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And so itwas that JeffHendersonwent to jail.He always knew itwas going to happen, and when it finally did, hewas all of 24 years old. Itwas 1988, and


he’d been dealing drugs in Los Angeles and San Diego since he was 17, and even though he was “a good bad guy” who “never even got into a fight when I was on the street, I never carried a gun, I never used drugs, I never drank alco- hol, I was respectful”—still, it was only a matter of time before the life caught up to him. He ended up in federal prison, and when he stepped out


nearly 10 years later he was still the same guy, more or less, except now he knew how to cook. Before the next decade was out, he would become the first African-American exec- utive chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and have his own show on the Food Network. And something else was differ- ent about him after serving time. He felt that he owed a debt to his community, and he would spend the rest of his life trying to make it right. “I give back because I’ve taken so much from my commu-


nity,” Henderson said. “My generation had the most pro- found impact on African-American unity around this country in the worst way. That was the birth of crack cocaine. It was the birth of the Crips and the Bloods.…I’m a strong believer that the hood, the ghetto, the inner city is full of talent. Full of hidden potential. I know that I had it, and so did a lot of the homeboys. So a guy like me can go back and help uncork the potential in some of these youngsters.”


The Hustler Henderson will tell you that he’s still a hustler, still a player, but it’s the game that’s changed. Over coffee at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas one Saturday afternoon not long ago, he seemed right at home perched on a stool just off the





COOK’S BOOKS: Jeff Henderson has edited the America I AM Pass It Down Cookbook and written the bestselling memoir Cooked.


gaming floor, sharp-looking in a black suit, black shirt, and rimless glasses, watching the world go by, and remember- ing, and talking. He’s confident and charming, and forth- right no matter what the topic—beginning with his early years, and the path that could only lead to prison. Born in South Central Los Angeles, he was one or two


when his father took off, leaving Henderson to be raised by his mother and paternal grandparents. He was surrounded by love and discipline, but growing up poor, he writes in his bestselling memoir, Cooked: My Journey From the Streets to the Stove, “I stole from whoever let their guard down.” When he was 11, his family moved to San Diego to


“I’m a strong believer that the hood is full of talent. So a guy like me can go back and help uncork the potential in some of these youngsters.”


live with relatives, and Henderson graduated to “breaking into houses, stealing bikes, and other typical adolescent criminal behavior.” Two years later, his mother shipped him back to Los


Angeles to live with his father, but that didn’t help. At 16, Henderson was arrested for stealing a bike, and let off with six months’ probation. At 17, he was stabbed in the chest over a gang-related dispute, and spent three days in intensive care with a collapsed lung. Back in San Diego, he fell in with a marijuana dealer named T-Row who lived at his mother’s apartment, and when T-Row switched to selling crack cocaine, Henderson did, too. Eventually, he had a business of his own, dealing crack all over Southern California. “In our community, we become what we hear, see, and


learn from our surroundings,” Henderson said in our inter- view. “So when you grow up in a community where the drug dealer is the hero, the hustler is the hero—the big car, the house on the hill, the jewelry, the money—that


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