MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Celebrity chef Jeff Henderson's book pitch must have been irresistible: "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras". You can almost hear a book publicist's wheels spinning. Henderson does have quite a story to tell. In the late 1980s, he was a drug dealer in San Diego, making $35,000 a week. He got busted, went to prison, and wound up on kitchen duty, where he had an epiphany.
He actually liked to cook. Henderson used his talent and his growing repertoire or recipes through rise to the ranks of the prison kitchen. After his release, he eventually made his way to some of the best restaurants on the West Coast. There, his skills making crack actually helped him master fussy French recipes.
Mr. JEFF HENDERSON (Executive Chef, Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas; Author): (Reading) "With a great piece of steak or even lobster, you can screw up, and there are ways to cover it up so that no one will ever notice. That's not the case with foie gras. Just like when you're cooking cocaine, one miscalculation of the heat can destroy your product. With crack, if you don't baby-sit the pot and micromanage the process, a third of your yield can disintegrate. And with a kilo of cocaine selling at $14,500 wholesale, that is not acceptable loss."
NORRIS: Jeff Henderson, reading from his book. He's now the executive chef at the Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas, where he throws himself into his work - in part as penance for all the lives he ruined when he was selling crack. With his clean-shaven head, bold eyeglasses, and almost preppy dress, the 42-year-old Henderson looks more like a product of the Culinary Institute of America, not the federal prison system.
Mr. HENDERSON: People always ask me, they say Jeff, is there some connection between food and inmates? Because a lot of prisoners, ex-inmates, work in kitchens in restaurants. And the connection for me, I believe how my passion developed behind cooking was being hungry. And in prison, you know, your meal -eating is your - the number one thing you think about.
I mean, on Tuesday, you're thinking about what's for dinner on Saturday, you know, so that - I think that was really the force behind me finding this hidden passion and my love for food.
NORRIS: So over time you developed specialties, learned how to work with sort of the huge orders that would come through making desserts, for instance.
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.
NORRIS: With those vast cans of fruit that would come through.
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. We used to get canned fruits, and they used to come in these number 10 cans. And we had a special room that we open the number 10 cans, because, you know, you can take the lids, and you know, use them as weapons. Every now and then, they would get out on the compound, and we would use the lids of cans - like our little tuna cans - and we would fold them over, and that's what we use as a knife to cut our vegetables.
Mr. HENDERSON: And...
NORRIS: I imagine to cut something else, also.
Mr. HENDERSON: Well, I'm sure some inmates used them for other things as well, but my homemade knife was strictly used for prepping.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.
NORRIS: Were you also - as you tried to develop your cooking skills - limited by the kinds of ingredients that you had access to in prison?
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. I mean, our main ingredient was salt and pepper, you know. We had different seasonings from spice companies and whatnot, but we didn't have the seasonings and different spices that we use today to enhance flavors of food. And, you know, we pull different pieces of - in the kitchen. Like say, for instance, we had spreads that we would do back at the unit, like we used to make these nachos.
And we used to buy top Ramen noodles just to get the seasoning package out, because it brought a whole different flavor to whatever we were seasoning. And on the holidays, we got these Pepperidge Farms gift packages were you had the sausages and the gourmet cheeses. So at Christmas time, we're able to buy like four or five of them. So we will use our little metal to cut the sausages and fry them in a microwave.
And then somebody will bring the packages from the top ramen, and different inmates would smuggle something out the kitchen to add to these nacho spread, whether it was an onion, whether is was boiled eggs, or whatever the case may be.
NORRIS: Now, you said you didn't know much about cooking when you arrived in prison. But you had spent time in the kitchen - not cooking food, though.
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. Yes. Unfortunately, I was in a - during a dark period in my life, you know, when I was selling cocaine. And I used to cook cocaine. You know, I used to take one kilo of powder cocaine and turn it into two kilos of crack. And actually, the comparison of blanching vegetables is the same technique for making crack cocaine. You know, there was blanching, and ice-chilled water was involved.
And different ingredients that you would use in the kitchen, I don't want to talk about everything that I used to make it, because I don't want to, you know, put that recipe out there. But it was very similar. You know, you had to micromanage the pot to make sure that the cocaine doesn't overcook, or it can, you know, disintegrate.
NORRIS: And Jeff, I noticed something since we're sitting here on the studio together. And as I looked you in the eye, when you talk about your old life, it seems like its actually difficult for you to go there right now.
Mr. HENDERSON: Sometimes it is. But I always will be living in my past. And I have to share my story, and it's, what I want to say, therapeutic for me sometimes. Because when I think about it, I think about the effect and the devastation crack cocaine had in the African-American community. It's painful sometimes.
NORRIS: You know, we shouldn't leave the impression that the road to success for you wasn't easy, when it sounds like you had a very difficult time finding your way in professional kitchens once you left prison, dealing with the competition, dealing with people who only saw your past and didn't acknowledge your skills in the kitchen. You wrote a letter to the owner of Gadsby's restaurant, a popular restaurant in Los Angeles.
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.
NORRIS: Plead with him, made your case - said, please hire me. Please give me a chance.
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.
NORRIS: Why do you think you did that?
Mr. HENDERSON: I think because I was persistent. And I think at one point, he felt that, you know what? Let me give this guy a chance. He probably won't make it, then I don't have to say no to him no more. And he didn't answer my letter at first. And I made my way to his restaurant. And I came there twice a week -every other week - asking him, said, chef. I really would like an opportunity. I'll wash dishes, I don't care, because I really want to work for you. And one day, he gave me a chance.
And not only did I wash dishes, I cleaned his bathrooms. And I was the first one in, last one out. I came to work three or four hours early. He was like, Henderson, no overtime today. Said I know, chef. I just want to be here, you know, and I would do everything - I mean, everything that I could to prove to him that I was capable and worthy of this job. And I was proud. As a black man in the high-end food world, he inspired things in me other than cooking.
He taught me how to speak and act and be around people from corporate America, because when I came home from prison, I was pretty buff from lifting weights. And I had to re-image myself. You know, I had to cut the hair off my face. I had to learn to smile. I had to take make-up and cover my earring hole up. I had to make the whole prison demeanor go away. So when people met me after a period of time, you know, they were like, wow. I can't believe this guy actually was in prison.
You know, I got my teeth fixed. You know, I took away all those stereotypes to be accepted. And it worked for me, you know.
NORRIS: You had to learn how to smile.
Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. Shake hands. Walk...
NORRIS: Something you didn't do much...
Mr. HENDERSON: Sit up in his chair like...
NORRIS: ...nine years in prison?
Mr. HERNDERSON: No. No. Because in prison, you have an image of toughness, and you become hard over the years.
NORRIS: In your restaurant now...
Mr. HENDERSON: Yeah.
NORRIS: ...do you set aside a place on the line for someone who's trying to find their way in society, someone who's an ex-con, someone who's left prison?
Mr. HENDERSON: Yeah. I don't set a job away for them, but I give them the equal opportunity that I would give a kid who comes out of the Culinary Institute of America. And I look for cooks who come to me with passion first, who's focused and driven and have a purpose. I don't look for guys who come in who know everything. If you're teachable and you're learnable despite your past, I'm going to give you an opportunity. And as soon as you screw up one time, you're out of here, and I'll let them know right up. Everyone who gets out of prison, they look me up.
NORRIS: Jeff Henderson, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. HENDERSON: My pleasure.
NORRIS: Jeff Henderson - or Chef Jeff, as he's often called - is the author of "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras".
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.