Marquis Hayes’ Strange Ride From Cooking Crack to Hip Chef
In the Bronx years ago he was known as Chef Murder for the quality of the cocaine he cooked, but now chef Marquis Hayes wows a very different clientele with his culinary skill.
The first time I saw chef Marquis Hayes cook, he never stopped moving. It was a drizzly late fall afternoon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, less than two years ago, and behind the counter at Café Henrie on Forsyth Street, Hayes commanded the kitchen. Wearing baggy jeans and a white chef’s coat over a button-down shirt whose rolled up sleeves exposed muscular forearms, he was a man in constant, purposeful motion.
With powerful hands (he has a steel-hard handshake) he split avocados, squatted to grab ingredients from a fridge, and piled sprouts, sliced cucumbers, and pine nuts onto a thick slice of multigrain bread.
“Order up!” Hayes yelled. “Order in!”
He shook a bottle of tahini, trying to squeeze out the last drops.
“Eighty-six on the tahini,” he said to an assistant. “I need the BLT on the fly. You know the little black ramekins in the kitchen? Can you get me one?”
To a sous chef dicing squash and piling it into a container, he instructed, “No más. That’s enough. Clean up that mess. I need someone to sweep up this area. We’ll put the soup in a to-go coffee container.”
A woman sitting at the corner of the counter commented on what she just ate. “I had two pieces and I was still hungry,” she said. “It was delicious, though.”
“Duly noted,” Hayes said.
Patrons sat on Jean Prouvé benches, nibbling on avocado hash and sipping almond milk lattes from custom-made Peter Shire ceramic mugs. Intricate ballpoint pen drawings on handkerchiefs, the artwork of prison inmates, decorated the walls. Their subject matter ranged from the edgy to the ethereal, from scenes of street violence to the Virgin Mary.
“I’ve been cooking my whole life,” Hayes said at one point, taking a break and sipping from a plastic cup of freshly squeezed apple-ginger juice. “The cuisine is the only thing that has changed.”
It’s a signature joke: He means that he used to cook drugs. Not so long ago, Marquis Hayes was an enterprising, innovative, and successful crack cocaine dealer in New York City. He earned the nickname “Chef Murder” because, when it came to cooking the product, he was one of the best in the Bronx, or any borough. As he puts it, “I was like the black Walter White.”
Barely a decade later, at the age of 37, Hayes is in a very different place. “From crack to croquettes” has become his slogan. As executive chef at Drive Change—an organization that helps young people returning from jail find jobs and educational opportunities through a food truck fellowship program—he imparts not just cooking techniques but guidance and hard-earned insight. This weekend, he’s a featured chef at the New York City Wine and Food Festival. Previously, he helmed the kitchen at Café Henrie, a hybrid art space/café from renowned graffiti artist and nightlife impresario André Saraiva. Thanks in large part to Hayes’ inventive, colorful reinterpretation of brunch staples, such as the above-mentioned avocado hash—a gluten-free take on avocado toast that substitutes a potato waffle for bread—as well as heartier midday options, Café Henrie became a lunchtime mecca for a trendily health-conscious set of downtown New Yorkers, and eventually launched a dinner menu, in May 2016. It has been featured in The New York Times, Grub Street, Vogue, W magazine, and the food and fashion blog Taste the Style.
When Saraiva interviewed Hayes for the job at Café Henrie in the summer of 2015, the former drug dealer candidly revealed his record. Unfazed, Saraiva asked Hayes to run the kitchen.
“I liked him,” Saraiva said, because he brought “some tough and darkness to the light. He is generous—he gives food to others, as he did in jail and as he did for his friends and family. He brings sweetness to life. And he makes good food.”
While Hayes has since moved on—Camille Becerra, currently the chef at De Maria in NoLita, took the reins at Café Henrie in early 2016 for a pop-up residency—he and Saraiva haven’t lost contact. “Me and André are really good friends. I consult from time to time, to make sure everything is up to par,” Hayes said in a recent interview.
The storyline from Hayes’ beginnings in the northwest Bronx to his success in lower Manhattan, and beyond, is the stuff of urban lore, a tale of survival that is at times shocking, and ultimately uplifting. But it begins simply enough, with a teenage boy stealing from his uncle.
Hayes grew up in Kingsbridge, in a working-class area of the Bronx dominated by graffitied walls and long, steep flights of concrete steps. His mother was a social worker for the city. His father was an aspiring DJ at a time when hip-hop was on the rise. He was also a serious crack addict.
Hayes had an uncle who he said was “huge” in the drug scene. Whenever the teenage nephew needed money to play Pac-Man at the corner bodega, he’d dig in his uncle’s pocket, where he usually found a wad of hundred dollar bills. One day, however, when he was 13, he reached for the money and instead found a bag of crack.
Unaware that the pristine, potent rocks could command top dollar in the streets, Hayes sold them to one of his uncle’s customers for $5 or $6 a pop, far below market value but “the easiest 50 bucks I’d ever made.” He only cared about getting enough cash to fund his video game habit, until a friend explained that he could make a killing selling the drugs he snagged from his uncle’s pants. His uncle never realized his nephew was robbing him; he had so much crack that whatever Hayes pilfered hardly made a dent in his supply.
By the time he turned 14, Hayes said, he had an apartment and earned steady cash. He’d dropped out of DeWitt Clinton High School. At this point, Hayes’ father depended on him for a place to sleep and a weekly allowance to buy drugs.
Hayes’ uncle helped him find work as a carpenter for the local union, exploiting a “mobbed-up” system that enabled Hayes to buy his union book illegally as a minor.
As Hayes tells it, “I was 14 earning $17 per hour getting coffee” for veteran carpenters, men he describes as “pirates,” “fresh-off-the-boat” Irish and Italian immigrants, “scary dudes.” Earning $800 a week, he spent most of it on drugs, purchased wholesale from a “connect,” a guy Hayes said was “the biggest distributor in Washington Heights at the time,” which he then re-sold for profit. But he says he never used.
“I had to have control over everything, and that’s why I never did drugs,” he said. “I saw what it did to other people, and I’m, like, ‘Hell, no.’ I called myself a ‘crackhead’ because I sold so much of it, but I never used it. I never used anything.”
Hayes soon hustled his way to the top of the Kingsbridge drug underworld, he recalled, processing vast amounts of crack, cocaine, and other drugs for sale across all five boroughs and counties beyond the metropolitan area.
He mastered a form of cooking crack using embalming fluid to produce a trance-like, 15-minute high in the “fiends,” or addicts, who were his customers. Whether he invented this method, Hayes is not sure. He said that someone may have experimented with embalming fluid before he did, but at the time, he was the only one doing it in the Bronx. He christened his product “E.T. Freeze.” “This is the best shit I ever tried,” Hayes’ customers told him. It was so good, they coined their own terms for it—“space base” or “moon rocks.” “They categorized it as something that was out of this world,” he said.
Hayes recruited a team of workers to help him distribute the drugs, including local kids who admired him as much as they feared him. As Hayes puts it, he was a “’hood celebrity.”
He felt no urge to leave the drug trade. At the time, it was all he knew. Having grown “’hood rich” from his underground empire—he says he grossed as much as $30,000 a week—he could afford to give generously to those who had helped him growing up. “If there was an old lady who couldn’t afford to get her eggs or her milk or pay for some type of medical attention, I would help out,” he said. “I would give my next-door neighbor cash so they could buy groceries. Or the guy outside, who just wants to get to work, I would go and get him a weekly amount of tokens. It’s community service. This was just me showing love, because these same old ladies that I’m taking shopping, they’re the ones calling my phone, telling me that the cops are in the building and that I need to evacuate. One hand washes the other.”
During his reign as the drug kingpin of Kingsbridge, Hayes ruled the streets with an iron fist. His nickname, “Chef Murder,” referred not just to the precision and chemist-like ingenuity he brought to cooking crack, but also to his menacing aura.
“That was the aura I had to portray,” he said. “When you’re making that type of money, for people to take you seriously, and know that you mean business, you can’t smile. You let other people talk for you. When you do talk, there’s a problem.”
Part of being a drug lord required maintaining control of the area he served. Thugs from rival factions constantly challenged his power.
Whenever Hayes roamed the neighborhood, he was accompanied by a loyal, deadly entourage, a small group of his most trusted partners in crime. They dubbed themselves “PAC” or “PAK,” which stood for “packs always clicking” and “pistols aiming killers,” respectively.
But everything changed on March 24, 2002, when Hayes got into an altercation with several members of a rival gang, the Latin Kings, who were holding a raucous gathering on his block in Kingsbridge—smashing bottles, screaming, shouting. What started as an attempt by Hayes to keep the peace, and, as he described it, to send the opposing gang members a clear message—fall back—turned violent and ended with a warrant issued for Hayes’ arrest. He spent two years in and out of Rikers fighting the case. Ultimately, however, he was convicted of attempted robbery in the first degree, as well as gang-related assault in the second degree for a different incident in 2001, according to court records, and sentenced to three and half years in state prison. He wouldn’t get out until he was 27.
Hayes may not have known it at the time, but the event marked a crucial turning point in his route to chefdom. For it was during his time in “the box” that he began to dedicate himself, in earnest, to the art of cooking actual food.
Cooking in jail
Hayes’ cell became his kitchen. He twisted the metal coils of his bed frame into a hot plate, connected them to an electrical cord and plugged it into the wall. Necessity led to culinary sorcery, such as re-hydrating beef jerky and grilling it on his improvised range top for a result resembling skirt steak.
Women Hayes knew from Kingsbridge sent him 50-pound packages of essentials, such as deodorant, clothes, and ingredients for cooking. Within the prison itself, Hayes befriended guards and high-profile criminals who would shop for him at the commissary or import beans, rice, chicken, steak, cheesecake. As money was not allowed in the prison, “food became currency,” Hayes said. In exchange for a couple of plates a week, “they would bring me whatever I wanted.”
Hayes said that when he came home from prison in September 2007 he delved back into “‘the life’ immediately.” One of those he reconnected with was VVS Ross (whose real name has been withheld to protect his identity). Ross became Hayes’ drug dealing protégé. (“VVS” stands for “Very, Very Slightly Included” and refers to a category of diamond clarity.) “That kid is like a little street kingpin,” Hayes said.
In Ross, Hayes saw an ambitious, if raw, salesman whom he could train to extend his own dominance of the Kingsbridge drug landscape. More important, he felt he could trust Ross. He still considers him one of his most loyal friends.
“That’s my ride or die, right there,” Hayes says.
Ross credits Hayes with showing him “the blueprint” for how to run the Kingsbridge drug scene. To this day, Hayes said, Ross remains embedded in the street life. “He’s waiting for me to open my next restaurant so he can transition into the culinary world. I can’t title what he does. He’s surviving.”
According to Ross, when Hayes got out of prison in 2007, he returned to Kingsbridge with the intention of re-establishing his control of the neighborhood drug economy. His stint upstate gave him increased “street cred” in the eyes of local criminals, many of whom knew all too well of the physical and mental toughness required to survive prison.
But Ross sensed Hayes wanted out. He said that even top drug dealers like Hayes know that their chosen profession too often leads to prison or death. And Hayes was beginning to understand how he could combine the culinary skills he’d honed behind bars with the business acumen he’d gained selling drugs to launch a legitimate career outside of the penitentiary.
“It’s crazy because [as a drug dealer] you become an accountant, and human resources, and a general manager,” Hayes said. “All these skills are developed in the streets, at the highest level, and you don’t even know it until you start a real business, and you’re, like, ‘Oh, I know how to do all of that comfortably, because I don’t have a gun to my head, or cops are not trying to fucking break down the door. I can actually think about this and do it.’”
Hayes’ return to a life “in the streets” only lasted for “about another two months,” he says, once he decided that he needed “to come up, or get some, whatever the case may be.” Selling quick-service food from his apartment, Hayes created what became his first mainstream business venture: Marq Hayes Catering. Fox, affiliated with the hip-hop duo M.O.P., and a respected artist in her own right, was a regular customer, and in a recent phone interview praised Hayes’ dishes. “I ordered from him almost every single day,” she said. “Whatever he’s doing right now, I miss it… He had a calling. He could dress a plate. His food makes you want more.”
Hayes’ cooking also caught the attention of former New York Knicks star Alan Houston, who commissioned him as a chef. He went on to complete a professional training program called Defy Ventures that prepares former inmates for careers in the conventional economy by building on entrepreneurial skills they already possess. Through Defy, Hayes befriended Duncan Niederauer, the former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, who, Hayes said, asked him to cater his charity event on the storied NYSE floor, after Hayes lost a bet to Niederauer while they were watching a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. The young chef was rising fast.
A few years ago, Hayes connected with Jon Gray, a fellow Bronx native and a leader of Ghetto Gastro, a culinary collective started by Gray, who dreamed up the idea for the group after a stint in the fashion industry, and several young, talented chefs, all from the Bronx. Ghetto Gastro’s original members made a name for themselves hosting edgy supper club gatherings in lower Manhattan that blurred the lines between food, culture, music, and art. Hayes was instrumental in the group’s early success. He “jumped into bed with Ghetto Gastro,” he said, which fed his creativity as a chef and helped integrate him into New York’s food and fashion scenes.
“It was like hustling, but it was hustling food, for us,” Hayes said of his early collaboration with Gray. “But it took off and we started getting a lot of press and attention.”
Using contacts he made through Ghetto Gastro, Hayes said, he found work at some of New York City’s trendiest restaurants, including Vai, Stanton Social, and WD-50 (now closed).
It was at a Ghetto Gastro event called “Freestyle Fridays,” an ongoing series of pop-up dinners featuring free-flowing alcohol and ingredients from local farmers’ markets, that Hayes linked up with Laura Vignale, who at the time worked as an art director for Ralph Lauren, and had featured Ghetto Gastro in her own online food magazine The Marrow.
“I think I had too much tequila,” Vignale said of the night she met Hayes. She recounted how she boldly approached him at the event and said, “I’m gonna jump in the kitchen with you—I’m your sous chef.” After she burned herself helping Hayes cook scallops, they ended up at a strip club in Queens where, according to Vignale, Hayes got in a fist fight with the bouncer, threw his drink at a bartender, and lost his $2,000 watch. They spent the entire weekend together, said Vignale. It turned into a 48-hour culinary excursion that included romps to the Grand Central Oyster Bar and hole-in-the wall Korean barbecue joints.
Bound by their love of food, Hayes and Vignale launched Brown Butter New York in early 2014, a high-end catering venture they ran out of their Harlem apartment. At private dinners from New York to Utah, they catered to the likes of Oprah, Malala Yousafzai, and George Lucas. In Brown Butter’s early days, Vignale handled most of the marketing, design, and public relations, while Hayes prepared the food, which he describes as “refined New York” fare that reflects the wild diversity of flavors and culinary traditions represented in restaurants, and in the street, throughout the five boroughs. (Vignale now lives in Vancouver and works for a management consulting firm, leaving Hayes, now SoHo-based, in charge of not just the food but also the creative direction of Brown Butter.)
“I’m a New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, and I grew up eating street food,” Hayes said. “I grew up eating in Little Italy and Chinatown. When you taste my food, you understand that this isn’t some pretentious shit. It’s just me being me. I like to cook food and make people happy, and that’s the energy I try to put on a plate.”
That same year, Hayes said, he helped start 22 Chestnut, a restaurant in Cooperstown, New York. He was “intrigued” by the possibility of a “farm-to-table space.” The venture was short-lived, however; Hayes spoke of a disagreement between him and his business partner in the project, a local dairy farmer, and the place itself shuttered that summer. Nevertheless, Hayes said, it opened to excellent reviews, thanks to his cooking—several Facebook users gave the place five stars and called the food “amazing,” “wonderful,” “Manhattan-quality,” “absolutely delicious”; one said the short ribs were the “best I’ve ever had”—and that the experience, overall, was enlightening. “I grew up with the concept of eating healthy but didn’t know what that meant, exactly,” he said.
Hayes promotes Brown Butter’s namesake product as a revolutionary health supplement, lactose and casein free, with the ability to lower insulin levels in diabetics. (Growing up, Hayes and his sister had to adhere to certain dietary restrictions when cooking for their mother, a Type 2 diabetic, so they avoided sugar, lactose, and butter, opting instead for alternatives like soy milk and olive oil, and seeking out fresh, organic ingredients, and Hayes continues to strive for the same in his work as a chef.) The term itself is a nod to street lingo for premium quality drugs. But brown butter the ingredient, Hayes says, is also a staple in his kitchen that allows him to create “an elevated version of something that already exists”—ravioli, for example—“but presented in a way people are not familiar with.”
Yet for Hayes, Brown Butter New York, and cooking in general, is about so much more than the food. Through working with and learning from the gods of the culinary world—he said that last September he made a trip to the West Coast for a stint at Corey Lee’s Benu, followed by a very brief turn at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, both Michelin three-starred restaurants—Hayes aspires to incorporate everything he absorbs into his own approach to hospitality.
While Hayes is the first to admit he’s a businessman (“I’m trying to get fucking rich,” he says), for him Brown Butter New York is an ever-evolving expression of his own journey from a life of “constant worry and stress” to one where he can experience what it’s like to be a “bon vivant of everything.”
“I’m just learning how to actually live life because I come from an environment where people are not living. They’re surviving,” Hayes said.
Now, Hayes has plans to open his own modern American farm-to-table restaurant in the Bowery. He’s also started building his own furniture, which he’ll sell at the venue. He’ll create everything, from the food to the plates and tables on which he serves it. The decision was in part pragmatic. “Why am I gonna spend 15 grand on this crazy table when I could make a table myself, and the plates, and the forks, and the cups?” he said. But it also reflects Hayes’ vision of an “ultimate dining experience” where everything in the space has a story behind it—from a place he’s traveled to or a chef he’s learned from—and conveys the aesthetic of “refined simplicity” he strives to live by. Even in his own backyard, he says, “there’s food growing that is natural, that’s been here our entire lives. Cook it simply, add salt, don’t overcook it, don’t undercook it, and just make great food.”
Out and Gone
Hayes doesn’t visit Kingsbridge often. “There’s a saying,” he said. “‘Stay in touch but out of sight.’” But his mother still lives there and from time to time, he says, “I’ll swing through, say ‘hello,’ in and out, secretly.” But other than a few of his closest friends—people he considers family—he says he seldom speaks with anyone from the neighborhood, and he’s cut ties with those he referred to as the “thugs” and the “goons” from his days in “the life.” “I don’t have time to waste so I don’t speak with those people anymore,” he said.
The neighborhood itself has changed drastically since Hayes got back from prison in 2007 and even more so since the height of his reign over the drug scene in the early 2000s. The underground drug economy has become a “free-for-all,” a “disorganized, over-saturated” conglomerate of warring dealers, according to Ross. Lack of business prompted him to seek out opportunities in smaller markets upstate.
Hayes prefers not to linger on the past. At one time, he had no choice but to inspire fear in others. If it was his skill as a chef that sold his product, it was his innate business savvy and his ability to dominate rival dealers that made him into a boss in the drug economy. Now, however, Hayes sees stories from that time as incompatible with the persona he has developed as the face of Brown Butter New York. “I’ve come too far to let anything in my past interfere with what I am trying to create,” he said recently. Or, as Ross put it, “Chef Murder and chef Marquis Hayes will always be two different people.”