When Jeff Henderson became the head inmate cook during almost a decade in prison, he didn’t stop at Top Ramen noodle dishes, microwave cheesecakes or his special fried chicken that had guards and the likes of Rosario “Sal” Gambino lining up.
Get to know the man whose impressive resume includes working at Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace and Café Bellagio (where his “prison fried chicken” became a hit) and what it’s like living in a house full of vegans when he eats—as he puts it—everything “from the snooty to the booty.” Check out excerpts from Henderson’s Milk Street Radio appearance below, and listen to the full interview with the chef, tv show creator, best-selling author and now motivational speaker here.
On expanding his worldview in prison
That time away in prison allowed me to redeem myself and figure out who I was as a man. I started investigating and learning more about the Nation of Islam. The attraction to me was the social component. It was a brotherhood. I began to study and learn about black history in America, but also black history back in Africa. I researched and read about powerful black men for the first time in my life—men who were intellectuals, scientists, builders, attorneys and educators. It just blew my mind.
On getting creative with ingredients
I was in federal prison during the time it was called “Club Fed.” You had the likes of Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Jeffrey MacDonald and Rosario Gambino. Many of these men were very elitist and didn’t like waiting in the chow line with the rest of the convicts. As a head inmate cook, I had access to a lot of extra food which the other inmates didn’t get access to, like hard-boiled eggs and red onions. I would go back to the cell block unit and I would create these Top Ramen noodle dishes, nachos and cheesecakes out of the microwave. We didn’t have a spice rack in prison, so I used to take Nacho Cheese Dorito chips, put them in a sock and crush them to use the dust as a seasoning.
On his best customers
Mr. Gambino was a great customer of mine, especially for the chicken. There were actually a few guards that used to come for my “prison fried chicken.” They would come to the cell unit and say, “Hey Henderson, what do you got?” We didn’t have fried chicken often for the main population because we didn’t have the deep fryers to produce fried chicken. So every now and then I was able to get my hands on all-purpose flour and seasoning that I used to make this chicken with. It was a big deal on the yard.
When I was at Bellagio and became the executive chef, the president, CEO and many of the top suite executives would come down to the café and throw down on it. We would be in the kitchen just laughing and stuff because no one knew they were eating prison fried chicken.
On his vegan family
My whole family is vegan. My wife raised them that way. She was a vegetarian when I met her. But I eat if from the snooty to the booty. My kids give me a hard time about it. Like if I’m eating chicken or something, my youngest daughter, Grace, says, “Ooooh daddy, you’re eating a leg,” and I say, “Yes, and it’s good. It was roasted with a little bit of sage and salt and pepper on it.”
On finding his passion
I always say that food found me in a very dark place. When I was in prison, that was the first time I ever felt valued. When inmates would come up to me and say something great about the food we put out, I took big pride in it.
Imagine being in prison for 25, 30 years to life. Food is the most important thing for a person in prison. When you get a nice piece of protein or some perfectly steamed or sautéed vegetables, that humbles you. It calms you down and it’s a tiny little remembrance of home. That was our family time. Food was at the pinnacle of my prison experience because it helped me overcome a hump, and I was able to go out in the world and contribute something.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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