Chef Jeff Henderson didn't pick up his stellar cooking skills at the Cordon Bleu in France.
He learned them in prison, where he served time for cooking up a very different kind of substance -- crack cocaine.
Growing up in the hardscrabble inner cities of California, Henderson turned to dealing drugs at an early age. He was caught when he was 23 and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.
Assigned to washing dishes in the prison's kitchens, Henderson learned to cook from his fellow inmates. When he got out, he relentlessly pursued his goal of being a top chef.
Despite pervasive racism and the stigma of being an ex-con, Henderson rose to the top of his profession and is now an executive chef at Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas.
"Cooked," Henderson's tell-all memoir, is a story of crime, redemption and a desire to make it big. Told in the gritty language of the streets Henderson grew up on, his story inspires all of us to hold on to the pursuit of our dreams.
Read an excerpt from Henderson's book below.
CHAPTER ONE: SIX COURSES IN SIXTY MINUTESBy the time I showed up in Las Vegas, I'd been looking for work for more than a month. I had busted my ass in the five years since my prison release, rising from dishwasher at a small restaurant to sous-chef at one of the most prestigious kitchens in L.A. I was on track toward running my own restaurant when a political kitchen battle suddenly left me begging for someone to give me a chance to start over. I hadn't been jobless this long since I'd left prison, and my prospects of landing a position hadn't been so bleak since then, either.
Every potential employer I met with seemed only interested in the fact that I was a convicted felon. They didn't care that I'd proven myself in some of L.A.'s best kitchens or that I really could cook. They definitely didn't care that I had a wife and two young children to support, and that I'd spent the last of our savings on a one-way ticket to the desert hoping to restart my career. A week into my search, every hotel on the strip had turned me down.
When I visited these properties, most of the people I interviewed with liked me. My cooking resume was impeccable, five stars across the board, but their enthusiasm had a way of drying up as soon as I told them I had spent time in federal prison for drug trafficking.
On the outside, I was what was acceptable for garage door repair las vegas a black man in corporate America: clean shaven, earring hole covered up; I even toned down my walk so that I wouldn't swagger and come off as ghetto during interviews -- I've got a pretty good stroll.
Still, it always came down to me being a felon. Everywhere I went, they gave me this smoke-and-mirrors bull--, telling me, "We'll call you when we're ready." At the Paris Hotel, they were introducing me to my staff before I told them about my criminal record. Then they told me to take a walk.
With potential employers, I always explained about my past: I was young, I made some mistakes, and I spent years regretting those mistakes. My criminal past was so far behind me that I regularly lectured school kids about how crack had been destroying our community since back when I was just a school kid myself. None of these execs were having it -- like I was the first ex-con who ever looked for work on the strip.
By the time I showed up at Caesars Palace, I was desperate.
Caesars was a place I knew well because I used to roll there when I was a dealer. Back in the day, no one knew how to cater to high rollers like Caesars. Me and my boys used to come up from California for all the prize fights with Louis Vuitton bags full of cash. We gambled 30Gs at a whop. And Caesars management? They loved our asses. We flew in and a limousine driver was holding up a sign at the airport for the "Henderson Group."
But "back in the day" was 14 years back already, and I didn't have any Louis Vuitton bags. I sure didn't have one full of cash.
The night before my Caesars interview, I snooped all over the hotel to put my game plan together. If I saw some cooks walk into the casino, I would roll up on them.
"Hey, how you doing?" I'd say. "My name's Jeff Henderson. Can I talk to you for a second? I'm thinking of moving up here. What's it like? What's the chef like?"
It was a reconnaissance mission. Since I'd have to prepare a tasting meal for the executive chef, I planned to base it on the foods he liked. I wanted to make my mark by showing up for the interview with the full menu in my briefcase. So when he says, "Hey, this is nice," he doesn't know that I've already been on his property eating his food. The cooks tell me he likes Italian, so I go to the Caesars Italian restaurant, Terrazza, and have the Veal Milanese. I even chatted up some of the hostesses to get a feel for the hotel politics.
By the time I walked into the man's office, I was comfortable, confident. It was a huge room decorated from one end to the other with Roman-style artifacts, the walls covered with pictures of prize fighters. The man behind the desk was a smooth middle-aged Italian from New York with black hair slicked straight back.
And here I was, this black mother-- in a $150 Brigard chef's coat made of Egyptian cotton. I went right into my hard sell, telling him that I was ready to go to work on the spot. I told him straight up: "Look, Chef, I've done some time. I learned to run a kitchen in prison. But my resume speaks for itself."
I think he liked my aggressive approach. In Vegas, like in prison, you have to be tough to run a kitchen. If the cooks sense any sign of weakness, they'll run you over, tell you how to do your f-- job.
"Mr. Henderson," he said. "Did you ever kill anyone?"
"All right," he said. "I want you to cook me dinner on Friday. Write up a menu."
I opened my briefcase, showed him the menu I'd already typed up and brought along with me, and told him that instead of giving me the usual ninety-day probation period, just to give me a month.
"That won't be necessary," he told me. "Just cook me a tasting dinner garage door repair las vegas for six."
That tasting dinner would be a tryout for the food and beverage executives. Six courses in sixty minutes would decide my fate and the fate of my family. It would be the most important meal I ever cooked.
I remember I had my game face on, moving up and down the line in that sprawling kitchen like a general on the battlefield, flames roaring from my stove.
After I served them an amuse bouche that came out perfect -- a beautiful pan-seared U-10 diver scallop with a white truffle creamed corn sauce -- my confidence was high. They were impressed. My timing was on point as I was plating the first course, a microgreen and roasted-pear salad with gorgonzola. I knew I had them on the ropes as I plated the next course, Hudson Valley foie gras served with warm minted pineapple. That's when I realized my f-- foie gras had been sitting out for about thirty minutes and started to oversoften.
Two things you need to know about foie gras: It is incredibly expensive and absolutely unforgiving in its delicacy. Foie gras has the consistency of butter and can turn into a useless mush if left out in a hot kitchen. With a great piece of steak or even lobster, you can screw up and there are ways to cover it up so that no one will notice. That's not the case with foie gras. Just like when you're cooking cocaine, one miscalculation of heat can destroy your product.
With crack, if you don't babysit the pot and micromanage the process, a third of your yield can disintegrate. And with a kilo of cocaine selling for $14,500 wholesale, that is not an acceptable loss.
Back in the dry spell of '86, I couldn't afford to lose so much as a gram. I was twenty-one, and I had a lot of clients in San Diego counting on me to get them some work -- when I say "work," I mean make a buy. But all my connections in L.A. had dried up. Even my most reliable source, this pair of rich twin brothers, was sold out. But I knew some guys who owned a car dealership outside of Beverly Hills and I thought they might be able to hook me up.
All the black dealers would buy their high-end cars from those guys because they'd take care of the paperwork. Normally, we couldn't buy cars from a dealership because legit dealers -- car dealers -- had to report any cash transaction over $10,000 to the IRS. These guys, though, they'd hook it up to look like you were making payments.
I had my sister drive me out to see them. Skinny as a cigarette, we called her Cali Slims. She was my most trusted confidante, so I always took care of my sis. But I didn't want to give her money straight out. Instead, I paid her to drive for me -- $1,000 from San Diego to L.A. and back.
When I first approached the boys, they didn't want to deal with me. They still wanted to play it off like they didn't know what their cash customers did for a living. So I'm, like, "Listen. I need some work." I had to talk in circles for a while but finally they hooked me up with this Mexican dude by the name of Cholo.
What was happening was that all the Colombians kept getting busted, so they started to use Mexicans to run their blow into L.A. Now Cholo was real Rico Suave, but he wasn't intimidating. His crew, though, looked like some tough mother--.
Cholo wouldn't f-- with you unless you were buying ten birds or morewe always called kilos "birds," or "chickens," or "them things." Like I said, you had to be buying at least ten of them, and someone had to vouch for you. Cholo would have to talk to someone who told him I was cool, that I had sh-- sewn up and could have a lot of work. So I went back to L.A. to wait while the shady car dealers vouched for me.A few days later we had a meeting set up at a Denny's restaurant. I was getting ten birds at $14.5 Gs apiece. The money was in my Louis Vuitton: $145,000 in thousand-dollar packs of fifty and hundred dollar bills wrapped in rubber bands.
My clients were small dealers who paid me in everything from singles to twenties, but you don't f-- with small bills when you're buying bulk.
I knew this girl Paula who ran a check-cashing place. On the first and fifteenth of every month everyone would cash their welfare checks. The night before, I'd go to her crib and trade a hundred grand in singles, tens, and twenties for the clean fifties and hundreds that she had just gotten off the money truck. I'd kick her a little taste and my money would be clean. I'd have the crisp bills that were easier to make deals with, and her customers would get the money that my people had gotten off the streets. Of course, within a week, many of the customers of the check-cashing place would bring their county money back to our crack houses and we'd take that money right back to the white man, buying all the flashy s-- a hustler had to have. And, if we're caught, the DEA takes all our s-- and sells it back at auction. It's a f-- game.
Anyway, my sister and I are in the parking lot of this Denny's waiting on Cholo when this Mexican dude I'd never seen before rolls up beside us in a 300 ZX.
He says, "You looking for Cholo?"
"Yeah," I tell him, and I'm already starting to get nervous.
"Come with me," he says. I looked at my sister like, What the f--? At this point, I'm scared, but I don't want to b-- up, so I just get in his car. I was hoping my sister would take down his license plate.
For the next half hour this dude doesn't say s--, just drives me around, zigzagging through the hills so that I don't know how to get where we're going -- or back. Finally he pulls over next to this nice middle-class-looking residence and borrows my cell phone, this big-ass Motorola NEC that was heavy as f--. He speaks some Spanish, hands me back my phone, the garage opens up, and we roll in.
"You want ten?" Cholo says.
The weird s--- is, he doesn't pat me down for weapons or anything, just leads me into a family room, where I see his arsenal: a whole mother-- bunch of Mexicans. There must've been ten or twelve of them and I damn near pissed myself. I was a young, skinny, light-skinned youngster and it would've been easy for them to take me out or f-- me up.
Cholo points to a chair, goes "Sit down," and right about then I had to because my knees were about to start buckling. They count my money and Cholo opens up a closet full of kilos. There were at least two hundred birds up in there. You do the math.
To my relief, Cholo brings out ten kilos -- Peruvian pearl white, each brick with "Rolex" written across its wrapping in black marker. Rolex was good dope back then. They put the keys in a Foot Locker bag and the dude who'd driven me there gets up, saying, "Let's go."
"All right, Cholo," I said. "I'll get back at you."
"You gonna keep buying from me, right?"
"F-- yeah," I told him. "I'm gonna call you."
I was never coming back. I wanted to get back with my twins soon as s-- -- but first I wanted to get the f-- out of Cholo's place.
Back in San Diego, I dropped my sister at her crib and switched into my work vehicle, a white '85 Chevy Celebrity with burgundy interior -- a clean-cut car like your grandmother would roll in. I paged my boy Michael. He was going to buy four of my birds and I was going to teach him how to cook it.
Michael comes over, we drive down to the Safeway and I buy all their baking soda, maybe twenty big boxes, and most of their sixteen-ounce GladBags.
Then it was on to Kmart, where I bought three sets of Corning Ware Pyrex pots, because I wanted to cook three kilos at a time. Whenever I did a big cook, I'd buy all new equipment and throw it away when I was done. At the 7-11, we picked up fifteen bags of ice and headed over to the Motel 6 in Spring Valley. I already had my triple-beam scale in the trunk with the drugs.
I always cooked my dope in Spring Valley because for some reason all the hotels down there had four-burner stoves right across from the bathtub, where I'd cool down the dope. We brought all our stuff into the motel and chilled for a minute while I schooled Michael on the art of cooking dope. He was lucky that he had someone to teach him for free. I learned by looking over the shoulders of the Twins and L.A. Will, and then experimenting on my own. Other dealers were selling the recipe for thousands of dollars.
Once we'd finished the cook, we got on to weighing and bagging. It took a good two hours to bag up all those kilos. Then I started calling all my clients to let them know I'm in pocket. My cell phone and pager started blowing up and I was making drops all over the city. Everyone was calling in their orders.
When San Diego is dry and I'm the only one with an L.A. connection, I can charge anything I want, because I'm the only game in town.
My last drop was a guy by the name of Six-Six. He drove a candy apple red '66 Chevy Impala and he lived on the East Side. I was bringing him a kilo of hard.
Six-Six had a crack house on Fifty-fourth and Imperial, which was the crack Mecca of southeast San Diego in the mideighties. People came from all over to dump their stuff on that particular neighborhood -- Bloods, Crips, everyone. And everyone showed up there to score rock, from gangstas to suburban kids, hookers to lawyers.
My woman Carmen and me pulled up in the alley behind Six-Six's crack house, which was a whole strip of Section 8 apartments between two other crack houses. I sold a kilo of hard for $16,500 to customers who paid me up front, but Six-Six was buying on consignment so he'd end up paying an extra $2,000 in interest.
Carmen and me go up to his place, Six-Six puts on some music, I give him his key, and he gives me the $18,500 for the work I'd given him with another kilo. So there we are kicking it, listening to music and counting money. I'm just chilling for the first time in a week. I've made all my money back, plus the return. In a few days I'll have to go re-up again, start the whole cycle over, but for now I'm going to relax.
That's when a lot of pounding and noise outside started.
"S--!" Six-Six is yelling. "What the f--?"
I peek through the curtains and see mother-- in blue police task force jackets and 9 mm pistols busting in on the apartment across the way. I don't even have a chance to shout "It's a raid!" before I turn around and see Six-Six booking for the bathroom.
Six-Six was crouched over the toilet, tearing apart his key -- the one he still hadn't paid for -- and dumping every gram into the bowl. Carmen and me, our asses were out the side window.
I'm known to the police, so we split up.
Carmen takes the car and I take the money, running for the city bus. The sweat is streaming down my face and my heart's beating like f-- while I ride the bus toward home, wondering what happened to Six-Six.
It turned out they broke down his front door, but he was already out a side window and they never found any evidence of that kilo he flushed.
Even taking an $18,500 loss on that last key, I'd still come out too far ahead to b-- about it. I'd bought ten kilos of coke for $145,000, blown them up to fifteen kilos of crack, and sold fourteen of those at $16,500 each for a total of $231,000. In less than a week I'd made a profit of $86,000. And I was still a free man. That's what I called an acceptable write-off. But, in that business, nobody's luck holds out for long.
Staring down at the melting liver, I knew that its thin outer membrane might burn away the second it touched my hot saut pan, its contents oozing out as a shapeless mess to be thrown in the garbage. Even if the membrane somehow managed to hold, the foie was in such a vulnerable state that the whole thing would most likely overcook in seconds. I wouldn't be able to serve it. And it would take me too long to get a replacement course out to them. They'd know for sure that something wasn't right.
I was starting to lose my s--. I had to self-talk, change the presentation, disregard the course. I had to do something.
I paced the hot line, watching the execs and the other chefs eyeing me over their plates, thinking about how close I was to blowing my shot, about my wife and my two little kids back in L.A., waiting to hear if I'd found a job or not. I could almost hear the words coming out of my mouth, telling my wife that it was over. After all my years of hard work, all we'd gone through together, I'd failed. My dream was dead. I just couldn't do it; I couldn't skip the foie gras. It was the centerpiece of the whole meal. I had to go for it.
Everything was riding on this. I'd get one chance. The pan would have to be screaming hot. I'd have to slide the foie medallions in carefully and be ready to gently turn them almost immediately. One shot, my last shot.
Spooning a cube of butter into a saut pan, I added minted pineapple, brown sugar, and molasses, which I'd use to glaze my foie gras. In a cast-iron skillet I quickly sauted some pineapple and set it aside. Then, I got that skillet blazing hot and drizzled in an oil blend (60/40 vegetable oil to olive oil). Just before the oil started smoking, I carefully placed my foie into the pan. As I laid each piece down I immediately, gently, flipped each one. I had to seal each piece, so it wouldn't become mush. Seconds later, it was done. I glazed all of the pieces and plated them up.
The dish knocked everyone out. Even with another five courses to go, I had everything under control. I'd come a long--- way to cook dinner for these corporate boys.
The rest of the tasting was banging. After the foie gras came my fish course. I did oven-roasted striped sea bass with savoy cabbage and fingerling potatoes infused with chive olive oil. For my meat dish, I did filet mignon that was plated with caramelized onion on top of the meat and celeriac whipped potatoes (a potato puree blended with celery root puree).
The first dessert was strawberry and doughnut-peach soup. On the second dessert I gave them deep-fried banana fritters with warm caramel sauce and a vanilla bean milk shake.
They had probably never seen anything like me: a black man who could really cook. I think they were expecting some hack, but I gave them a meal they'd remember. They were blown away. Even the other cooks in the kitchen were impressed. As I packed up my knife kit, the chef came up to me and said, "Jeff, how long will it take you to report for work?"
I told him to give me a week to wrap things up in L.A.
When I left Caesars that night I was relieved. But that sense of ease and accomplishment started turning into anxiety as soon I started to think about my situation. I had pulled back from the edge, used my skills to resurrect my career. Caesars was offering me a great new beginning. But the pressure was still there: One misstep could quickly mark the end of everything I had been working so hard to achieve.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.