Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stoveby Jeff Henderson (Narrated by)
Jeff Henderson was just another inner-city black kid born into a world of poverty and limited options, where crime seemed to provide the only way to get out. Raised mostly by his single mother, who struggled just to keep food on the table, Jeff dreamed big. He had to get out and he soon did by turning to what so many in his community did: dealing drugs. But Jeff was no ordinary drug dealer; by twenty-one, he was one of the top cocaine dealers in San Diego, making up to $35,000 a week. Two years later he was indicted on federal drug trafficking charges and sentenced to almost twenty years in prison. Before he knew what had hit him, he was looking at spending most of his life behind bars. The street life had been the only one he'd ever known and even incarcerated he was too hardheaded to realize that no good would come of it.
That is, until he was assigned to one of the least desirable prison jobs: washing dishes. That job helped turn his whole life around. It gave him access to the prison kitchen and he became fascinated watching his fellow prisoners cook for the thousands of other inmates and prison officials. Henderson learned to cook in prison. Not cocaine, but food. And his dream was born: Once outside, he would become a chef.
It was a tough, seemingly impossible journey for an ex-con. Few chefs would give him the opportunity to cook in their restaurants. And once hired, he endured racism and sabotage in the kitchen. But Henderson refused to accept rejection. Driven by a dream and an unshakable will to succeed, Chef Jeff worked hard to overcome unimaginable adversity and eventually reached the top of his profession, becoming executive chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Alive with the energy of the streets, the sober reality of prison, and the visceral thrill of being inside the fast-paced kitchens of great restaurants, Cooked is an intense, intimate tale of crime, punishment, and redemption -- a deeply poignant story of how the worst wrong can lead to the most extraordinary right.
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CookedFrom the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras
By Jeff Henderson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Jeff Henderson
All right reserved.
Six Courses in Sixty Minutes
By 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 upas soon as I told them I had spent time in federal prison for drug trafficking.
On the outside, I was what was acceptable for 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 bullshit, 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 schoolkids about how crack had been destroying our community since back when I was just a schoolkid 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 prizefights with Louis Vuitton bags full of cash. We gambled thirty Gs 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 fourteen 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 prizefighters. 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 motherfucker 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 fucking 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 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.
Excerpted from Cooked by Jeff Henderson Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Henderson. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Award-winning chef Jeff Henderson made history in Las Vegas when he became the first African-American executive chef at the world-renowned Bellagio Hotel. In fall 2008, his own TV show will debut on the Food Network and his first cookbook, Chef Jeff Cooks, will also be published. Chef Jeff lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Stacy, and their three children.
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