive chef for the Midsouth division means he influences more dining out experience than any other chef in the state.

Over the past three or so years that I have known Shane I’ve watched him work with everyone from award-winning chefs to the smallest mom and pop restaurants in towns you have never heard of. He is frequently someone I personally rely on to keep track of the Arkansas restaurant industry outside of my immediate view.

Henderson, an Arkansas native, got his start in the culinary world in the early 2000’s at Ridge Point Country Club in Jonesboro after attending Johnson Wells Culinary School in Providence, RI. After spending a little time there he was encouraged to come to Little Rock to work.

“At the time if you were a chef anywhere in Arkansas you wanted to work in Little Rock,” Henderson says. “It was before the growth of the Northwest culinary scene and was where all the best chefs went.”

Henderson made the move, but it was a trip a few months later that would set his course in Little Rock.

“I got to take a trip to San Francisco with a bunch of chefs from Little Rock and that was when I met Rob Best (Simply the Best Catering),” Henderson says. “It was immediately after Katrina and Rob knew he would be busy. What started as just helping out for one day quickly turned the very next day into the start of working with Rob for several years.”

Henderson eventually left to help start Argenta Market alongside Joey Hardin, but his real dream job was on the horizon. Henderson and Rusty Mathis, Ben E Keith Midsouth General Manager, started to see a vision come together for what they could offer.

“Rusty and I had been talking about a position, and it was something I always wanted,” Henderson says. “One day Rusty comes to me and says if you want to make it happen, now is the time. I am not going to offer it again. So in September 2011, about a year and a half after we opened Argenta Market I made the move to Ben E. Keith.”

Henderson’s role over the past 10 years has been helping restaurants across the territory of Arkansas, and parts of Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi in the kitchen.

“The thing I like the most about this job is that I am not in a kitchen doing the same menu all the time,” Henderson explains. “I might be here one day doing pig breakdown training with people, and then another day this week I may be teaching someone how to make pizza. Next week I may be on the road in Monroe Louisiana helping someone create a new menu. Every day is a little bit different.”

The variable nature of the job is something few chefs get to experience. Even just my time with Shane we have cooked countless things from Ramen to pork rinds. I’ve sat with him as he has broken down pigs and we have visited a number of restaurants together.

The diversity is something that has helped him be even better.

“One of the cool thing is that I learn a little from all the people I work with. I had a hamburger shack in the middle of nowhere Mississippi and still managed to pick up some tricks I saw for the first time,” Henderson says. “The next day I might go work with a great chef like Rob Nelson and get to learn a lot of techniques and new products that I get to see for the first time. Then I get to spread that knowledge around and make the food industry as a whole better.”

It is a role that Ben E. Keith has allowed a great deal of freedom with as well, which helps Henderson focus on building up the food industry in a job he enjoys.

“The role is nice because I am not judged on sales. We offer up what I do as a service to the food industry and our customers, I am just here to help restaurants succeed, not buy our products,” Henderson explains. “There are days where I go in and work with a chef to use less ingredients and cross utilize products, something that ultimately means they are buying less. At the end of the day though it helps that place stay in business and that is always for the best.”

Henderson’s role should only grow once the new Ben E Keith facility opens early next year. The kitchen space is being designed around Henderson and will work much better as a teaching kitchen and allow for more demonstrations.

Next time you step foot in almost any restaurant across the state, from the most prestigious to the smallest, know that Shane Henderson has likely worked with their kitchen team at some point to help make them better.

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Food Insider: Shane Henderson of Ben E Keith