Aug. 15, 2015 – Jason Henderson (’96 B.S. fisheries science) creates recipes, supervises a test kitchen, and travels around the country demonstrating fish cookery for the media — all part of his job as vice president of product innovation and head chef for Captain D’s, a regional seafood restaurant chain.
How did he land this fine job? By following his interests. “I didn’t have a master plan,” said Henderson, who grew up in Blacksburg. “I got my first job as a teen because I liked the Hobby Shop’s comic books. The owner put me downstairs, with the aquariums. I got to know recirculating water systems pretty well.”
Henderson was lured into Virginia Tech’s fisheries program after visiting its aquaculture lab, where he recognized familiar recirculating systems. After graduation, while pondering his next move, he worked at Gillie’s Restaurant downtown. In fact, he created a smoked salmon pasta entrée, “Smoked Henderson,” that still appears on the menu.
Henderson realized he liked cooking fish as much as raising them, so he studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. For the next several years he traveled — he cooked in Germany, prepared French food at Disney’s Epcot Center, worked as a seafood broker, and helped the U.S. military establish restaurants at bases around the globe.
He then worked as a research and development chef for Applebee’s and AMC Theaters before joining the management team at Captain D’s three years ago. The chain, based in Nashville, has 510 restaurants, mostly in the Southeast. He also served as president of the International Corporate Chefs Association.
Henderson is glad to be concentrating on fish. Although many Americans may not yet recognize all the health benefits of seafood, he sees a big potential for growth in fish consumption. “Eating seafood twice a week reduces your risk of dying from heart disease by 36 percent,” he said, citing statistics from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.
Captain D’s serves a mix of wild-caught and farm-raised fish, and Henderson vouches for the quality of all the fish, much of it Alaskan pollock. The restaurants also use regionally farmed catfish, tilapia, white fish, and shrimp. “We’re known for our battered fish,” Henderson said. “People in the Southeast also like things breaded in cornmeal and fried, with a bit of Cajun spice.”
But Captain D’s customers also like variety, and this keeps Henderson and his staff busy experimenting with the likes of parmesan encrusted tilapia, lobster bites, and grilled fish with rosemary sugarcane dressing or Bourbon glaze. The company’s new “D-Lite Meals” feature five meals under 500 calories, sparking a 25 percent increase in grilled menu items.
And when something new appears on the menu, it’s often promoted on table-tent cards bearing Henderson’s picture. With his media appearances, cooking demos, and his family-friendly foods like Crab Bites and Funnel Cake Stix, Henderson has become an integral part of the friendly face of Captain D’s.