Chef Jeff cooked up a new life in prison
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."
Through his Chef Jeff Project, he has taken on at-risk young adults, committing to turning their lives around by putting them to work in his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine.
Isn't it hazardous risking your business by having former inmates involved in its success or failure? Of course, it is the successfully rehabilitated inmate who answers the question, but perhaps not in the way you might expect.
"Believe me, more people who don't have a record backfire on me than people who do have records," said Henderson.
He tries to ensure success by looking for motivated young adults with "untapped potential" for efforts like his Chef Jeff Project, a Food Network reality series that made its debut in 2008.
"I love to plant seeds," he said.
He has many of them sprouting all over the place. His latest TV stint is on a Game Show Network program called "Beat the Chef," in which household cooks whip up traditional family recipes as they go up against culinary pros with a panel of judges rating the results. "If they beat us chefs, they get $25,000."
Henderson's own cooking style is a blend of city and country, such as his Cornbread-Crusted Lamb Chops and Molasses-braised Beef Short Ribs. "I'm known for my California-French cuisine with a southern flair to it. I'm known for taking southern dishes and putting an upscale swing to it."
A quick search of his name online, plus a look at the recipe list in his 2008 "Chef Jeff Cooks" cookbook, turns up recipes for dishes like Crispy Crab Cakes, Sweet Potato Soup, Spicy Turkey Chili, Rigatoni Bolognese and West Coast Chopped Salad, among others.
Henderson is still cooking but not working as a restaurant chef at the moment. But he has plans underway to launch an 80 to 100-seat restaurant in either Los Angeles or Las Vegas (where he now lives with his wife and three children).
The restaurant will serve two aims: cooking up his signature dishes with as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible; and handing out breaks to young folk who are trying to turn lives around.
"It will also be a training ground and a kitchen that offers second chances to socially challenged young people -- people who may have a felony and can't get a break or may have barriers to employment.
"I'm talking with lots of people. It's what I love to do. I love to cook. But, equally, I love to inspire people. It's a dual love affair."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-3017.