How the Crack Dealer Became a Chef

Have you ever heard of Chef Jeff Henderson?

Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t either. That’s when our publicist mentioned him and his new book. (We have the same publisher.) Jeff grew up in L.A. and San Diego, became a big-time crack dealer, and was sentenced to a long term in prison, where he learned to cook and became passionate about food. Now, after several years in prison and many, many restaurant jobs, he is the executive chef at the Cafe Bellagio in Vegas. That’s the story he tells in his book, Cooked, which Will Smith’s production company has purchased in the hopes of filming his story.

As luck would have it, I ran into Chef Jeff a few days later when we were both giving lectures at a conference. He’s a very warm and sharp guy. Here we are, swapping books:
Stephen Dubner with Chef Jeff Henderson

On the flight home, I planned to just flip through his book but I became thoroughly engrossed and ended up reading the whole thing. It’s fascinating. Below are two passages. The first one portrays Jeff as a budding crack dealer, figuring out both the financial and culinary ends of the trade:

I bought one bird of powder from [the Twins] for $17,500, bought my cooking supplies at Kmart and rented a room at the Spring Valley Motel 6. I experimented by cooking in small batches at first, just in case I fucked it up. First, I weighed out eight ounces powder and four ounces baking soda and premixed them in a salad bowl. I brought my bottled water to a boil, just like I saw the Twins do.

I wasn’t sure whether the water was supposed to be boiling or simmering before I added the dope and baking soda, so I lowered the water to a simmer and added the mix. I waited nervously for the ingredients to gel. As it began to gel, I felt a little relief. I hurried the glass pot to a sink full of crushed ice. It immediately turned into crack.

I was like, “This is the shit!”

Once I removed the small crack plate from the pot, I blotted it with a dry towel and placed it on the triple beam scale. My eight ounces of cocaine yielded a return of twelve ounces of crack. Selling crack at $1,500 an ounce, those extra four ounces would give me a profit of $6,000 per half bird. That meant I’d make $12,000 on every key I bought, and I could easily move five and ten kilos on the first and fifteenth of each month (which were the welfare paydays).

This passage is about the economics of a prison kitchen:

Big Roy [who is black] ran the meat crew, seasoning and preparing the beef, chicken, fish, and stews. Once the food was cooked, Big Roy made sure to cut a share of the hot food for the white boys running the bakery in exchange for his share of the rolls and sweets. The kosher dudes got kicked down next, because they had what no other kitchen had access to. Their packaged kosher TV dinners were easy to smuggle back to the units, and those kosher Sabbath dinners were always a hot item. The chicken meals could fetch $10 a pop, and the kosher cooks always made a killing on what the rabbis brought in for the holidays.

Whatever Big Roy didn’t eat himself or hand down to his crew or trade, he sold. He was really in cool with the white boys and the Jews when it came to that business, but he didn’t like dealing with the brothers because they’d always try to strong-arm him for cheaper prices. The black guys didn’t mind paying two bucks for a chicken breast and a wing, or a thigh and a leg, but Big Roy could get double that from the whites. The brothers knew they were getting cut short, though, and from time to time someone would want to stick Big Roy. So, Roy had to kick down some of his own stuff to certain brothers on the yard — the shot callers — to keep himself protected.

If you want to learn more than you ever knew about cooking crack, cooking prison food, and starting your life over once you get out of prison, Cooked is a pretty good start.


prosa

Henderson's claims about the profitability of drug dealing seem to contradict what was described in Freakonomics ("drug dealers living with their moms"). I suppose it depends on where one stands in the hirearchy.

JordanO

If only you knew a similarly named NBA official and someone who was hearing impaired and got together at the Playboy Mansion.

Then you'd be hanging out with Chef Jeff, Ref Jeff, Deaf Jeff, and Hef!

Just be sure no one gets caught smoking meff.

Chewxy

Jail is an awful place.. o_O"

prosa: Jeff Henderson made his own crack. In Freakonomics, the rank and file members sold them only, I think.

p/s: Anyone thinks that Jeff Henderson looks bigger in person than the guy on the cover of his book?

Mango

The 'living with their moms' applied to the foot soldiers in the gangs. The leaders made out pretty well.

Chef Jeff appears to have taken a more entrepreneurial approach. Usually that is associated with greater reward, and also greater risk. Though I honestly have know idea how risk assessment on cooking/dealing crack would come out.

wesleyb41

He did a pretty good job of risk management. He didn't cook the stuff at home, but chose to use a rented room in case he screwed up huge. He is smarter than the average drug producer.

egretman

Just another yuppie success story.

Boy leaves high school. Farts around, then discovers a passion. Encouraged to attend four-year public college on federal grants to complete skills. Graduates college and enters job market. Finds success in chosen field.

Kent

Egretman, I think you misread the post. He was imprisoned for those 4 years. He did not attend a standard 4-year college program.

Lisa McLeod

Here I've been cooking up family meals for 20 years and getting nothing bu complaints and whining. I never realized that all this time I could have made more money on crack and learned more marketable skills serving prisoners.

Actually I love this story.

A reformed prisoner, a man who cooks, a mega book deal and over priced dinners in Vegas. Is this a great country or what?

ejohnson

I also love this story. I heard Chef Jeff interviewed on "All Things Considered" about a month ago. He was fantastic. His story is inspirational and one that sticks in your mind long after the sound slip is over! I'm reading the book next.

RandyfromCanada

wait a second , you Americans glorify the one who made it and say what a wonderful job we are doing , well what about the million who didn;t make it ?

and what message just this send to young kids , go ahead sell drugs and do what you want because in the end America will cheer you if you make it !
PATHETIC , Chef Jeff only wrote a book to make money , he is still playing all the angles ....PATHETIC

Aussie Bob

Kent, I think egretman was being funny. His post was funny!

In New South Wales, a former gaoled (that's Australian for jailed) drug dealer is now head of the Education Department. Now there's a message for the kiddies!

Danny Hershtal

First, great book, guys. Sorry that I'm late joining the party.

Speaking of Crack Dealers, in the drug dealer chapter you mentioned that being a foot soldier had a 1 in 4 chance of occupational death, comparing that to the extremely high rate of occupational death of timber cutters (1 in 200, I believe). However, you neglected a more dangerous, legal profession, namely, President of the United States. Of forty-three presidents, four have been killed. That's worse than a 1 in 11 occupational violent-death rate, not to mention the handful of presidents who died in office of various ilness and a good number who were injured in assasination attempts. I would confidently say that President of the USA is the only profession that approaches the danger level of a crack dealer, and that it was worth mentioning.

aL

Danny - That is a pretty neat stat. I never thought it in that way. Maybe after all, Bush is worth the money we pay him to put him in that spot.

Back to the book. It definitely seems like a rather interesting book. Got to check it out.

I think a lot of you missed the point of the book. It's not telling kids that you 'should' go do drugs and you could succeed later on. It is about how anyone, no matter how bad, how poor, how rich, how prejudiced you used to be, as long as you are determined and willing to work for it, there is a chance out there for everyone.

PedroTavares

Great suggestion....

I hope I can get it here in Portugal, or else I will get ripped once again in the costums.... :(

DERRICK MCCORKLE

Chef Jeff,i enjoy your story i am a chef also it's great that some one tolk the time to look back to help some one else it's not luck god has his hands on you.
Be Bless

Angel

I think Chef Jeff is doing a wonderful job. He is not telling kids to sell drugs.. he is telling you matter of fact showing you there is always a possibility to make it, even if you were or still is apart of the prison system. A lot of people that been in prison look down on there selfs because they say "oh I have a record" they not going to give me a chance. Even tho prison is a bad place, sometimes good things come out of it..a lot of stuff was done while in prison esp. by the ones that was doing life and new they wasnt going to see outside the prison gates again.. but they dont talk about that.

Simphiwe Mgudlwa

Dear Sir/ Madam

I want to know that. Please you can explain clear to me about chef college. Siyabonga Berrington Sisilana want learning for chef college. He is Deaf a man young. How much chef college fees?
Thank you lot.
Simphiwe Mgudlwa

prosa

Henderson's claims about the profitability of drug dealing seem to contradict what was described in Freakonomics ("drug dealers living with their moms"). I suppose it depends on where one stands in the hirearchy.

JordanO

If only you knew a similarly named NBA official and someone who was hearing impaired and got together at the Playboy Mansion.

Then you'd be hanging out with Chef Jeff, Ref Jeff, Deaf Jeff, and Hef!

Just be sure no one gets caught smoking meff.

Chewxy

Jail is an awful place.. o_O"

prosa: Jeff Henderson made his own crack. In Freakonomics, the rank and file members sold them only, I think.

p/s: Anyone thinks that Jeff Henderson looks bigger in person than the guy on the cover of his book?