Lewis Butler, executive chef at Henry’s Coastal Cuisine in Huntington Beach, has been leading prominent kitchens in Orange County for years. His culinary history includes 11 years overseeing the program at the now-shuttered private Center Club in Costa Mesa.
We met prior to that gig, 15 years ago when he was executive chef at the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach. It was there that I asked him to teach me how to make his irresistible mixed greens with butternut squash dressing that was sprinkled with chorizo dust. I used the recipe in a Thanksgiving story I was writing.
I was wowed by his talent and charmed by his generosity. His flavor-forward dishes made me hungry when reading the descriptions on his menu; they brought no disappointments on the plate. Years later when I heard that he was invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City, I wasn’t surprised.
Born in Ottawa, Canada, he spent his teenage years in England at his parents’ bed and breakfast, washing dishes and assisting in the kitchen. The breakfast fare was traditional: fried toast, grilled tomatoes, fried eggs, and not-crisp streaky bacon.
An event in high school devoted to rooting out students’ future careers brought out his somewhat tepid enthusiasm for cooking. A year of cooking at school solidified his culinary path, turning that lukewarm love into straightforward joy. He went on to earn diplomas in cooking and management for the catering industry from Somerset College of Arts and Technology in England. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts welcomed him, and he began an 18-year journey, working at eight Four Seasons properties internationally. He knew when he walked into that kitchen for the first time, it was a good fit because everything was made from scratch.
He joined me in my home kitchen to share the secrets to preparing his tempting brunch dish, sweet potato waffles with Japanese-style fried chicken and maple garlic syrup. The waffles, crisp on the outside and delightfully chewy on the inside, were augmented with roasted, mashed sweet potato, a twist that added color and earthiness. Atop the waffles, Karaage chicken offered a perfectly delicious crunch. The marinated Japanese-style fried chicken was dredged with a mix of potato flour and togarashi before it was fried crisp in canola oil. The togarashi—a mix that includes a tasty blend of chile, dried orange zest, and sesame seeds—contributed a spark of spicy heat, subtle acidity, and richness.
To finish, after a small sprinkle of togarashi, slender threads of green onions made a crown on top of the chicken; the onion slivers had been soaked in ice water to make them perky and then were patted dry. A dusting of powdered sugar was followed by a drizzle of garlic-infused pure maple syrup and a smidgen of baby cilantro.
He lives in Rancho Santa Margarita with his wife and two daughters, 8 and 11. His daughters’ favorites include his creamed corn and crepes, but I’m pretty sure they would love these waffles. The recipe follows, but if you prefer, you can find the dish on the brunch menu at Henry’s Coastal Cuisine. Either way, it is treasure.
Few Know: I’ve run in the Boston Marathon twice—to keep fit and my mind sharp.
Drink of Choice: A dry Tanqueray gin martini, up, with a lemon twist.
Best Chef Advice: While at the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta: You need to keep your eyes and ears open to learn about life and people, not just about the trade, but about life lessons.
Collections: Lots of cookbooks, including a couple written by Charlie Trotter. They are old, but many of the dishes look vibrant and new.
Restaurant Fave: Arc Food & Libations in Costa Mesa, where the grill is the star.
Secret Talent: I play the guitar and try to add something that I make up on my own to songs.
More Underrated Ingredients: Salt—it brings depth, even pastries need salt. And oil—to make components crisper and richer.
Best Luxury: Meeting people and eating out with them. Not necessarily fine dining because kids want something that they are craving.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”
Sweet Potato Waffles with Japanese-Style Fried Chicken and Maple Garlic Syrup
Yield: about 4 servings
Make-Ahead Waffle Batter:
- 1 large, sweet potato, baked, removed from skin, mashed with fork
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided use
- 2 1/2 cups warm whole milk (about 110 degrees)
- 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 stick butter, melted, cooled
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- Marinade for Chicken:
- 1 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
- 1 cup mirin
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled, crushed
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoon granulated sugar
- Chicken: 1/2 pound boned, skinned chicken thighs
- Chicken Batter:
- 4 cups potato flour or potato starch
- 1/2 cup togarashi
- Salt and pepper to taste
For frying: canola oil
For lightly spraying waffle iron: nonstick spray
Garnish: Make-Ahead Maple Garlic Syrup (see cook’s notes)
Garnishes: powdered sugar, sliced green onion, and micro cilantro
Cook’s notes: To make Maple Garlic Syrup, combine 4 peeled and smashed garlic cloves with 1 1/2 cups pure maple syrup. Marinate in refrigerator 2 to 4 hours and strain out garlic.
- Waffles: Set peeled and mashed sweet potato aside to cool. In a medium-large bowl, mix about half of the flour and all the yeast together. Stir in some of the milk to make a wet batter; cover and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes in a warm spot to rise. Stir in remaining ingredients, including sweet potato, remaining flour, and milk. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Chicken: One to 24 hours before cooking chicken, prepare marinade and marinate chicken. Combine soy sauce, mirin, crushed garlic, ginger, and sugar; add chicken and marinate, covered in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight.
- Prepare chicken “batter” to generously coat chicken. In medium bowl, combine potato starch or potato flour, togarashi, salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Heat 2 inches of canola oil to 375 degrees in large, deep skillet or Dutch oven. (Have a look at the video to see the fry-bread trick if you don’t have a thermometer.) Dip each chicken thigh in “batter” coating all sides. Place in heated canola oil and fry about 4 minutes on each side to 165 to 170 degrees. Drain on plate lined with paper towels.
- Spray waffle iron lightly with nonstick spray. Heat waffle iron and cook waffles until they are crisp on outside but chewy on the inside.
- Cut waffles into quarters. Intersperse waffles quarters with chicken on 4 plates. Top each with a sprinkle of togarashi, some green onion slivers, powdered sugar, and a drizzle of garlic syrup.
Source: Lewis Butler, executive chef, Henry’s Coastal Cuisine at the Waterfront Hilton, 21100 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach