Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras

Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras

by Jeff Henderson


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061153907
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/20/2007
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras

Chapter One

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?"

"No, sir."

"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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this was such a good book. teaches you not to sell drugs and how to hustle in the work place.
sunfi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of an individual who is able to turn around his life. At a young age involved in petty crimes its only a matter of time before he's caught. As he grows older the crimes become less petty and more severe and so does the punishment. Finally being sent to prison, he's offered an opportunity to save his own life and the direction that he's headed. There is a message of redemption, making the right choices, and breaking of the "victim" mentality. To further the point he's become a public speaker, has won numerous awards and I think he even has a show on the Food Network.
manyalibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Henderson's life makes for a fascinating read. He cooked and sold crack in San Diego in the 1980s, made tons of money and ended up in federal prison. There, he discovered cooking. Now he's an executive chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He's brutally honest about his flaws and his accompliments will give anyone hope.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book for my cousin Greg who said, " Cooked was and is a prayer answered. I told God I needed a push and that's what Chef Jeff did for me. From his street life, to his prison life, told my story and I trust God once I'm out of here I'll have the drive, passion, zeal, determination and the tenacity to minister the word of God at a greater level than Chef Jeff had for cooking". BLSwann
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think this book is truly inspiring many people say the profanites ruin the story and i strongly disagree with that jeff henderson really shows his life and how it was on the streets and when he became a chef i thought that was amazing his whole story to get there i started off reading this book for a school project and when i started readimg this book i loved it and couldent get enough of it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a great story. Messages of tenacity, hope, endurance, passion, commitment, giving back and more!!!!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At first when going through reading the book I thought the book was very straight forword with drug references. I was kind of scared by the no remorse way he addressed certain street terms. but as I got into reading the book I notice that we a re similar in liking the things money can buy. Further on in the book I was enlightend by his changes he madein his life. Like how he was told to eliminate soul food from his way of thinking. And all the changs he went through at ayoung age all the woman an engagement such as limos and Vagas trips.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, I could not put it down, very inspring.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As cook new to the culinary field, I was turned on to Chef Jeff's book during a television talk show appearance. He was well-dressed and well-spoken. But when I began reading how he was turned on to a life of crime as an up-and-coming drug dealer in San Diego, I was quite shocked by his graphic descriptions and use of street slang and profanity. As I read on, I kept having to stop and take a look at his clean-cut picture that graces the cover to remind me that this was indeed his story. But make no mistake, his in-your-face take is completley by design as he gives the reader a vivid glimpse of his former self and the transformation he made to becoming the success he is today. His story is inspiring and shows that he has and is still working to redeem himself for his past sins. He ovecame a great deal to be where he is now and is living proof of what can happen when one takes full advantage of those rare second chances.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was moved by Henderson's story as seen on Oprah, but the book was disappointing. In the first ten pages I encountered twelve profanities which got in the way of an inspiring story. I couldn't get past the assault on my senses.