Cooking Up a New Life

In the mid-1980s, the only thing that Jeff Henderson knew how to cook was crack cocaine. As a young drug dealer in San Diego, Henderson was making up to $35,000 a week. In 1988, the lush life came to a crashing halt, when Henderson was arrested and ultimately indicted on federal drug trafficking charges.

Henderson, who's now the executive chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas, tells the story of how he cooked his way through -- and out of -- prison in his recently released book, "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras."

Two years into his originally mandated sentence of 19 1/2 years, Henderson started working in a prison kitchen. For me, the following passage, which describes Henderson's initial trepidation in the kitchen, is one of the strongest in the book:

Cooking took me back to the Motel 6 in San Diego. I was at the stove cooking pounds of cocaine and watching it harden as I submerged the glass pots in the ice-cold water one at a time. Then I'd scrape the stove for every crumb of residue and recook. Was I the only one thinking this while plunging frozen vegetables into a large kettle of boiling water?

Until his early release in 1996, Henderson spent much of his time cooking and was planning a culinary career on the outside. The dream of success, which he doggedly pursues, is recounted in linear detail that gets a bit tedious, but is overshadowed by Henderson's enormous achievements (first African-American executive chef at Café Bellagio) and the 180-degree life turn that begins the day he walks out of prison.

I had hoped for more intimate discourse on cooking, but perhaps I was naïve. After all, Henderson was just trying to survive life in prison, and cooking was a practical solution to moving off the streets. It was salvation and it was a way out -- not exactly warm and fuzzy.

There's one passage, though, that speaks to food as a emotional connector, and the dish in question, is fried chicken:

Friendly and I became so close that he finally shared his secret recipe for his famous jailhouse fried chicken with me. All my life, fried chicken had been my favorite food -- I ate it every chance I could, but I never knew how to fry it myself. When Friendly gave me his recipe, I thought I was the man.

Fried chicken is the only recipe Henderson shares in the book, and it's the one dish that he takes with him from prison to his much fancier kitchen in Las Vegas.

Already, Hollywood wants a piece of Henderson. Will Smith's production company, Overbrook Entertainment, has announced it will produce a screen version of "Cooked" with Columbia Pictures.

Like Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," "Cooked" offers a gritty, unapologetic look behind the line of commercial kitchens. But it's Henderson's history that sets it apart from Bourdain's confessional. His determination to climb the ladder of success seems less an issue of ego and starhood than about changing the course of his life and the enormous obstacles facing him.

I've been thinking about Henderson's story all weekend. In his case, cooking saved his life. It gave him a reason to live because the other option was to eventually die on the streets. Once he threw away the recipe for crack, Henderson's life gave way to a whole different way of cooking.

I'm intrigued by this theme of cooking up a life for one's self. How do we nourish ourselves, both on a daily basis and for the long haul? And what is the role that cooking plays? Is it a practical means to an end or a bridge that connects us to our souls and to those of others?

Weigh in, if you wish, in the comments area.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 16, 2007; 11:23 AM ET Cook's Library , Kitchen Musings
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

FYI. The link to the book does not work.

Posted by: Missing | April 16, 2007 12:41 PM

Missing, Thanks for heds up. Link is working now. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 16, 2007 12:45 PM

You should do a post on CSAs. A lot of people are unfamilar with them in comparison to farmer's markets.

Posted by: Jbird | April 16, 2007 4:33 PM

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