Convicted drug dealer learned to cook in prison
By Anonymous Saturday, April 28, 2007, 01:47 AM EDT
He was making as much as $35,000 a week. He owned a large view house and eight cars, including a custom Mercedes 500 SEC convertible.
But 20 years later, as the executive chef of Las Vegas' Cafe Bellagio, Henderson is enjoying a different kind of fame. His gripping memoir of his drugs-to-dishes journey, "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, From Cocaine to Foie Gras" (William Morrow, $24.95), made The New York Times best-seller list. In recent weeks, he has been interviewed by Tavis Smiley, Montel Williams and Oprah.
Two hours after Oprah aired, Henderson found himself in a limousine. "They had a driver swoop me up and take me to Will Smith," Henderson said. "He was so cool, down-to-earth and real mellow. He reminded me a lot of myself."
Smith's production company bought film rights to the book for $1.2 million. Henderson believes the reality and breadth of his story, which ranges from the fast-money life of a dealer to prison to his climb through prestigious kitchens, is what's so fascinating.
"So many young people of all colors get caught up in drugs and gangs, and they look at me as a sign of hope," he said. "You can turn yourself around. If you're an ex-con, you can get employed and be successful."
In a literary world stuffed with celebrity chef memoirs, he's probably the first to have such a juicy tale to tell.
When he was 16, Henderson was stabbed in a fight at an Los Angeles mall. His mother, June Henderson, decided to move to San Diego to get him away from the people he had been running with. They settled into an apartment complex that residents call "The Condos."
"It was like the projects then, and there were tough people around, and I kept my eyes on it as best as I could," said June Henderson, who still lives in central San Diego and still works two jobs. "We were poor, and he got tired of being poor. When you're not home with your kids, there's always somebody else that wants to train them."
Her son fell in with the guys with names like T-Row and Richie Rich, showing off in their Fila track suits and gold rope chains with lots of women hanging around.
"They were exciting to me. They had cars and jewelry, and they were the Mack Daddies," Henderson said. "And they paid attention to me."
They were also pot dealers, and soon Henderson was running errands for them, hanging out with them in the neighborhood or at beach.
When crack cocaine became the next big thing, Henderson says that's what they all started selling. Eventually, he began buying powdered cocaine in large bricks and cooking it into rock cocaine himself, a process that allowed him to make huge profits.
"Fifty-fourth and Imperial was the birthplace of crack cocaine in San Diego. It was a shopping mall of crack dealers," he said. "Everyone had their own crack house."
He seemed to prosper until December 1987. That's when he broke an unwritten dealers' rule against doing business around Christmas because a new dealer named Sweet wanted to make a little holiday money.
But Sweet, driving Henderson's girlfriend's car, was pulled over by authorities with $50,000 cash and drugs in the car. Henderson began a year of living on the run, staying in hotels and cutting ties with his old associates to make it harder for the FBI to find him. But in the end, he got caught.
"They raided my home in Dictionary Hill and arrested me," he said. "I felt a sigh of relief. I can finally rest, and I don't have to look over my shoulder any more."
ON THE KITCHEN CREW
Waiting for trial, Henderson spent time in San Diego and San Pedro.
He was initially put out when he got assigned to kitchen crew. But he soon discovered the perks of extra food that the kitchen workers got and started earning praise with his cooking. At a prison in Nevada, another inmate taught Henderson a fried chicken recipe that's still in his repertoire today.
In prison, he also learned to take responsibility for deciding to sell drugs and realized he could be a success in a legitimate field if he worked hard. He read books and newspapers, and watched news shows with inmates who had been bankers and stockbrokers.
Outside, Henderson needed a chef in a restaurant to look past his criminal record and gruff exterior and give him a job. He had read about Robert Gadsby, who had his own restaurant in Los Angeles. Henderson decided that's where he wanted to work.
"He was a brilliant, intellectual black man who understood not only the world of cooking, but he taught me how to mix and mingle and make this stigma of a felony jacket and prison become transparent."
When Henderson walked into Gadsby's, all the chef saw was an imposing 250-pound guy asking for a job. At first Gadsby wasn't interested. "He was very humble," Gadsby said by phone from Houston, where he now owns a restaurant called Noe. "He was consistent, and he was constantly returning."
Gadsby started Henderson as a dishwasher. He then worked his way up, learning about sunchokes and shallots, how to hold a knife, make salads and later saute.
After leaving Gadsby's, Henderson went to work for Marriott and was assigned to a team taking over a hotel in Coronado, which is across the bay from San Diego. He was worried about coming into contact with his former life, but he knew he could learn a lot.
Sarah Bowman, his former boss at what was then the Marriott Hotel in Coronado, remembers liking Henderson right away. What he lacked in skills, he made up for in his drive.
"He would do anything," Bowman said. "He would do whatever it took. He had an incredible thirst for knowledge."
Bowman said she had him making sauces and cooking on the line, and he even got a shot at cooking the exotic delicacy called foie gras.
After working in Coronado, Henderson went back to Los Angeles, where he went on to become the first black banquet chef at the Hotel Bel-Air. And once he moved to Las Vegas, he was quickly promoted to chef de cuisine at the Caesar's Palace Palatium Buffet.
While he considers being the chef of the 3,500-meal-a-day Cafe Bellagio the pinnacle of his career, Henderson has his sights set on opening the first restaurant on the Las Vegas strip devoted to modern Southern cuisine. He says his version, called "posh urban," would feature dishes such as sweet potato pot-au-feu, crab cakes with barbecue creme fraiche and collard greens and cognac-marinated watermelon with a blackberry gastrique.
Henderson and his family can hardly believe the attention he's getting. "I'm very excited, and I'm very proud of him. All the family members are," June Henderson said. "Jeffrey just used to dream, and his dream came true."
Henderson is also in talks to produce a reality show on at-risk kids, and developing products ranging from pans to salad dressings. But he still wants to encourage more guys from the hood to explore careers as chefs.
"I think people who come from poverty may have always been hungry and have a sense of passion for food," Henderson said. "They take pride in meals and want to savor them."
Bowman isn't surprised to see what her former cook has accomplished.
"He was given an opportunity and saw what an opportunity can do for him, given he takes the right steps," Bowman said. "Once he got on that path, he just didn't stop."
Gadsby said Henderson told him his passion was one day to write a book about his life and become a success. His tale has impact because it's real.
"This is not some black history story. It all happened, and this is today," Gadsby said. "Everybody says, 'I want to be like Mike,' but you can also be a Jeffrey Henderson."
Books Heffrey Henderson read while learning to be a chef:
- "Becoming a Chef" by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg (Wiley, $30).
- "The Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron's, $17).
- "Professional Baking" by Wayne Gisslen (Wiley, $60).
FRIENDLY'S FAMOUS BUTTERMILK FRIED CHICKEN
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons black pepper
4 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 quart buttermilk
Oil, for deep frying
Yields 4 servings.
Combine cayenne, black pepper, salt, onion powder and garlic powder in a small bowl. Put 1/2 the seasoning mix in another medium-size bowl. Add flour and combine well. Set aside.
Rub chicken with spice mix without the flour. Poke pieces with a fork a few times and set aside.
Pour buttermilk into large stainless-steel bowl. Add remaining spice mix and chicken pieces. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Remove chicken from buttermilk and dip in flour mixture. Pat pieces to make sure they are well coated.
Place enough oil to cover chicken pieces in deep fryer or skillet. Heat oil to 360 F. Cook chicken until golden brown. Drain on paper towels; serve.
- "Cooked" by Jeff Henderson.
BARBECUE SHRIMP SCAMPI WITH COLLARD GREENS
16 large shrimp, cleaned and butterflied
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 package frozen collard greens
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 cup white wine
Juice and zest from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon barbecue sauce
Yields 4 servings.
Season shrimp to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.
Prepare collard greens according to package instructions. Keep warm and set aside.
In large saute pan over medium-high heat, add olive oil, shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until caramelized. Add shrimp and saute for about 2 minutes, until shrimp start turning pink. Add wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, parsley and butter. Reduce heat and simmer until shrimp are completely pink and no longer translucent.
Remove shrimp with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl. Add barbecue sauce to pan and stir well to combine. Stir constantly to let sauce thicken a bit and then remove from the heat.
To serve, place drained greens on a platter. Lay shrimp around greens. Drizzle with sauce and serve.
- Chef Jeff Henderson, Cafe Bellagio.