by Jeffrey Henderson
The next morning, just after the 4:00 a.m. count, I was awakened when the overnight guard shined his flashlight in my eyes.
"Henderson," he said. "Kitchen duty."
"All right, sir."
I hadn't been sleeping soundly anyway -- I never slept soundly. I'd wake at the drop of a dime. I knew better than to sleep hard in prison; you just never knew who might creep up on you while you were dreaming away. Slowly, I got dressed, brushed my teeth and washed my face, and made my way to the front door of the unit. Several guards were there to escort inmates to the kitchen for breakfast duty. There were several different guard positions at the prison: The captain, who was in charge of security, oversaw all lieutenants who in turn oversaw the correction officers, and then there were the unit guards, escort guards, perimeter guards, special housing guards, maintenance guards, and food service guards. This last group was made up mostly of guys who had at one point worked as cooks in the military, and they were the ones who marched us across the North Yard that morning. Shit, I really fucked up this time, I thought, and I knew that if I messed up again I'd wind up in the hole for a long while.
We were received in the kitchen by the food service guards. A tall skinny one named Parnell gave me a quick briefing about my job duties. Whatever, I thought, as he showed me the pot and pan room where I'd be working. There wasn't much action going on at first. I just sat around the dining room doing nothing with the twelve other inmates who relieved the overnight detail. Then the 6:00 a.m. horn blew and the breakfast rush rolled in.
"Henderson," Officer Parnell said, "let's get to our area." I jumped up and went over to the dish area.
Then it began. One of the Mexican boys showed me the system they had. I'd be working at a three-compartment sink. One man scrubbed the pots, the second inmate rinsed them, and a third would run them through a sanitizing agent. A fourth guy on the end took the cleaned and sanitized pots and pans and put them up on racks.
They started me on the rinse area. Everybody seemed to be pretty cool. There were three or four brothers in there who started rapping and singing as soon as the work started coming in, and I fell right into the mix, banging those pots out. The only thing on my mind was keeping in rhythm with the pot and pan line, to show the other inmates that I could flow with their system.
About an hour into the job, an inmate hit the back door. He had a whole pan of bananas.
"Damn! We get these?"
He said, "Yeah, these are some extra ones we just got from the guards."
"That's what I'm talking about," I said. "But what about some chicken? The bananas are cool, but I could use some of that yard bird, man."
The inmate said, "Slow down, youngster. You're new, you'll get yours in due time. Be happy about the damn bananas!"
"All right," I said, and ate one on the spot while I kept up with the rinsing, shoving a couple more in my pockets.
Doing the dishes wasn't all that bad, except there seemed to be an endless flow of them and my hands were getting banged up. The guy doing the scrubbing was older, and going really slowly. And the slower he went, the more the pots piled up. At the rate he was going, I'd be stuck in that hellhole all day. I wasn't up for working all day at a steady pace; I wanted to get done and get out of there.
So I said to the old man, "Why don't you get on rinse and let me take over scrub? I got a lot of energy." As soon as we switched, I got right with it, scrubbing those pots up boom-boom-boom and slinging them into the rinse water.
We were moving, because I was working hard. But everyone looked at me like I was some youngster who didn't know any better.
"I'm not trying to be here all day," I told them. "I'm trying to get my eat on and then hit the weight pile."
A little while later, without slowing down a bit, I asked about the bananas.
"All you gotta do is hold tight," the old man said. "The guards make sure we eat real well, as long as we make them look good in front of the warden. All we gotta do for that is take care of this dish room -- make sure all the pots and pans are clean and that the room stays organized."
"That'll work," I said, thinking it was a fair trade-off.
But by the end of breakfast at 7:30 there was an ocean of pots and pans that still needed cleaning, and I was back to telling myself that there was no way I could keep on being a pot man. Then Officer Parnell came in and handed around cinnamon rolls and more bananas. I was sold. I still hated the scrubbing, but I was starting to catch on that the perks of being in the kitchen were worth more than just eating better.
"This is cool," I told the old man. "This is how you guys be selling all that food on the yard?"
"Yeah man, but keep that on the low," he said. "We always get the most leftovers at breakfast because most of the guys sleep in and just wait for lunch."
He explained that the guards calculated how much food to order for each meal based on the counts. If they counted fifteen hundred inmates, for instance, they ordered fifteen hundred bananas.
"So if three hundred guys don't show up for breakfast," he said, "that's three hundred extra bananas. Those go to the kitchen crew."
Bananas were a delicacy in prison. Everyone was always trying to get healthy and bulk up, so if you had some bananas and cereal and milk in your locker back at the unit, that was a great snack. Out on the yard, you could easily get $2.50 for a banana.
We wrapped on the pots and pans at midday. I thought I'd have to be there for eight hours a day, but I realized it was really only going to be six. A whole new crew came in for the lunch detail and I started to explore the rest of the kitchen. As long as I did my job and was at my bunk for all the daily head counts, I could spend the rest of the day pretty much however I wanted, and could check out unrestricted areas like most of the kitchen.
It was about half the length of a football field, just huge. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. I walked down a long corridor, looking into all these different kitchens and rooms.
My first stop was the receiving area, where all the food and supplies came in through the sally port, a fenced-off loading dock where everything was gathered for multiple inspections. No boxes, no cans, no containers, got into the kitchen without first being inspected for contraband. The inmates were never allowed near the supplies when they first came in from the outside, because if they knew where the food was coming from, they could arrange a smuggling operation with someone on the other end.
After receiving came the first big kitchen, the bakery. There weren't any brothers working the bakery; the white boys had it sewn up tight. They'd been there for a long time already, and no one ever left the bakery since it was one of the most coveted jobs in the kitchen. The bakery churned out doughnuts, maple bars, twisters, bear claws, and cakes and cookies, as well as some special items that never hit the chow line. My favorites were the cinnamon rolls. They were enormous and buttery, with icing and brown sugar, and were laced with maple syrup. The cinnamon rolls were special because, like doughnuts, we only got them on Sundays. For some reason, the Feds always fed us the best foods on weekends. A lot of times I'd even skip the visiting room vending machines because I'd filled up on so many pastries at our jailhouse Sunday brunch.
I really wanted to be down with these bakery guys and gain access to their extra sweets. So I walked into the room and said, "Hey fellas, what's up?"
They kind of nodded at me. I could tell they weren't fucking with no brothers. On top of that, I was a new face in the kitchen, so I just stood back and watched them work.
I was very curious about all the machines in there. One of them was the sheeter. They fed it round mounds of dough on a long electric belt. The machine would knead the mounds into flat, square sheets of dough, which the inmates would then fold and feed back through the machine to make the sheets even thinner. The bakers then spread the sheets out on a wooden table dusted with all-purpose flour, then cut doughnuts with a ring mold, and put them into a proofer to rise. Once the doughnuts had risen, they were put into the deep fryer. After a few minutes in the fryer, the bakers would flip the doughnuts with long wooden sticks to cook them on both sides. I'd never seen that before, and it fascinated me.
The huge oven looked like something you'd see in a crematorium. An inmate opened the heavy steel door to reveal six long shelves that held four sheet pans each, filled with cinnamon rolls, cakes, and cookies. I'd later learn that all of the baked items that were served in federal prisons were prepared according to military recipes. The traditional pies served were Boston cream, lemon meringue, apple, and peach, all made with canned fruits that reminded me of the government commodity food I'd eaten when I was growing up, but the pies were still very good.
On the other side of the bakery, a guy was running the giant ninety-quart Hobart mixers. I was amazed. You'd think that all of the baked goods in a prison would be shipped in from outside sources, but everything was made fresh on the premises, all of it run and operated by inmates.
Of all the places in the kitchen, the bakery is what really got my attention: the sweet smells, the sugary crusts on all the pies, the cloverleaf dinner rolls with butter seeping out of the creases. I'd always loved sweets. Growing up, we never had a cookie jar in my mom's kitchen. The only cookie jar in my family was at my grandparents' house -- a green ceramic cat with big ears and its belly filled with the kosher cookies my granddaddy lifted from the Jewish bakeries in Westwood.
The next stop on my kitchen tour was the butcher shop. It looked almost like the hole because it was divided into a series of tight, caged-in rooms. Inside each cage was another, smaller cage that held the knives. I was, like, how are you going to give inmates knives to butcher meat? But it wasn't as simple as that.
A guard brought the inmate into a butcher cage and locked him in. The inmate stood away from the rotating gate that separated the cutlery from the rest of the cage. The inmate then chose a knife from the guard's side of the gate, and the guard would place that knife on the gate and rotate it around to the inmate's side of the cage. Then the inmate would give the guard a chit for each knife he had selected, and the guard would place the chit in the case where each knife belonged. There was no way to get out of that cage without passing all the knives back through the gate first.
A couple of white inmates were at work in the cages. The guys in the butcher shop usually broke down turkey and chicken, but sometimes they'd dice up meat for beef Stroganoff, which I hated and they served at least three times a week. It was such a high-security area that I couldn't get close enough to the cages to see exactly what the inmates were doing, so I moved on.
The next kitchen was much smaller than the others, maybe the size of six cells. Another unusual thing about that kitchen was that it had a steel security door at the front. It was opened a crack, so I walked in and saw a little old white man sitting at a table. He had a home-style stove in there with a sink, a table, all kinds of cooking equipment, and his own personal walk-in fridge.
"What do you want?" the old man asked with a suspicious expression, as if I was going to jack him for some food or shake him down. I knew the brothers on the yard had a rep for putting pressure on the kitchen crews for extra food, so I knew what he was thinking. But I was just curious.
I said, "I'm new in the kitchen and I'm showing myself around. I had heard stories about the private kitchens and I just wanted to see it for myself."
"You must work the pot and pan detail," he said, as though he knew my number.
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"I never seen you before in this area of the kitchen, and I know all of the blacks who run the hot line in the main kitchen."
"You're right," I said. "I scrub all of your dirty dishes and see all the food trimmings the rest of us don't get -- all the things you guys eat."
"No one is allowed in this kitchen but the kitchen guards and the Jewish cooks," he said sharply.
I knew better than to talk shit to the old man. It wouldn't lead anywhere good. Besides, I wanted in on the kitchen hustle and the Jews had major influence with the warden. They also paid off some of the black shot callers with special food so no harm would come to them. I wanted to learn more, so I stayed calm and tried to engage him.
"So you are the man here?" I asked.
"I am," he said. "I'm the head inmate kosher cook." I kept talking and got him to feel important, bigheaded. Then he started giving me a rundown of the place, and the kosher meals he cooked for the Jewish inmates.
As he described his kitchen, all I could think about was how great the Jewish guys had it with their own kitchen and special meals. Then I noticed a stack of trays individually sealed with plastic wrap and asked, "You guys get TV dinners, too?"
"Those are for the Sabbath."
He explained how the Orthodox Jews observing the Sabbath couldn't work from sunset on Fridays through sunset on Saturdays, so all of those meals had to be prepared ahead of time.
The food in there smelled very good, so I asked him, "How does an inmate get to have kosher meals?"
"Well, first," he told me, "you have to be Jewish."
Every white guy, I soon learned, wanted to be a Jew -- especially around the Jewish holidays. Every year at Passover and Rosh Hashanah, rabbis from L.A. would come in and do a whole big shindig. They'd have the entire dining room all to themselves. They had fresh potato pancakes, crisp salads, fruit platters, capons, brisket . . . It was all top of the line, anything the rabbis could convince the federal government they needed to have for the ceremonies, they got.
The Muslims weren't far behind, either. When they broke their Ramadan fast at sunset each day, imams would come in and they'd have a feast. Then everyone wanted to be a Muslim. Every brother in the prison would be saying "As-Salaam-Alaikum" to one another.
I never took part in Ramadan because I couldn't fast from sunup to sunset for those thirty days. I was a hungry motherfucker. In prison I was making up for all the food I didn't get as a kid. I'd always tell myself, "Religion or not, I don't think the Lord will get mad at me just because I'm trying to eat."
After I got done talking to the head kosher cook, I made my way back to the main kitchen area. There were a few Mexicans and a couple of white boys in there, but the brothers had that kitchen pretty much locked up. Everyone appeared to get along, though. Later I'd learn that their good working relationship was based on the fact that it was a win-win for everyone. Aside from the daily leftovers, there were also samples from the big food service companies to be divided up.
Just like with a restaurant on the outside, all of the big food service companies wanted to do business with the federal Bureau of Prisons. With our facility serving up to six thousand meals a day, a CEO would have to be a fool not to try to get some of those federal dollars. So the companies would send samples of food into the prison to try to get their products placed on the menu.
Of course, a lot of that food never made it to the general population, so there was a freezer full of food that no one but the guards and the kitchen staff knew about. When the guards were in a good mood, they'd break out cases from the freezer full of items that most inmates hadn't tasted in years. We had steaks, shrimp, big pork chops, pizzas, frozen burritos, and cold cuts -- all on the hush-hush.
The extras we got depended a lot on who the guards on duty were. There were usually four or five kitchen guards on at a time, mostly retired military men. From what I heard, they made more money than the COs. Most of them were cool. Officer P, he was a player from Long Beach. He was cool with most of the inmates. He never went overboard with the discipline. But sometimes we'd get stuck with these redneck or house nigga guards, as the black inmates called them, who played favorites with the kitchen workers.
Even in prison the white inmates got more love than the blacks and the Mexicans. There were guards on the yard with long ponytails, tatted-up, ex-military and biker types who ignored it when the Aryan boys broke the rules. The house nigga ones were always trying to prove themselves to the lieutenants by being even harder on the blacks than the white guards. We could only get a break from a handful of black guards, like P and Fish, who came from the hood.
Aside from the guards, the real underboss in the kitchen was Big Roy, a big fat black guy from the West Side of Las Vegas. He was the shot caller in the main kitchen. He ran the whole operation and even had influence with the white boys in the bakery and the Jewish cooks in the kosher kitchen. Before becoming a PCP cook, which was what turned him into an inmate, he'd been a sous-chef at the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Vegas.
I knew he was the one to get close to. Even though I was technically now part of the kitchen crew, I wasn't part of the cooking detail. The pot and pan crew was the lowest crew of them all. Even the guys who washed the eating utensils had it better than us. Nobody stayed on the pot and pan line for long. Either they moved up or they found a job somewhere else altogether. The older inmates were the only ones who didn't leave the dish crew. They actually liked it because there was no pressure, no competition, and they ate well.
Big Roy sweated so much that he had to strip down to his T-shirt in the kitchen, but he was a great cook and organizer. His food always reminded me of the flavors of my childhood, and being in my grandmother's kitchen. Big Roy put love into every dish, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner were always on time. Big Roy truly understood the importance of food to an incarcerated man. He gave us his heart and soul in the kitchen and knew that we loved the southern touches in his food. Even the warden knew about Big Roy's presence in the kitchen, and he had Roy oversee a special crew who cooked for the guards and the administrative staff in a private kitchen. Under the watchful eye of Officer P and another guard named Davis, he cooked them the same food that we ate, but used better ingredients, and they got more selections.
Roy's influence meant that he got first dibs on anything extra. Pastries, meat, chicken, fruits, and vegetables -- nothing went to anyone else until it went through him.
This is how the hierarchy in most federal prison kitchens worked. There are always guards watching it all go down, and then there is always one powerful inmate cook, like Big Roy, who runs the kitchen, or there's a powerful crew of cooks who run it as a collective with part of the crew in every section of the kitchen. The head guy touches everything first, as soon as the guards pull it from the freezer or the sally port. Then he doles the food out to the prep cooks in the main hot kitchen and bakery, then the vegetable guys and the starch crew.
Next on the food chain are the servers, who get their cut from what is left on the hot buffet line after last call. The servers have the most dangerous job in the kitchen, because if you had just one small piece of chicken left and some gangster wanted a bigger piece, you had a real problem; even though it's not a server's fault when the food runs out or if there are only a few small pieces of chicken left, a lot of prisoners still go ahead and kill the messenger -- not necessarily literally, but most will start a beef with him.
The last crew to get its cut was the dishwashers. We got the last pick of everything, but it was more of a barter system than just a handoff down a line. As with everything, it was all about leverage: We had the least and Big Roy had the most.
Big Roy 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 $10.00 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.
Roy's best customers were the older, wealthier white inmates (the mobsters and Wall Street moguls). They hardly ever showed up at the mess hall. Instead, Big Roy served them right in their cells.
Everyone knew Big Roy and everyone wanted something from him. As far as inmates go, he had a lot of power. From the first day on pots and pans, I knew what I wanted. I was never cool with being small-time -- that's what got me locked up in the first place: I wanted to be the man. Now, I knew who was the man in prison. Like T-Row before him, I wanted to walk in Big Roy's shoes.
But after a month, it was starting to look like there would never be a chance for me to move up. Cooking opportunities were few and it took time to get one. I kept having to remind myself that I had almost another twenty years -- it helped me learn patience, but fucked with my head.
My chance to cook for the first time came a few months later. It was Juneteenth, an African American holiday that celebrates the freedom of slaves, and the Black Culture Workshop, a black self-help prison organization, got the warden to approve a special menu in observance. I had stayed behind several days in a row to help the black cooks prepare a soul food feast of fried chicken, catfish, dirty rice, collard greens, corn, and peach cobbler.
I knew that they'd need a lot of help on the day of the feast, so I decided to skip my workout session and asked Officer P for extra duty. Big Roy was walking around the prep kitchen driving the crew, tasting everything and schooling the crew on what he wanted. There was more work than they could possibly handle, and so I jumped right in. With no real experience, I grabbed one of the large paddles and began stirring the collard greens that were in a really big kettle. Big Roy had them simmering with neck bones, onions, and bay leaf.
"Jeff, if you want to get down with us," Big Roy bellowed from behind me, "I need you to wash and prep the chicken."
I was happy as a motherfucker to hear that. Just to be in the kitchen, to be part of Big Roy's crew was all I wanted. That day I washed and seasoned more than two thousand pieces of yard bird, and I did it as quickly as I could. The whole crew seemed impressed with my drive, but still there wasn't a regular spot for me.
For weeks after that day, I kept after Big Roy, and he'd tell me, "I don't know, youngster, you never know what's going to go down in this place. A lot of people have been waiting to get on the cooking crew."
I kept volunteering for extra duty, hoping to get off pots and pans. A month and a half later, some of Roy's own crew got put in the hole for having dirties, negative drug tests. His response changed: "Youngster," he said, "if you still want to get down in the kitchen with me, this is your chance."
After busting my ass in the kitchen, proving myself on pots and pans, and volunteering whenever possible, I finally got my break. I was issued my kitchen whites -- a short-sleeve V-neck shirt, white stretch cook pants, and black high-top nonslip shoes. We weren't given toques; we wore old-school paper diner hats.
I didn't know shit about mass production cooking, or restaurant cooking, or any noncrack cooking! The only things I knew about working in a kitchen were the things I picked up from watching Roy's crew since my first day on pots and pans. But I was anxious to learn and to prove myself. Right from the start, I banged hard for Roy.
The kitchen itself was big, with little windows that faced the Coast Guard station. All of the equipment was chrome plated, and the prep tables were shiny steel. My first assignments were to learn where everything was kept and to get things the other cooks needed as soon as they asked. Big Roy and the crew had me doing all the bitch work, but I was hungry to be part of the crew.
Once I got to do actual cooking, it didn't come easy: I screwed up the vegetables a few times by boiling them too long, or forgot to add salt to the water, or didn't have an ice bath ready to shock them (plunging them in ice stops the cooking once they come out of the boiling water). When I overseasoned the meats or burned things, Roy would rough me up about paying attention.
Still there was something about me that Roy liked. He would often pull me aside and show me how to do certain things, take his own time to train me. Because of these talks Roy gave me on cooking techniques, some of the other guys started hating on me. He wasn't nearly as patient with a lot of the other cooks. I think it was because it was clear I was prepared to do whatever it took to make it in his kitchen.
The competition in the kitchen was intense at times. But the pressure while cooking was nothing compared to the constant presence of danger as I walked the serving line, restocking the two hundred pans of food for the servers. Fifteen hundred convicts came through that line three times a day. These guys would stare you down hard. You had to be strong or at least look strong. In the summer the swamp coolers would often fail in the kitchen and the heat drove tensions even higher, especially between inmates, guards, and cooks trying to serve the food. Fights sometimes broke out just over the size of portions served.
There were times when I wasn't sure that the kitchen was for me. I wasn't ready to die over a piece of fucking chicken, or get beat down because I chose to sell my share of bananas at a marked-up price. Sometimes focusing on the job was a challenge. I burned my hands on oven doors and cut myself on the number 10 can lids. (I didn't know it then, but I was learning a lot of bad, even dangerous, cooking habits in that prison kitchen.)
While prepping, I often drifted off thinking about times in my life when I was a free man. Cooking took me back to the Motel 6 in San Diego. I was at the stove cooking pounds of cocaine and watching it harden as I submerged the glass pots in the ice-cold water one at a time. Then I'd scrape the stove for every crumb of residue and recook it. Was I the only one thinking this while plunging frozen vegetables into a large kettle of boiling water?
The more I thought about it, the more my past was beating me down. I was sweating my ass off among the dregs of the world, but it wasn't just my fall that I was thinking of. It was that I had descended to the lowest place a person could fall and that, as far as America was concerned, I was exactly where I belonged -- locked down with the scum of society. I wasn't recalling the good old days of my ill-gotten gains, I was regretting them. As the steam burned and pruned my skin, as I looked around at my fellow inmates and compared this to my life as a high roller, I finally knew this was what America thought of me. I was just a petty criminal. And worse. All the wrong shit I did my whole life started to become painful. The kitchen made me face it head-on. It stopped me from pretending that I did nothing. I could no longer hide from it or ignore it. I had to move on, and eventually these thoughts drove me to want to be in the kitchen all the time.
Throughout the prison all of the inmates had created these little communities, in part to try to keep on being the person they were on the outside. Me and my homies were exactly that: the same fools we were on the streets. We spent most of our time talking about the money we had had, the cars, the women.. . . Some of them were just waiting to get out and would probably be back inside one day again -- or dead. I was no different. If I had gotten out then, I probably would have been back to my old ways. But I was now starting to see that maybe there was something more I could do with my life. I began to dream of a better life. My homies in the other pens started seeing less of me as I began spending more time in the kitchen and studying the world outside of Terminal Island.
I spent more of my time watching Big Roy and all of the other cooks. I thought about cooking all the time. I even wrote down some of Big Roy's recipes and looked them over at night when I was in my cell. By the light from the small lamp I had, I committed those recipes to memory and went over each step again and again.
I was learning to cook and was proud of how quickly it came to me. Enough that I started sharing my cooking experiences with my family, telling them how I'd cook for them when I got out, how I'd one day have my own restaurant.
This is the first of two exclusive excerpts from Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras, by Jeffrey Henderson. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author and HarperCollins Books.
Jeff Henderson is an award-winning chef and public speaker. He made history as the first African American to be named chef de cuisine at Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, and is currently executive chef at Cafe Bellagio.