If the school board members attending NSBA’s 23nd Annual Fellowship Gathering were a bit sleepy early Sunday morning, they were instantly revived by the compelling story of its featured speaker, Jeff Henderson.
Known simply as “Chef Jeff,” Henderson’s journey from the streets to the stove was an inspiring, humorous, and rousing story about the power of potential.
Wearing a white chef’s jackets and jeans, Henderson mesmerized the audience as he detailed his circuitous route to fame. Growing up in southeast Los Angeles, he said he came from a traditional family by his neighborhood’s standards. His father had left, his mother worked two jobs, and neither they nor their parents had gotten an education.
“I grew up in a home where there was never was a fruit bowl on the table, and where you’d open up the refrigerator and sometimes there was no food,” Henderson said. To make ends meet, his mother resorted to drastic measures, turning to prostitution.
“Imagine being a little boy and seeing different men come out of his mother’s bedroom,” Henderson said. “The greatest atrocity any mother [can commit], including my mother, is to tell a young boy that you are the man of the house.”
With the weight of the world on his young shoulders, Henderson said he couldn’t concentrate in school and his teachers, many of them unfamiliar with the experiences of poverty, couldn’t relate. As a result, they couldn’t get him to buy in to education.
“I went to school and I saw all these honor kids, who got straight A’s and their pictures put on the wall,” he said. “What do you think it does to the self-esteem of person like me? I said ‘Why should I go to school?’ Nobody’s got my back; nobody told me I had potential.”
Everyone that is, except the hustlers in his neighborhood.
“It was the homeboys who paid attention to me, who taught me how to make money. They gave me a pat on the back and told me I had potential,” he said. By the age of 19, Henderson took his gift for gab and natural marketing abilities and became a millionaire selling drugs. Five years later, he was nabbed for drug peddling and sent to prison for nearly a decade.
“I was blessed to be indicted by the federal government and sent to prison,” Henderson said. “I got rescued from the streets.”
Federal prison nets a higher-end of convicts, Henderson said, eliciting laughter. He served time alongside judges, CEOs, and hedge fund managers, who taught business courses, marketing, and public relations. Henderson even joined Toastmasters while in prison.
“I became an intellectual ‘jacker.’ I robbed information and knowledge,” he said. Henderson took the same intense inquisitiveness to the prison kitchen, where he became the number one cook and baker after six months.
“People loved my food in prison,” he said. “It was the first time I got praise.” Henderson had discovered his talent and his path in life, a path that would lead him to become the first African American executive chef at the prestigious Café Bellagio in Las Vegas, a path that led him to Oprah Winfrey on her eponymous show, and a path that eventually created his own show, “The Chef Jeff Project” on the Food TV Network.
“This is the key to finding your gift: When you do something with the least amount of effort and you do it at a high level, that’s a gift,” he said. Helping people discover their gifts takes a unique set of eyes and abilities that educators possess. But educators need to also understand how to sell that dream to kids who don’t believe it exists.
“We all want to embrace education but [students] want to know the payoff,” he said. Instead of merely telling them they have to learn math, Henderson said educators need to show them learning math means being able to buy a house or go on vacation with family.
“But we also need to teach them that real wealth means putting food on the plate for the next generation,” he said. “That real wealth comes not just in money forms, but in knowledge.”