Book Details Journey from the Streets to the Stove Jeff Henderson discovered his love of food while working as a dishwasher in prison, where he served time for dealing drugs. Now the executive chef at Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas, Henderson shares his story in Cooked, a new memoir.
NPR logo

Book Details Journey from the Streets to the Stove

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/7621754/7715741" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Book Details Journey from the Streets to the Stove

Book Details Journey from the Streets to the Stove

Book Details Journey from the Streets to the Stove

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/7621754/7715741" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Jeff Henderson, executive chef at Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas, learned how to cook in prison. He is the author of Cooked, a memoir. Courtesy of William Morrow Publishers hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of William Morrow Publishers

Before he was a high-end chef, Henderson spent time in prison for dealing drugs. Courtesy of William Morrow Publishers hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of William Morrow Publishers

In the late 1980s, Jeff Henderson was making $35,000 a week as a major drug dealer in San Diego. He got busted, went to prison and wound up washing dishes on kitchen duty. Then he had an epiphany: He actually liked to cook.

Henderson used his talent and his growing repertoire of recipes to rise through the ranks of the prison kitchen.

After his release, he eventually made his way to some of the best restaurants on the West Coast — where his skills making crack cocaine helped him master fussy French recipes such as foie gras.

Now, Henderson is the an award-winning executive chef at Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas. The 42-year-old describes his remarkable transformation in a new memoir, Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras.

Excerpt: 'Cooked'

Jacket of Cooked by Jeff Henderson

NINE

KITCHEN HUSTLE

The next morning, just after the 4:00 A.M. count, I was awakened when the overnight guard shined his flashlight in my eyes.

"Henderson," he said. "Kitchen duty."

"All right, sir."

I hadn't been sleeping soundly anyway — I never slept soundly. I'd wake at the drop of a dime. I knew better than to sleep hard in prison; you just never knew who might creep up on you while you were dreaming away. Slowly, I got dressed, brushed my teeth and washed my face, and made my way to the front door of the unit. Several guards were there to escort inmates to the kitchen for breakfast duty. There were several different guard positions at the prison: The captain, who was in charge of security, oversaw all lieutenants who in turn oversaw the correction officers, and then there were the unit guards, escort guards, perimeter guards, special housing guards, maintenance guards, and food service guards. This last group was made up mostly of guys who had at one point worked as cooks in the military, and they were the ones who marched us across the North Yard that morning. S***, I really f***ed up this time, I thought, and I knew that if I messed up again I'd wind up in the hole for a long while.

We were received in the kitchen by the food service guards. A tall skinny one named Parnell gave me a quick briefing about my job duties. Whatever, I thought, as he showed me the pot and pan room where I'd be working. There wasn't much action going on at first. I just sat around the dining room doing nothing with the twelve other inmates who relieved the overnight detail. Then the 6:00 A.M. horn blew and the breakfast rush rolled in.

"Henderson," Officer Parnell said, "let's get to our area." I jumped up and went over to the dish area.

Then it began. One of the Mexican boys showed me the system they had. I'd be working at a three-compartment sink. One man scrubbed the pots, the second inmate rinsed them, and a third would run them through a sanitizing agent. A fourth guy on the end took the cleaned and sanitized pots and pans and put them up on racks.

They started me on the rinse area. Everybody seemed to be pretty cool. There were three or four brothers in there who started rapping and singing as soon as the work started coming in, and I fell right into the mix, banging those pots out. The only thing on my mind was keeping in rhythm with the pot and pan line, to show the other inmates that I could flow with their system.

About an hour into the job, an inmate hit the back door. He had a whole pan of bananas.

"D***! We get these?"

He said, "Yeah, these are some extra ones we just got from the guards."

"That's what I'm talking about," I said. "But what about some chicken? The bananas are cool, but I could use some of that yard bird, man."

The inmate said, "Slow down, youngster. You're new, you'll get yours in due time. Be happy about the d*** bananas!"

"All right," I said, and ate one on the spot while I kept up with the rinsing, shoving a couple more in my pockets.

Doing the dishes wasn't all that bad, except there seemed to be an endless flow of them and my hands were getting banged up. The guy doing the scrubbing was older, and going really slowly. And the slower he went, the more the pots piled up. At the rate he was going, I'd be stuck in that hellhole all day. I wasn't up for working all day at a steady pace; I wanted to get done and get out of there.

So I said to the old man, "Why don't you get on rinse and let me take over scrub? I got a lot of energy." As soon as we switched, I got right with it, scrubbing those pots up boom-boom-boom and slinging them into the rinse water.

We were moving, because I was working hard. But everyone looked at me like I was some youngster who didn't know any better.

"I'm not trying to be here all day," I told them. "I'm trying to get my eat on and then hit the weight pile."

A little while later, without slowing down a bit, I asked about the bananas.

"All you gotta do is hold tight," the old man said. "The guards make sure we eat real well, as long as we make them look good in front of the warden. All we gotta do for that is take care of this dish room — make sure all the pots and pans are clean and that the room stays organized."

"That'll work," I said, thinking it was a fair trade-off.

But by the end of breakfast at 7:30 there was an ocean of pots and pans that still needed cleaning, and I was back to telling myself that there was no way I could keep on being a pot man. Then Officer Parnell came in and handed around cinnamon rolls and more bananas. I was sold. I still hated the scrubbing, but I was starting to catch on that the perks of being in the kitchen were worth more than just eating better.

"This is cool," I told the old man. "This is how you guys be selling all that food on the yard?"

"Yeah man, but keep that on the low," he said. "We always get the most leftovers at breakfast because most of the guys sleep in and just wait for lunch."

He explained that the guards calculated how much food to order for each meal based on the counts. If they counted fifteen hundred inmates, for instance, they ordered fifteen hundred bananas.

"So if three hundred guys don't show up for breakfast," he said, "that's three hundred extra bananas. Those go to the kitchen crew."

Bananas were a delicacy in prison. Everyone was always trying to get healthy and bulk up, so if you had some bananas and cereal and milk in your locker back at the unit, that was a great snack. Out on the yard, you could easily get $2.50 for a banana.

We wrapped on the pots and pans at midday. I thought I'd have to be there for eight hours a day, but I realized it was really only going to be six. A whole new crew came in for the lunch detail and I started to explore the rest of the kitchen. As long as I did my job and was at my bunk for all the daily head counts, I could spend the rest of the day pretty much however I wanted, and could check out unrestricted areas like most of the kitchen.

It was about half the length of a football field, just huge. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. I walked down a long corridor, looking into all these different kitchens and rooms.

My first stop was the receiving area, where all the food and supplies came in through the sally port, a fenced-off loading dock where everything was gathered for multiple inspections. No boxes, no cans, no containers, got into the kitchen without first being inspected for contraband. The inmates were never allowed near the supplies when they first came in from the outside, because if they knew where the food was coming from, they could arrange a smuggling operation with someone on the other end.

After receiving came the first big kitchen, the bakery. There weren't any brothers working the bakery; the white boys had it sewn up tight. They'd been there for a long time already, and no one ever left the bakery since it was one of the most coveted jobs in the kitchen. The bakery churned out doughnuts, maple bars, twisters, bear claws, and cakes and cookies, as well as some special items that never hit the chow line. My favorites were the cinnamon rolls. They were enormous and buttery, with icing and brown sugar, and were laced with maple syrup. The cinnamon rolls were special because, like doughnuts, we only got them on Sundays. For some reason, the Feds always fed us the best foods on weekends. A lot of times I'd even skip the visiting room vending machines because I'd filled up on so many pastries at our jailhouse Sunday brunch.

I really wanted to be down with these bakery guys and gain access to their extra sweets. So I walked into the room and said, "Hey fellas, what's up?"

They kind of nodded at me. I could tell they weren't f***ing with no brothers. On top of that, I was a new face in the kitchen, so I just stood back and watched them work.

I was very curious about all the machines in there. One of them was the sheeter. They fed it round mounds of dough on a long electric belt. The machine would knead the mounds into flat, square sheets of dough, which the inmates would then fold and feed back through the machine to make the sheets even thinner. The bakers then spread the sheets out on a wooden table dusted with all-purpose flour, then cut doughnuts with a ring mold, and put them into a proofer to rise. Once the doughnuts had risen, they were put into the deep fryer. After a few minutes in the fryer, the bakers would flip the doughnuts with long wooden sticks to cook them on both sides. I'd never seen that before, and it fascinated me.

The huge oven looked like something you'd see in a crematorium. An inmate opened the heavy steel door to reveal six long shelves that held four sheet pans each, filled with cinnamon rolls, cakes, and cookies. I'd later learn that all of the baked items that were served in federal prisons were prepared according to military recipes. The traditional pies served were Boston cream, lemon meringue, apple, and peach, all made with canned fruits that reminded me of the government commodity food I'd eaten when I was growing up, but the pies were still very good.

On the other side of the bakery, a guy was running the giant ninety-quart Hobart mixers. I was amazed. You'd think that all of the baked goods in a prison would be shipped in from outside sources, but everything was made fresh on the premises, all of it run and operated by inmates.

Excerpted from Cooked by Jeff Henderson with permission from HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story