Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Cooked


Daily Gullet Staff
 Share

Recommended Posts

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1172538500/gallery_29805_1195_8903.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">The Daily Gullet is proud to present the second of two exclusive excerpts from Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras.

by Jeffrey Henderson

On my first day at the Hotel Bel-Air, I reported to Tom Hanson, a six-foot-three-inch white guy, the executive sous-chef, and the number two man in the kitchen. Chef Hanson was very tal­ented, a great cook, and a master of presentation. He was an out-of-the-box chef, an original, who always worked the line with his crew. Tom was the type of chef who didn't mind getting dirty -- my kind of chef.

The kitchen was banging and my stomach was butterflying. I was worried about whether I would be able to hang with this new crew. Though I'd worked at some top places before, the Bel-Air was the crème de la crème of hotel restaurants in L.A. I knew my A-game would have to jump to an A+ if I was going to make it here.

Gary was a no-nonsense chef, notorious for reaming cooks and other chefs for not taking care of their business. They're always nice to you at the interview; they never tell you the truth about what really goes on in the kitchen because they want to paint a rosy picture for the fresh blood coming in.

After the obligatory grand tour, Chef Clauson introduced me to the crew. The first kitchen soldier was Mario. The most power­ful and talented member of Gary's staff, Mario was a tough Mexi­can guy, the kitchen's saucier and the man in charge of the sauté station.

Feliciano was number two under Mario, a stocky San Sal­vadoran who ran hot apps, the middle station in the kitchen. Feliciano never smiled, and I knew I'd have to work to earn his and Mario's respect. No prison-style intimidation tactics were going to have any effect on these guys. This was clearly going to be the most challenging crew that I had ever had to prove myself worthy of.

Another tough guy was a sous-chef named U­mberto who had a strong street rep and was tatted up all over his body. From the moment I started, he never so much as looked me in the eye, so I knew we weren't going to hit it off. He controlled the prep crew in the back, and those dudes were like robots. They never even spoke -- all they did was prep, prep, prep from the time they walked in until the time they left. They made all the stocks and the employee meals, and they did all the butchering. They were very talented and focused, but always in the trenches, overwhelmed with work.

There were also two women in the kitchen: a very talented Asian woman named Arlene, who'd graduated from one of the top culinary academies, and a Spanish girl named Maria who was beau­tiful but lazy. Women were accepted a lot more quickly than men because there isn't that macho competitive vibe when it comes to females. Arlene was a professional, but Maria was fucking one of the other cooks. She also used her feminine charms to manipulate all the other guys into doing her prep work and pulling her out of the weeds during service.

The vibe at the Hotel Bel-Air was different from any I'd ever been around -- even more competitive and professional. And, the place itself was different, too. During my tour of the kitchen, I asked where the walk-in freezers were.

"We don't use them," Chef Hanson explained. "This is five-star fine dining. Everything we do here is fresh. All our meats, sauces, stocks -- nothing comes out of a can and nothing goes in a freezer. We ship everything in fresh every day and use excess for staff meals."

A big change from the Marriott standard operational procedures mentality.

The chef tournot is a jack-of-all-trades; he can work every station from broiler to hot apps, sauté, pantry, and saucier. He's the go-to guy. The head chef depends on the tournot, especially when the kitchen is down a man.

I was a long way from excelling as a tournot since I still had so much to learn. If I didn't know how to do something, I would pretend that I did. I'd sneak off to the walk-in with a cell phone to call Robert in the middle of service and ask him how to per­form particular tasks. It brought me back to my first few years in prison, when I'd been told so much about white people being superior because they had all the knowledge. I remembered the teachings of the black prison scholars I studied, who wrote that if anyone wanted to keep knowledge from a black man, all you had to do was put it in a book, because we didn't read. "If you want to know what the white man knows," they had preached, "read his books."

Robert had more than a thousand cookbooks so I started add­ing to my personal library after my first day at the Bel-Air. I bought The Sauce Bible, a book called simply Foie Gras, The Food Lover's Com­panion, and the latest edition of The Professional Cook. These books covered many of the basics of the cuisine prepared in the Bel-Air kitchen. Every night I spent hours after work studying those texts and honing my skills.

The one skill you couldn't learn from any book was how to suc­cessfully maneuver through the cutthroat politics of a top-flight kitchen. The trouble started one Friday night when I was paired with Maria at the broiler station. That station took the most heat during service, because that's where the majority of the Bel-Air's popular dishes were prepared, like rack of lamb, grilled pheasant and other game, and even some fish. We had to perform above the rest of the crew, just to hang with the flow of service. Maria was my partner on the station and her game was weak. I was cooking the meat while Maria was supposed to be preparing and plating the vegetables and starch. She was fucking up from the get-go. I had a rack of lamb ready for Table One, the table in the kitchen, and Maria was just standing there stressing and staring back and forth between me and an empty plate. It kept going like this until I was so caught up trying to get her to do her job that I misheard the chef when he ordered another rack of lamb.

He was yelling back, "Mario, let's go with the twelve top! Pick up! Jeff! Maria! Let's go!"

I said, "Fuck. I'm down a rack." We were short one portion of lamb that I'd have to prepare from raw to plated in minutes.

I couldn't let Chef Clauson know that I'd fallen behind, so I ran to Mario's station and grabbed one of his hot sauté pans, which the dishwashers always made sure he had plenty of while I was al­ways short clean pans. After quickly seasoning up a rack, I mashed it down and put it straight in a hot pan.

By now, Chef Clauson was in a screaming rage. "Jeff, I want my fucking lamb now!"

"Lamb's coming, Chef! I'm down one rack. Let's send out ev­erything and by the time the waiter gets back I'll have that lamb dish plated."

The chef was going crazy, yelling and cursing his head off. I was sweating bullets and Maria was ready to collapse on the floor -- it was killing her. It was killing me! I felt weak, ashamed that I was let­ting the chef down and causing the rest of the crew to get backed up. I knew I had to put my gangster face on and take full control of my station. Failure was not an option.

I remembered what Robert had always told me: "speed, taste, and presentation." And, "Never depend on another cook to back you on your station."

Even after that last rack was plated and the service ended for the night, I couldn't face Chef Clauson. Then I came to learn something about him, which I'd later learn was typical of most top chefs. They'd whup your ass during service, get in your face, throw things, the whole nine yards, but at the end of the day, most of them never took it personally.

When this night was over, he came up to me, patted me on the back, and said, "Good job, Jeff. You're going to be a good soldier."

Damn, I said to myself. What do you mean "good job"? I fucked up. This can never happen again. That girl has to get off my sta­tion. I've got to get rid of her.

I knew there would be consequences. I'd have to deal with her boyfriend in the kitchen, not to mention the rest of the crew. Even the waiters loved her. The ones who didn't want to fuck Maria thought of her as their little Latin sister.

The next day I came in wearing my soldier's face. Like always, I was there an hour early to make sure I got my prep work done. When Maria came in, I immediately started giving her instruc­tions. She looked at me like I was crazy. She'd been there longer, so who the fuck was I to be giving her orders? I didn't give a shit: I was not going to be embarrassed again. I was taking full responsibility for the success or failure of the broiler station.

"I'm tired of your shit," I told her. "I don't give a shit how good you look. Your boyfriend won't be able to do shit for you if you make me look bad again."

Even though the boys on the line loved her, they couldn't stand up against me because I was bigger and tougher than any of them, and they knew it. Her boyfriend didn't want any trouble; he was between a rock and a hard place because his team needed me. I could tell that most of the crew didn't particularly care for having a negrito in the kitchen -- on top of that a strong one. They also knew I was no easy pushover, and I would be a better asset in the kitchen than Maria. I knew Mario at least respected me profes­sionally, because he would watch me prep and could see my speed and organization was top-notch. U­mberto watched me, too, but he despised everything I did. As he studied me that night, I stud­ied him as well, watching his every move.

I started my prep by searing off two or three extra racks of lamb and wrapping them in foil. I hid them under my little chrome utility cart on the side of my six-burner stove so that, if I fell behind again, I'd have backups that I could pop in the oven and bring up to temperature. Sandbagging food that way was definitely against the rules, but I felt I had no choice. It was crazy in there, it was a battlefield, and I intended to win by any means necessary. Within half an hour of service, the chefs would be ranting and raving, wait­ers stressed out, and all of these Hollywood celebrities watching the show from Table One. Even as I prepped, a part of me felt like waving a white flag and saying, "I give up! I'm burnt!" And then just walking out.

We were an hour into the service when I got my first lamb or­der. I seasoned the rack of lamb with my kosher salt and cracked black pepper, seared it off in a hot sauté pan on both sides, and put it in the oven. I told Maria to drop the polenta in the deep fryer and in the next twelve minutes to sauté the spinach and to cara­melize a shallot. My lamb came out; I cut the rack in half and let the pieces rest a few minutes before setting them over the crispy polenta with the double bones crisscrossed and pointing upward. Then I spoon-drizzled the red wine sauce around the chops, gar­nished them with crispy basil, and placed the dish in window.

Chef Clauson told me, "Great presentation, Jeff," but within minutes it came back from the customer.

"What's wrong with the lamb?" Chef Clauson asked the waiter.

"They didn't like it," he reported. "They said it was kind of sweet or something."

The chef told me to refire it, and I could already feel all eyes on me. I noticed some of the boys at the end of the line were smirking at me. For some reason, a sixth sense told me to check my season­ing. I'd heard that the more competitive it gets in high-end kitch­ens, the more cooks sometimes tamper with their in-house rivals' seasonings and sauces -- adding water or soy sauce to their sauces and red wine, for example -- things you couldn't fix on the fly. So I tapped the tip of my pinky to my tongue, touched my kosher salt, and tapped it on my tongue again --

The motherfuckers! Someone had mixed granulated sugar with my salt.

Immediately, I called to Chef Clauson, "Come look at this bullshit, Chef. Someone put fucking sugar in my salt. I've never come snitching to you but this is over the top. It's gonna get out of hand and someone's gonna get hurt. I appreciate the opportunity you're giving me, Chef, but I was treated with more respect when I was in prison."

I let him know that I was a professional, not just some ex-con, and that I could run my station well if he could get his crew to stop interfering with me. I had, after all, run kitchens over some of the world's most desperate men.

He ended up just letting it slide. I was furious. I didn't need any more proof that the boys wanted me out.

The dishwashers had already stopped supplying me with enough sauté pans and, two weeks before, all of my prep had been thrown out and I'd had to start from scratch. I didn't bitch about it any further to Chef Clauson, but I did get in Tom Hanson's ear a little, explaining that someone was trying to set me up. As far as the chefs saw it, though, the drive and passion I brought to the kitchen was by no means worth their having a conflict with the Hispanic guys on the crew. They simply represented a greater as­set than one lone ranger. I knew I'd have to deal with them on my own. And that's just what I set out to do.

I started to flex my muscle on the line, mad-dogging them, staring them down. In my own way, I let them know that I wasn't the one to play with. I further let them know that if we couldn't deal with the situation there in the kitchen, we could deal with it on the street. At that point, I was even ready to bring in some boys from my old days to deal with these fools in the parking lot. The motherfuckers had backed me into a corner by playing dirty. The way I saw it, anything that happened to them now was something they brought upon themselves.

If my career was going to get fucked, so was everyone else's. But, before things went that far, I thought I'd try a little diplomacy -- like how the corporate gangsters do it.

Of all the Latino guys, Mario seemed to me the easiest one to flip. When I say "flip," I mean play on his intelligence and ma­nipulate him psychologically until he would let down his guard and accept me as a true member of the crew. I felt I could work my way in with Mario because, when he wasn't in the presence of the rest of his boys, he would share some of his insights and knowledge with me. It was always just enough for me to get by, though, never enough to build my confidence.

At the same time, I started a crew-wide public relations cam­paign by toning down my aggressive attitude and extending the olive branch by letting the crew bitch me up a little bit. They had me doing prep work that wasn't part of my job, and I let them. Mostly, though, my focus was on Mario. I started coming in earlier and earlier to help him get his fourteen sauces ready for service, set up all of his pans and reduction pots, and put out his wines and the various ingredients he needed for service.

The sauce that required the most prep work was the mango sauce that was paired with the duck. I peeled the mangos, removed the flesh from the pit, chopped up the cilantro, reduced the coco­nut milk, and pounded the essence out of the lemon grass. I made Mario's job so much easier that, despite his playing Mexican mafia games with me, he started to respect me. Before long, he began to share with me his secrets about the sauté station and making sauces.

Just like with Robert Gadsby and Sarah Bowman, the things Mario taught me in action couldn't be learned from any text or in a culinary school.

After the white boys in prison told me I was intelligent and the brothers hipped me to self-help books, I knew that I had as much a chance as any man to become successful. I was learning that no top chef is superhuman. I saw them digging through books, poring over magazines, and stealing other people's creations. They were jackers just like T-Row and me. The only difference was the prod­uct. When T and I were out jacking cars, these guys were jacking recipes, formulas, and techniques.

Once I mastered the broiler station, Chefs Gary and Tom knew that I was going to make it. They recognized that I was a sol­dier and not some wannabe. With those two behind me, the rest of the Bel-Air crew grudgingly started to give me their respect.

After four months, Tom told me I would be filling in for Mario on his days off. I was happy as hell. For two days a week I would be working the most coveted spot on the line. This was my ultimate opportunity to shine and also hone my sauté and saucier skills.

I'd been studying Mario from day one -- his technique, his ev­ery move; how he arranged the pots on the stove; how every handle for all fourteen sauce pots always pointed in the same direction; and how every one of those handles was labeled with duct tape indicating which sauce was which.

Within a month, I had the sauté station down to a science. I became so confident that I would even jump from the broiler to sauté when Mario was slammed to give him a hand. I had Mario just where I wanted him. It wouldn't be long, I knew, before the rest of his boys fell in line completely.

Although Feliciano was still a little cold toward me, he didn't make any problems either. Soon enough, the only person in that kitchen who I had any real trouble with was the one person who'd been giving me grief from the start: Maria. She wouldn't have been a major problem, but she had one advantage over me -- she was still fucking that other cook and their relationship was starting to get serious. Even after the rest of the crew had accepted me, she still resented me for forcing her to do her job.

She brought up fictitious charges against me with human re­sources, claiming I had threatened her, so a hearing was to be held where I would have to defend myself. Sure, I yelled at her and barked some orders, but that happens in kitchens everywhere ev­ery day. Hell, I never worked for anyone who didn't get on my ass when they thought they had to. Still, I was a large, intimidating black man, an ex-con, and a felon. And she was a very pretty and petite young woman who most of the front and back of the house staff wanted to bed. I didn't like my odds.

At the hearing Gary Clauson came to my defense. When Gary spoke, he sounded like a top-notch defense attorney. I barely had to say a word. For the first time, I felt like I really was a valued member of his team. The charges against me were dropped. After that, even Feliciano was down with me, and the job became easier, less stressful, and more enjoyable.

Over the next couple of months I made another new ally. Josh Thompson was a young chef out of New York City who oversaw the tasting menus for Table One. He had worked under Thomas Keller for two years at the French Laundry and for Paul Bocuse at L'Auberge du Pont in France. Josh's dishes were light and seasonal with remarkably bold flavors and sexy presentations. Josh and I had very similar philosophies about cooking. Maybe that's why he decided to take me into his confidence and started teaching me things. Of course, I always wondered if it was because he wanted to see me grow as a chef and was grooming me to become one of his soldiers, or if he simply wanted to bitch me into doing his prep work.

I didn't really care, because Table One was the ultimate. I want­ed to have an influence there. A lot of high-powered African Amer­icans ate at Table One, so I thought I would suggest something southern, something that played on the flavors that most blacks grew up loving, but I was too afraid of being rejected to make the move. After a year, I finally got the break I'd been looking for: Josh had a hernia operation.

Gary and Tom started covering Table One while Josh was re­covering from surgery. Gary didn't have a lot of energy. He had been recently diagnosis with leukemia. And Tom didn't have the time and didn't want to be stuck with another responsibility. So I asked Gary if I could try my hand at writing a tasting menu for Table One and execute the tasting.

Gary decided to give me a shot, so I wrote up a four-course tasting menu. It was summertime and peaches were in full bloom, so for the first course I went with a strawberry and doughnut-peach soup with a hint of elderflower syrup. The appetizer was a pan-seared Muscovy duck breast with braised Napa cabbage, caramelized sweet potatoes, and a port wine gastrique, and gar­nished with crispy leeks. For the main course I chose beef Ros­sini, a classic dish of filet mignon and foie gras. The finish was pan-seared loup de mer with braised Swiss chard, carrots, and tarragon cream.

Once Gary gave me the go-ahead, all the waiters were, like, "How are they gonna let this guy do a tasting for Table One? He's not even a chef!"

The first course was easy. I took pureed strawberries and then added a little bit of fresh squeezed orange juice to thin them out and a touch of sugar to enhance the sweetness. I strained the mix­ture through a china cap to remove all the little seeds. As I watched it come through the strainer it was like pure strawberry juice. After a quick whisk of the juice, I drizzled in some elderflower syrup to intensify the flavor, poured the juice into a white soup bowl, peeled and sliced a doughnut peach, and folded in fresh minced peppermint. Then I set that aside for the waiters to taste so that they could talk it up to the customers during service.

For the second course, I cut a four-ounce piece of duck breast and scored it with a sharp knife to keep it from buckling and to allow the seasoning to flow through the skin when I seared it. After searing it off in a sauté pan, I placed the duck in the oven at a slow roast. I took some Napa cabbage and caramelized it in a pan of its own. I did the same with the diced sweet potatoes, added brown sugar for the sweetness and the maple flavor, fresh thyme and butter, and gave it a quick sauté until the edges of the potatoes were dark.

On a square china plate, I arranged the cabbage and sweet po­tatoes in a little mound. Then I removed the duck breast from the oven and let it rest for a couple of minutes before cutting it into four thin, medium-rare slices. These I placed over the vegetables, then spoon-drizzled the red wine reduction around the artfully ar­ranged dish and garnished it with a poached bing cherry.

Next came the Rossini. I seared off a four-ounce beef filet and scored a small piece of Hudson Valley foie gras, which I would sear at the last moment possible because it's as delicate as butter. Rob had taught me to sear filet mignon from the sides, the top, and the bottom, and to sprinkle my seasonings from high up with long, sweeping motions like an artist's paintbrush strokes in order to cover it everywhere. Once the filet was done I plated it, and immediately put the foie gras in the blazing hot pan, seasoning it with black pepper and sea salt. In less than a minute, it was sitting beautifully atop the filet.

Finally, I seasoned up the fish and, when I laid it in the hot sauté pan, I could smell the fresh thyme, fresh cracked black pep­per, and salt filling the air as the fish began to sear. I love the sound of fish crackling in a pan -- it's like it's talking to you. It speaks to your senses and arouses your palate. When I'd finished it on top, I set it aside to rest while I quickly sautéed the Swiss chard and fingerling potatoes.

When I plated that last dish, it towered over all the others. Rob had taught me how to stack food, which was a technique pioneered by Alfred Portale at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. It was beautiful, all the colors playing into one another like a rainbow.

The waiters were blown away. The crew was blown away. Gary put his hands on his hips and stared down at the food and there were no objections, but one. He told me that strawberry doughnut-peach soup was a little too sweet to be served as a first course. I took his criticism with pride. I felt unstoppable, but I'd still never let my guard down.

Shortly after my first success at Table One, word went around that the hotel's banquet chef was about to quit. Even though ban­quet chefs got very little respect, it was a chance for me to make history. No African American chef had ever been in charge of a kitchen at the Hotel Bel-Air. I applied for the job and Chef Gary told me there was one candidate above me because of his long ex­perience in the industry.

I didn't take it as a no but, instead, as a consideration -- and I was pleased. As it turned out, the more experienced candidate didn't last three weeks before the Latino boys ran his ass out of there. I was offered the position at $28,000 a year, plus benefits.

It wasn't much, but I was more concerned with the title than the pay. But after Stacy did the math, she said, "Jeff, this doesn't make sense. You'd make more money as chef tournot doing over­time than you will as a chef."

I hadn't looked at it from that perspective; I'd only kept in mind what Robert had told me, which was that there were two forms of money: cash and experience.

"If you go for the cash first," he'd said, "before you get the ex­perience and exposure, you'll burn out before you have the experi­ence to make it all the way to the top."

So I took the experience, telling Stacy that the money would have to wait.

Within two months on the job I was getting down. I was banging out high-end parties for a hundred people at a time, and everything was made from scratch. Chef Clauson let me be cre­ative with the food I served, so long as there were no shortcuts taken. Some of my best dishes were diver scallops with applewood smoked bacon and pencil aspargus wrapped with smoked salmon. It was intense at times, but I was confident and focused enough to flourish. I was also confident enough to bring up the subject of my pay with Chef Clauson.

I let him know that I had been told that my position normally paid $40,000 a year and that I wanted to be compensated at the same rate as all the chefs before me. He agreed and gave me the raise I was asking for. That's when I was issued my first legitimate chef's jacket. It read "Hotel Bel-Air" on one front side and "Jeffrey Henderson, Sous-Chef " on the other.

I wore that jacket with pride, honor, and respect -- and I wore it everywhere I went. Even when my shift was over, I wore it on the street, when I went to the store, the gas station, anywhere. People in my community would recognize me and ask about my job and cooking. I thought back to being in prison and telling my family and Mr. Hershman that I was going to be a world-class chef someday.

If I wasn't on my way now, I didn't know what "on my way" meant.

Six months later, I was being recruited by Joseph Antonishek who, at just twenty-eight years old, was the executive chef and food and beverage director of the five-star, five-diamond L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. I knew it was time to move on. I had con­quered the title of chef tournot, learned every station, and had made history by becoming the first African American banquet chef at the Hotel Bel-Air. I'd earned the respect of Gary Clauson and the crew, and I had even made Robert proud.

My resignation loomed heavily for several weeks as I contemplated leaving. Chef Joseph was calling almost every day. I couldn't face Chef Clauson, so I went to Tom. He was angry but he under­stood. When he consulted with Gary, he understood as well. They knew I had to keep moving forward to expand my culinary career and seek out new challenges.

After a couple of spy missions to L'Ermitage -- snooping around, asking questions about Chef Joseph -- I was a little hesi­tant because I heard that cooks had a hard time lasting long there. But I was confident that I could make it through anything, so I gave my official two-week notice at the Hotel Bel-Air. On my last day, I shook hands and hugged everyone, thanking them all for their patience and what they taught me.

L'ermitage (now raffles L'ermitage) is located in the center of Beverly Hills with 129 incredibly expensive suites and a cool roof­top banquet space where rappers throw record release parties. My first assignment was the lunch and dinner shifts. I was hired as a sous-chef at $42,000 a year.

Since I didn't have a name in the industry, I never understood why Chef Joseph had pursued me so eagerly and he didn't even ask me to prepare a tasting, but I soon learned that his other sol­diers were falling off. Two sous-chefs had quit, one of them to work at the French Laundry. Before long, the only full-fledged chefs left were Joseph and myself. I ended up doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In return, Joseph promised to teach me the financial end of the business, where I lacked knowledge. Robert once warned me that very few chefs would teach me that, because once you could cook, manage, and understand profit/loss sheets, you could replace anyone.

Joseph never did hold up his end of the bargain, but my food took off to another level. Joseph's food was light and Asian-inspired, similar to Robert Gadsby's. There was, however, noth­ing intimidating about him. When he yelled at the cooks, no one even twitched. At that time, he lacked the maturity to marshal his forces in the kitchen. By using my advantage of being older, even I influenced him to do things my way.

I had only been at L'Ermitage a short time when Joseph left. That left me as the only chef running L'Ermitage. Just over three years out of prison and I was overseeing a five-star, five-diamond property in Beverly Hills. The pressure was on. And there was trouble ahead.

The general manager promised me advancement in the company if I held down the fort until they found a replacement for Joseph. I agreed. For some reason, I really thought I could run the place smoothly and become the permanent executive chef. Little did I know that there was a revolution brewing in the front of the house. There was a conspiracy to undermine me and run me out of there with my tail between my legs.

Not yet 90 percent polished, not yet 100 percent distanced from the street game, I allowed the provocateurs to get under my skin and push my buttons.

It was Saturday night service. The restaurant was packed. The manager of private dining started to fuck with me by intention­ally delaying ticket times, by not putting them into microsystems so the cooks could prepare the orders; those orders piled up and waiters began screaming, "How much time for table eight?" and "Room service!" My cooks couldn't handle it and started dragging behind.

I should have listened to the rumors about L'Ermitage's high turnover rate for chefs and cooks. Now I was seeing it firsthand: Behind the cloak of a prestigious restaurant operation and hotel, it was completely unorganized and unprofessional.

If I had Mario and Feliciano down here, I told myself, we would be banging this out with no problem.

My anger rose as they kept pushing on me, my blood pressure surging. Finally, I lost it. I went off on both of the managers and whispered to one of them, "I'm gonna fuck you up for this."

I meant that I was going to report her to the GM for her sabo­tage in the kitchen. She took it as an opportunity to say that I was going to physically harm her. She screamed out that I was going to kill her.

Within minutes, security showed up. "Chef Henderson," the guard said. "You need to grab your things and leave the property."

Meanwhile, the girl was sweating and turning red like a beet. She should have won a fucking Oscar for her one-woman show. I grabbed my knife bag, got in my car, and took off for home -- nervous as hell. I was still on probation and didn't want any drama. I never went back to L'Ermitage. (I never even called or got my last check.)

It was a long ride home to Harbor City. When I looked Stacy in her eyes, she knew something was wrong.

"What did you do?" she asked me.

"I fucked up. I talked crazy to that white girl I've been having trouble with at work."

"Baby, don't worry, you'll get another job, but you have to work on your anger."

"I don't have any fucking anger problem!" I shouted. "I'm just tired of these motherfuckers fucking with me and trying to stop my progress."

"But, honey, it's got to come to a point where you deal with it in another way. You can't keep going off on people because it's gonna end up with you not being able to find work in the kind of places you aspire to."

My hard head reared up once again. "I'm not worried about that," I told my wife. "I don't believe I have an anger problem. I'm just as angry as anyone else in America. People fuck with you, you're gonna get mad."

"But, Jeffrey, never forget something: You are black, you are a convicted felon, and you are intimidating to people who don't get you. You've gotten jobs because you speak well and know how to play the corporate game. But you can't show your street side because they will hang you every time."

"I understand that. But at the end of the day, I am who I am. I get fed up not being who I am. I'm tired of living a double life and being fake to learn the cooking game. Sometimes I just lose it."

"You can't lose it," she said, "at the expense of your family and your career."

"Yeah," I said. "I know that, baby."

<div align="center">+ + +</div>

This is the second 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.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I found that exciting reading. I haven't read the book, so I don't know if your marriage lasted, but I hope it did.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Like a a book that I can't put down, this was an engrossing read. I can't wait to read more. This book is on my must-get book list for this year.

Doddie aka Domestic Goddess

"Nobody loves pork more than a Filipino"

eGFoodblog: Adobo and Fried Chicken in Korea

The dark side... my own blog: A Box of Jalapenos

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I usually think of racism in America as an attitude white people have towards minorities, but racism of course comes in many forms and I found the Hispanic-black racial tensions described by Jeff to be particularly poignant.

I wonder, now that Jeff is in charge of a restaurant, how he deals with those rivalries.

Most of all, I'm glad somebody has brought the situation to light. I don't think anybody has gone this deep, in a mass market book, in terms of describing how race can be such a critical factor in the ultra-competitive environment of a restaurant kitchen.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is such a great read. Chef, you certainly have the talent of a top notch thriller novel writer. The whole excerpt was written with such a simple and engaging style, I could almost see the kitchen and hear the voices and could not stop reading.

Any plans for the chef to write fiction?

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I bought it and read it. Really different from my preferred reading but I find I really like proof that the American Dream can still happen. I also find Jeff's story a glimpse into a world that is foreign to me and right next door at the same time.

Good read, for what its worth coming from me, I recommend the book.

Robert

Seattle

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chef Henderson is making an appearance in Manchester, Vermont, on May 2:

"Tickets go on sale Sunday for the May 2 appearance and lunch of award-winning chef Jeff Henderson at The Perfect Wife restaurant in Manchester, Vt. Sponsored by Northshire Bookstore. $40; includes lunch and a copy of Chef Jeff's book, "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras." (800) 437-3700."

Margo Thompson

Allentown, PA

You're my little potato, you're my little potato,

You're my little potato, they dug you up!

You come from underground!

-Malcolm Dalglish

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Damn, Jeff.

Those f%ckin sh!tholes at L'Ermitage can kiss my a$$. :angry: What a complete and utter bummer.

I actually went to a wedding at Hotel Bel Air in 1999. Pretty good food too. Must have been a hundred people.

I wonder...

:wink:

Edited by johnnyd (log)

"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 5 months later...

Jeff,

After reading your excerpts I asked my wife for the book. I just finished it Monday night and all I can say is thank you for sharing your story. It touched me on several levels. Hope realized is still a beautiful thing.

Porthos Potwatcher
The Once and Future Cook

;

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...
I'm chuffed to report that, according to today's New York Times  that Chef Jeff's bio is not only up for a movie deal, but a TV show: read on.

Interesting - and I like the idea that it's not a competition.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...