2007_03_henderson.jpgCharting the New York Times bestseller list for the third consecutive week is a memoir by the 42 year-old Las Vegas chef Jeffrey Henderson. Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras, is Henderson’s tale of becoming a teenage drug dealer in South Central Los Angeles, getting caught and going to federal prison, and of how Henderson ultimately flourished in restaurant kitchens as a chef, something that changed his life. When he sold cocaine, the 19 year-old Henderson was making up to $35,000 a week; now he’s the executive chef of the Bellagio Café, which grosses 25 million dollars a year. Two weeks ago, it was announced that Will Smith’s production company will make the movie version of Cooked, with Smith possibly starring as Henderson.

A lot of Cooked is pitch-perfect stories about the crazy inner workings of restaurant kitchens, but Henderson’s memoir is in some part blueprint for change. With the Bronx hit hard by a growing Type 2 diabetes epidemic, the proliferation of illegal contracts and fake-minimum wage pay claims at city restaurants, and the general dearth of decent nutrition in the poorer parts of the outer boroughs, Henderson’s story has a greater relevancy for an industry that has a lot of problems. His message is that of change: the fact that he’s accomplished what he has, Henderson says, means that others can too, and get their own. Gothamist had the chance to catch up with Jeff Henderson last week after taping a talk-show appearance in midtown.

Can you talk a little about the evolution of Cooked?
I started writing the book eighteen years ago when I was in prison. I was inspired to write my life story in the effort to steer wayward youth away from buying and selling drugs. The book is about redemption, although there’s some entertainment in it- the kitchen stories, the fast paced kitchens of Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, and the dark kitchens inside federal prison. The book to me is a road map, for inspiration, for change. It’s a vehicle that people can use to get to a point where they can say, “If he can do it then I can do it.” That’s my motto.

Do you credit anyone as a mentor?
There are a few people in Beverly Hills like Robert Gadsby, Sterling Burpee, and Sarah Bowman, but mostly my inspiration really comes from the Latinos, all the line cooks. Those guys bang. It’s all about the work ethic. They have to develop the out-of-this-world flavor profile, make the food work, every day. They’re the ones in these five-star kitchens. Chefs win awards by standing on their backs.

Can you talk a little about the public speaking engagements that you do?
I started public speaking in prison. We brought in young people from the outside and talked to them about choices, and consequences. I talk to them about re-imaging themselves for corporate America. I teach them how to live in two worlds: the world that’s going to get you success, the world that’s going to put food on the table, the world that’s going to get you the house on the hill with the white picket fence, but also about keeping it real, about maintaining your cultural identity. When you step into the other world, there’s a certain role you have to play to get what you need.

What’s next on your agenda?

We’re starting up The Chef Jeff Foundation, putting a team of investors together. I’ll be opening up my namesake restaurant, maybe in New York. It’s too early to say, but I’m definitely going to be doing my food- posh urban, some sophisticated, down-home cooking.

What kinds of things will the Chef Jeff Foundation be doing?

I have a knack and a desire to change the lives of young people. I want to do things like teacher-of-the-year awards- I want to find some real grass roots kind of people. It doesn’t even have to be someone with a degree; it could be someone teaching on the street corner in the projects. I also want to provide scholarships for kids who go to school for three months straight without missing a day, or a kid who goes from a D- to a D+ in school. One of my long-term goals is to do inner-city café, a community-run restaurant, operated by people who need jobs. All the employees would get some kind of partnership.

Can you describe your style of food? What’s Posh Urban Cuisine?
Posh Urban Cuisine is the food that I do. It’s sophisticated, redefined Southern cuisine. That’s my childhood, my culture, the food I grew up on. My grandmother and grandfather cooked. After I got out of prison, I worked at restaurants with some French and Mediterranean style, so basically I took that technique and tweaked Southern cuisine. I’ve toned down the fats, the pork. I try to use a healthier style of cooking and preparation.

What’s your impression of the New York restaurant scene?
New York is off the chain. We went to Jean Georges, Aureole. We went to Yakitori Totto the other day. That place was fun. I’ve recently been visiting all the urban, Southern-themed restaurants in town- Sylvia’s, B. Smith, Justin’s, just to check them out.

What’s your comfort food?

I go to In-n-Out burger at least once a week. Homemade, my comfort food is good, fried chicken. I love fried chicken. That may sound like something of a stereotype, but it’s good food, part of American culture, that's all.

photo: MGM