ALEXANDRIA, VA–As time moves on, we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month. As a black, female business owner, Charlene Dantzler-Henry is the perfect intersection of these two histories.
Founder and Owner of Charlene’s Kitchen, a catering company in Old Town, Charlene prides herself in her comforting American cuisine. Charlene lays down a plethora of dishes, but her favorite style of cooking is natural grilling. Charlene’s Social Media Director, Siena Manoogian, praises Charlene’s grill skills, “Anything she grills is the best. People interact and come up and talk about how great the smell is. It is the best time Charlene gets to interact with the community as well.”
Some of the community’s favorite dishes include Charlene’s lasagna, her mini BLT’s, ham biscuits, and overall comfort foods, which are appropriate year-round, but more so this year than ever.
Always fresh and sustainable, never made with any preservatives, Charlene’s catered culinary creations are finding popularity in Old Town after pivoting during the pandemic.
Charlene’s Kitchen has been operating just off of King Street for 15 years, but Charlene has always had a passion for food. When she was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania, she loved gardening. She moved to Virginia in 1980, and in the early 80s, headed up the kitchen at Chanterelle Caterers, a woman-owned business in Georgetown, where she got her start and love for catering. “I loved the food and the making… I just took it by storm,” says Charlene.
Charlene’s love for food expanded into a greater love when she married her husband in 1983 in the Alexandria Courthouse and moved here in 1984. They had their only daughter in 1987.
Charlene furthered her love for food by honing her culinary skills at the L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland in the early 1990s.
Charlene has been a business-owner for 40 years, but in 2005, she acquired her first and only brick and mortar location: Charlene’s Kitchen.
As a black, female business owner, Charlene has met—and still meets—many challenges every day, one of which being representation. “I think people always are shocked that it is a woman of color producing what I do,” Charlene states.
But Charlene’s challenges expand beyond her identity as a black, female business owner. The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic do not discriminate, so she defines herself in other ways. “My work itself speaks on its own. I don’t like to let people know that I am African American or that it’s a black owned business. Judge me on my food, judge me on my character, my professionalism, my respect in the culinary industry, that is all that needs to be judged.”
Charlene’s food, character, and professionalism certainly do speak for themselves, as she has traversed one of the most difficult years for restaurants in our known lifetime. She explains, “We are even more creative now than what we were before,” offering corporate catering, small dinners for two, curbside pickup, and implementing Instagram and Facebook.
“I consider myself very detail-oriented and very passionate about what I do. I am even more so now, and more caring of that small closeness.” That smallness and closeness is so representative of Alexandria. This last year, especially, where small businesses have been struggling, has seen countless people come together to do what they can.
“Putting together a family closeness has brought everyone to the kitchen table,” concludes Charlene.
As we enter the 1-year-anniversary- of the quarantine era, the residents of Alexandria, business-owners and patrons alike, are a constant reminder of the importance of good food and good family.