What Comfort Food Means to Me

Why Mercy Chefs founder Gary LeBlanc brings family favorites to the front lines

By: Gary LeBlanc

When I was growing up in Louisiana, my grandmother, mom, and aunt would make this homemade concoction called cherry bounce. I still have vivid memories of running through my nanny ’s backyard with my cousins to pick wild cherries for the special recipe.

Once we collected all the cherries our small hands could gather, we would rinse them and place them in an empty gallon bourbon bottle and cover them with sugar. After watching the cherries sit in the sugary stew for days that felt like months, I would watch as bourbon was poured over the mixture and it was put away to age to perfection. In my family, the cherry bounce was only pulled out for special occasions and gatherings, and it was reserved as a coveted cocktail ingredient to make a Manhattan or an old-fashioned.

The taste and ritual of making cherry bounce transports me back to childhood and those halcyon days picking cherries with my cousins. I created this recipe for Cherry Bourbon Barbecue Chicken in honor of my late grandmother, Nettie Butler Dore, whose backyard was home to the cherries we used to pick and whose spirit and love for cooking are in every bite.

For me, this dish is the epitome of comfort food, memorable dishes that make you recall your childhood, family, and close friends. It’s food that feels like a warm hug.

As the founder of Mercy Chefs, a nonprofit that serves restaurant-quality meals to victims and first responders of emergencies and natural disasters, I make sure that comfort food is at the heart of what we do. I started Mercy Chefs in 2006 during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The devastation hit incredibly close to home, and while volunteering, I saw the lackluster food that was being served to people who had just lost everything. In the years since, our mission at Mercy Chefs has been simple: Just go feed people.

We have fed more than 10 million people since Mercy Chefs star ted. No matter where we serve, our goal is to provide a meal that, for just a moment, will make the individual we are serving feel like things are going to be OK—meals just like this Cherry Bourbon Barbecue Chicken.

After a deployment to Tennessee following a tornado, we got a thank-you note in the mail that says it best. The writer shared: “We were without power for several days and greatly appreciated getting a hot meal. It is really more than a meal—somehow, it strengthens your soul and resolve.” Letters like that keep us going at Mercy Chefs. If a single meal can strengthen one person’s soul and resolve, then we can only imagine the impact of feeding millions.

I hope this Cherry Bourbon Barbecue Chicken finds a spot on your family’s table, and if it does, my wish is that it brings you a little comfort and gives you a chance to think of someone you love. The best kind of recipes always do, right?

Cherry Bourbon Barbecue Chicken
Makes 6 to 8 Servings
  • 1½ pounds dried cherries
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 2⅔ cups water, divided
  • ½ cup agave or honey
  • 8 ounces tomato paste
  • ¾ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons Cajun seasoning*, divided
  • 3½ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 1½ teaspoons ground black pepper, divided
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • Hot sauce, to taste
  • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  1. In a medium bowl, combine cherries and bourbon. Let stand for at least 4 hours. (Do not drain.)
  2. Preheat oven to 400°. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with foil. Spray with cooking spray.
  3. In a large saucepan, heat 2 cups water, agave, tomato paste, vinegar, molasses, liquid smoke, and almond extract over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar, 2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning, 1½ teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika. Add hot sauce to taste. Stir in cherries and bourbon. Bring to a low boil, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; let cool for 15 minutes.
  4. Working in batches, process cherry mixture in a blender until mostly smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape sides of container. Add remaining ⅔ cup water if mixture becomes too thick to blend. Using a spatula, press cherry mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl, discarding solids. Reserve 1½ cups cherry mixture. Set aside remaining cherry mixture to serve. (Refrigerate remaining cherry mixture for up to 2 weeks.)
  5. Pat chicken dry with paper towels; place on prepared pan. In a small bowl, combine remaining 2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning, remaining 2 teaspoons salt, and remaining ½ teaspoon pepper; sprinkle all over chicken. Brush both sides of chicken with reserved cherry mixture.
  6. Bake, skin side up, for 15 minutes. Brush top of chicken again with reserved cherry mixture. Bake until chicken is done, 20 to 25 minutes more. Serve with remaining cherry mixture.
*We used Tony Chachere’s.