CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chef Jeff Henderson has always been a good businessman, even while moving thousands of dollars a week in product as a young cocaine dealer in the streets and alleys of South Central Los Angeles and San Diego.
"My dream was my mother's dream -- that I would own a house on a hill with a white picket fence," said Henderson.
To get there, he looked around the streets where he lived and saw opportunity.
"That drove me to the only option I felt that could yield dividends, which was selling drugs in the early '80s, when it became readily available to inner city men around the country."
The only problem was that this line of work he chose to pursue his dreams would deposit him in a federal prison at age 24. For nearly 10 years.
Busted and behind bars for a long while, he decided not to languish. He began to work in the prison kitchen with a fellow inmate and cook named Friendly Womack Jr. A seed had been dropped in fertile soil.
The broad outlines of his tale -- at age 48 he is now a nationally known celebrity chef and inspirational speaker -- will be told when Henderson speaks in Charleston on Friday. He'll deliver the keynote address at the Strengthening Families in West Virginia conference, hosted by the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action (See www.sfwv.org for more details).
He was also planning on giving a motivational speech at the South Central Regional Jail, since "Chef Jeff," as he is known, goes back to jail frequently to encourage other people behind bars to turn their lives in a new direction.
These many years later, Henderson still pays homage to his jailhouse mentor through his Friendly Womack Culinary Scholarships, part of Henderson's mission to help young people who have gotten into trouble turn around their messed-up, misspent younger years.
"He was the guy who taught me how to fry chicken. He inspired me, and people began to love my food in prison" said Henderson, whose cuisine has progressed well into gourmet comfort food since his time at Womack's side. "People convinced me I should try my shot at chef-dom after my release from prison. That was my goal."
The prison where he was lodged had its share of white-collar criminals -- hedge fund traders and CEO-types who gave lessons in marketing and business practice because they didn't want to work in prison industry shops, he said.
One of them told Henderson that as a seasoned, high-volume drug dealer, interacting and negotiating with gang members and dealers, marketing and selling a desired product, he had learned useful business skills.
"This Wall Street guy told me: 'You understand branding, marketing, relationships, logistics -- all you gotta do is change the product and there's no stopping you,'" Henderson recalled. "And that's what I did."
And how. Henderson made culinary history in Las Vegas in 2001, when he became the first African-American named "Chef de Cuisine" at Caesars Palace. He eventually became an executive chef at several top restaurants, including Café Bellagio in Vegas, where he worked until 2006.
He wrote a best-selling book, "Cooked: My Journey From the Streets to the Stove" (William Morrow, 2007), about his path he took from inmate to chef, a story slated to be turned into a motion picture by the team that made "The Pursuit of Happyness."