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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.