At age twenty, the only cooking Jeff Henderson knew was to make crack cocaine. Some 10 years later, he had learned to cook dishes worthy of fine dining restaurants with a skillset that rivaled any culinary school grad’s.
Henderson tells his story in his autobiography Cooked. Henderson was one of many at-risk kids growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s. He came into a life of petty crime at a young age; in his teens, he was taken under the wing of a drug dealer, who mentored him in the world of drug trafficking. Henderson quickly rose from peddler to cocaine dealer, making a name for himself in the trade and making hundreds of thousands of dollars per week.
It all came to a crashing end when, at twenty-four, Henderson was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to twenty years in federal prison. He spent his time in lockdown in reflection and self-discovery, and discovered a passion for cooking. Using his penchant for learning and perfection that made him a success in drug dealing, Henderson learned how to cook and rose through the ranks of prison kitchens, eventually heading a kitchen in a Las Vegas penitentiary. After his release, Henderson again worked his way up through the kitchens, this time in gourmet restaurants and five star hotels under the tutelage of some of southern California’s best chefs, acquiring skills and knowledge often learned only in culinary schools. The ex-con cook eventually landed the executive chef position at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas – the first for an African-American – and later at the Bellagio.
Cooked is an entertaining and engaging read. The intriguing rise-and-fall-and-redemption story also gives perspective into the personality of a working chef. Henderson shows – at least for the non-schooled chef – the kind of drive and dedication needed to succeed in the culinary world. In doing so, he gives a glimpse into what goes on in the kitchens of fine dining restaurants: The competition, politics and reasons for the high turnover.
Cooked is not just the story of the rise of a great culinary talent, but a redemption story. As Henderson sees his true potential and realizes the harm he has brought to his community, he aspires to become himself a better man. It’s not an easy journey, as he often falls back on his “street” habits to earn respect in competitive kitchens. But Henderson transforms from a man in pursuit of ill-gotten gain to a man who earns respect – despite his past – through a pursuit of excellence in the kitchen.
Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, From Cocaine to Foie Gras and the cookbook Chef Jeff Cooks are available through PINES. Ask a librarian for assistance.
Learn more about Chef Jeff Henderson and his activities at his website.
Read or view an interview from the Tavis Smiley talk show.
Try some of Chef Jeff’s recipes from the Good Morning, America website.