If you love desserts and have dined at any of the City Grocery Restaurant Group’s establishments, you’ve had the pleasure of sampling the work of local chef Dwayne Ingraham. Dwayne designs and creates all of the sweet servings for John Currence’s joints, and he recently added Food Network Competitor to his résumé. Dwayne won has won Oxford’s Favorite Dessert in the Local Favorites Awards in both 2013 and again in 2015 for Snackbar.
Growing up on the Gulf of Mexico way down in Boothville, Louisiana (southeast of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish), Dwayne’s family did a lot of home cooking. Squeamish around the slaughter of wild game common in his family’s traditions, Dwayne admits that he is a picky eater. No wild game or seafood (other than fried catfish or redfish), he sticks to the basics with savory food. When it comes to baking, though, it’s another story.
“I’ve always liked to bake. I remember growing up with my mother and my grandmother baking pound cakes and sweet potato pies,” he said, “and those types of things were really what I enjoyed the most.” When Dwayne decided to go to culinary school, naturally he gravitated towards the baking and pastry program. “Then, after I made my first croissant dough,” he said, “that was it, I just knew. It’s so precise.”
Harnessing his picky and meticulous nature, he attended the New England Culinary Institute, followed by internships in Florida and finally, Las Vegas, where he was working when he landed his current position as Corporate Executive Pastry Chef in June of 2010.
Working for John Currence is challenging. “Mainly because he expects a lot, which is not a bad thing,” Dwayne said. “I started at City Grocery, then John [said] ‘let’s toss in Snackbar’ … and before you knew it there was Lamar Lounge, Bouré, the catering, anything sweet that happens. My staff has grown by one person, and he still expects that same standard and dedication.”
Even amidst the full responsibilities he has taken on, Dwayne isn’t complaining at all. He has a lot of work space at the Main Event kitchen, which is equipped with just about everything he could ever need.
“You know, my life is good; [John Currence] gave me a creative freedom that maybe most places wouldn’t give me. Like I said, it’s truly mine, my ideas. And he spoils me. He bought this lovely ice cream machine; he put a walk-in freezer out back because I was [asking for one]. So there’s a give and take and it’s been a great experience.”
Currence has also been very supportive of Dwayne’s participation on Cutthroat Kitchen. Dwayne said that he was initially a bit worried when the casting team approached him, but he said that John was excited for him. After the tedious process of filling out applications and doing interviews for the show, when he finally found out that he was selected for an episode, he was definitely nervous. “It’s crazy, I tell people that all the time. You could end up cooking with a lawnmower; you never know what you’re going to end up doing. It’s pretty intense, so I was terrified.”
To sum up the concept of the culinary game show, a quick glance at the web site reveals:
“Just how far is a chef willing to go to win a cooking competition? Cutthroat Kitchen hands four chefs each $25,000 and the opportunity to spend that money on helping themselves or sabotaging their competitors. Ingredients will be thieved, utensils destroyed and valuable time on the clock lost when the chefs compete to cook delicious dishes while also having to outplot the competition. With Alton Brown as the devilish provocateur, nothing is out of bounds when money changes hands and we see just how far chefs will go to ensure they have the winning dish.”
The competition can get quite outlandish, so each episode positively boils with drama. Filmed in L.A. last August, Dwayne recalls, “Filming was tough! Everyone wants to have a show on the Food Network, but that is a lot of work. We got in there at 6:30 that morning and I didn’t make it back to the hotel until 8:30 or 9:00 that night. So it was a very long day.”
After the main competition, challengers return the next day for a grueling three-hour follow up, in which they film the confessional portions of the show. In addition to testing the chefs’ abilities in the kitchen, the show also demands a bit of theatrical flair.
“You have to be a bit of an actor to an extent,” Dwayne said. “They were up front about that. They say, ‘Look, your cooking talent got you here, we all know that you can cook. Now you’re here to make TV.’ ”
The “devilish provocateur,” Alton Brown, is also a graduate of The New England Culinary Institute, and perhaps the school’s most famous alumnus. “I was very excited to meet him because I felt we had a common ground,” said Dwayne. “But, he was really busy that day. We didn’t really have much chance to chit chat.”
Dwayne did make some lasting friendships on set, however. He said that he still keeps in touch with two of the other contestants and is grateful for the experience.
While looking forward to the air date of his Cutthroat Kitchen episode, Dwayne keeps himself busy creating delicious desserts for CGRG, including new menus every six weeks for City Grocery and Snackbar. His creative process is to begin with the seasons.
“I try to think about what’s going to be available to me this time of year,” he said. “Then from there, I’ll start to think about what flavors I want to work with, and what profiles I can play together with. Once that’s accomplished I think about what type of technique I want to go with. Do I want to serve it in mousse form, cake form, ice cream? Then I keep building those blocks until I have something.”
Once approved by Chef Currence, the final dessert menus that appear at these restaurants represent Dwayne’s creative vision. And as an artist, he plans to continue to challenge himself and move forward with his craft.
Dwayne lives near Water Valley with his long time partner, Jeffrey Butler. Don’t miss him on Cutthroat Kitchen Sunday, February 8th at 9 pm. And keep an eye out for him in the future, he may just have more sweet surprises up his chef coat sleeve!
Dwayne Ingraham, Corporate Executive Pastry Chef, City Grocery Restaurant Group
Where are you from? Boothville, Louisiana
How did you get into cooking? Baking with my mother and grandmother.
What is the best thing about your job? Creative freedom
Who is your favorite cook/chef? Elizabeth Falkner
What kitchen tool/utensil could you not live without? Off-set spatula
What is your favorite flavor combo? Banana and chocolate
Name three items in your fridge: Eggs, Fruit Punch, Beer
Where do you get your best recipe ideas? I start with the seasons and what I can find locally.
What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten? My great-grandmother’s fig preserves and biscuits.
What is the weirdest meal you’ve ever eaten? Black Bear Hamburgers
Personal specialties: Ice Cream
Favorite midnight snack: cereal
Favorite kitchen music: 90’s country
Who would you most like to cook for and what would you prepare? Elizabeth Falkner, deconstructed S’more.
Where do you like to dine in Oxford? Lamar Lounge and Pick Thai
Favorite restaurant in the world: Citizen Cake (San Francisco)
Aspirations: I want to own my very own dessert and wine bar.
This article was originally printed in The Local Voice #221 (printed January 22, 2015.)
To download a PDF of this issue, click here.