"Cooked" by Jeff Henderson - A terribly bland read in need of serious spicing

Despite the fact that Jeff Henderson, executive chef at the Las Vegas casual dining restaurant Café Bellagio, managed to yank his way out of poverty, through a prison term, and into a career as chef, his book, Cooked: from the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras is, alas, a dull, one-dimensional read.

From hunger to cooking
Chef Jeff, as he now refers to himself, started life in a poverty-based family whose members included a petty thief grandfather who would lift quarters by the handfuls from the laundromat where he cleaned. He worked his way up to become a major crack dealer (crack, not cocaine as the titles implies, although I grant that the former is a form of the latter) and was arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison for nearly two decades.

There, he learned how to cook. And when he got out early by promising to cooperate with the FBI and testify against associates, and by signing up for an unneeded self-help program because it reduced his sentence, he got himself a series of positions at west coast restaurants, working hard and advancing up the system.

Can any life be this, well, dull?
Pretty fascinating stuff, eh? Well, not the way he tells it. The way he tells it, the only violence he was involved in was a solitary slap to a girlfriend. Do we believe a drug dealer lasted years and years without any more incidence than this? The way he tells it, the drug deals were, well, he actually doesn't tell much about it at all. Keeping us, instead, from an antiseptic distance.

The way he tells it, his time in prison involved nothing more harrowing than the occasional selling of a banana in the prison yard (they went for $2.50 each). Do we believe prison life involved no violence? No rape? And no major illegalities?

And then we come to the cooking. They way he tells it, he learned dangerous cooking habits in prison. But he doesn't tell us what they were. The way he tells it, he innovated recipes. But he doesn't tell us how. And the way he tells it, he learn how to make everything from a sauce to a grilled steak. But, once again, he doesn't tell us how.

In fact, the entire book only has one recipe. And it's not even his.

God is in the details
Exquisite architect Mies van der Rohe once said "God is in the details." And texture. And interest. And passion. And anything else that touches our soul. But the details are not here. And that's a shame. Because I bet they would be fascinating.

Dear Chef Jeff
Perhaps I can help by providing a little insight into storytelling. Here it is: One of the cardinal rules of storytelling is show me, don't tell me.

Show me, with details and color and insights, how you learned to cook. What was it like? What did you feel? How did you react when you royally screwed up? How did you react when you finally got it right? What was your process for innovating recipes? How did you feel watching the pots, grilling the meat, garnishing the meals?

Show me, so I can come along for the ride. So I can become emotionally involved. So I can, for just one moment, step into your shoes and feel the grit of the flour under my palms. Smell the butter as it foams. Hear the sizzle of the vegetables as they hit the screamingly hot oil. And taste the mouth-warming caramel from the edges of the dessert plate.

In other words, be as fascinating, compelling, and riveting, as Anthony Bourdain, for example, whose prose makes me hungry.

Four final words before I go make dinner
First, be aware that I interrupted a John Thorne book (I highly recommend the man) to read Cooked. That may have been unfair. Because Thorne's great depth and insight could only serve to highlight the lack of both in Cooked.

Second, although I don't respect his writing, I have a lot of admiration for his character. Jeff Henderson got himself into a trouble so bad that it took great determination to get out. He is to be applauded for this.

Third, I write for a living. So perhaps I am too harsh judge. Of course, perhaps modern life has lowered our standards too much. Perhaps.

And, finally, fourth, while the book was a very one-dimensional read - no real depth to speak of - I did read the whole thing. Much as one eats an entire bag of potato chips, yes. But no one forced me to. Of course, I was driven by hope. That, ultimately, was unfulfilled.

The last word goes where it belongs: To Chef Jeff
Want to read an excerpt? Go here. If you want to.