From Hustler to High Cuisine
03/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
At 19, Jefferey Henderson was a millionaire. Growing up poor in South Central L.A., he always coveted "the white kids' houses with the three-car garages," he says. So Henderson took the fast path to material success: He apprenticed himself to a crack dealer. By senior year in high school, he was running his own crew and driving a bulletproof Mercedes. "I thought I was untouchable," he says.
But that was before almost a decade in federal penitentiaries pulled him up short—and saved his life. Now, the man who learned to fry chicken under armed guard is a 42-year-old executive chef at one of the cafés in the lavish Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. In 2000 he became the first African-American chef de cuisine at Caesars Palace. Gone are Henderson's goatee and diamond medallions; today, rechristened "Chef Jeff," he's a family guy whose ride is a '99 Chevy Tahoe. "I'm still a hustler," he says. "The difference is, the product has changed."
Henderson's latest product, a gritty memoir titled Cooked, serves up his early life on the streets—the absentee dad, the escalating crimes, the culture of despair that surrounded him—as a cautionary tale. Sentenced to 19 1/2 years behind bars after his arrest in 1988, Henderson spent the next eight years locked away at Terminal Island in San Pedro, Calif., and the federal prison camp in Nellis, Nev.
Henderson's path to fine dining began with potluck meals on his cell block. Wielding a tuna-can lid to julienne ingredients lifted from the kitchen or bought on the black market, the inmate whose only previous experience had been at the crack stove would "fry sausages in the microwave and doctor tortillas with ramen noodle seasoning" for Friday-night nacho fests. Soon cons were asking him to cook for them in the common room.
But it was a punitive assignment washing pots and pans that actually steered Henderson to his calling: Fired from a plum yard-sweeping gig for slacking off, he dreaded "being locked up in this massive industrial kitchen full of steam and grime. It never entered my hard head that any good could come of it." To his surprise, he "found solace in the kitchen." Not only could he feast on surplus sweet rolls and bananas (a prison delicacy that sold for $2 each in the exercise yard), he learned to cook according to military recipes inside a system of cages that protected guards and the rest of the population from inmates wielding kitchen knives.
He found a role model in a fellow con named Big Roy, who had worked as a sous-chef in Vegas. A master at running a kitchen seething with testosterone and quick tempers, the hulking, sweaty Roy "put love into every dish," in Henderson's words. He also learned from the prison's white-collar criminals, who urged him to think big. "I started making changes," he recalls, "exposing myself to the The New York Times, 20/20, USA Today. "
In a sense, prison also delivered a wife—or a least a series of letters—from an admirer who had seen Henderson's picture, taken during a penitentiary visit by a mutual friend. Stacy Womack, the daughter of the late singer Mary Wells ("My Guy") and Cecil Womack (a brother of musician Bobby Womack), met Henderson for the first time when he was released in 1996. She brought him his first home-cooked meal—lasagna with an avocado-and-tomato salad, Italian dressing—at a halfway house and stuck by his side during his slow rise up the restaurant food chain. Today she home-schools their three kids at a three-bedroom home in a Vegas suburb. "They know about Jefferey's past," says Stacy, a vegan, and they see their dad as a hero.
On a recent afternoon, guests at the hopping Café Bellagio tucked into light fare while the chef himself headed off to wow a crowd of a different kind: two dozen eighth graders in a remedial program on the city's rougher west side. Slamming into a knockout spiel paced like a hellfire sermon, Henderson morphs back into the tough kid from the streets. "Each and every one of you guys got potential," he tells the young teens, who follow him with their eyes as he paces the room. "You're beautiful. You're special. You're smart. Don't you want the house with the picket fence?" His voice is thunderous: "Why not?"