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Articles tagged with Chef Jeff Henderson

Chef Jeff: From the streets to the stove

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.”

Naomi Dillon|April 22nd, 2012|Categories: NSBA Annual Conference 2012|Tags: , |

Q&A with Chef Jeff Henderson

Jeff Henderson is an award-winning culinary figure known simply as Chef Jeff — although simple would hardly be the way to describe his rise to fame. Growing up poor in southern California, Henderson quickly fell in with one bad crowd after another. When he was 24, he was nabbed for drug peddling and was sent to prison for nearly a decade.

While incarcerated, Henderson worked in the prison kitchen where he found sustenance and salvation in cooking. Today, he is a New York Times best-selling author and television personality who will be speaking at NSBA’s 72nd Annual Conference in Boston in April. The self-made entrepreneur recently took time out of his busy schedule to provide some food for thought to ASBJ Senior Editor Naomi Dillon.

When did your passion for food ignite?

I was placed on pots-and-pans detail in the prison kitchen. I realized the kitchen staff, like in any restaurant, gets to eat the leftover food. I thought, “OK, maybe this is the place to be.” The opportunity came for me to learn to cook by helping the head inmate cooks, and I got very good at it. I was very fast at seasoning and organization. Six months after I worked in the kitchen full time, the head cook left and I was promoted to head inmate cook and eventually head inmate baker. I had to be creative with the ingredients — onions, garlic powder, salt, pepper, top ramen noodle seasoning packages, canned tuna, a piece of bell pepper, some squeeze cheese. Whatever it was, we’d create these dishes.

You re-entered society with gusto, becoming the first African American to be named executive  chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas. How did you make that transition?

I took the same drive and tenacity that I had on the streets into the corporate world. Prison makes you very disciplined, and so do the streets. That added to my ability to move quickly up the food chain in the corporate world. I was the first one in and last one out every day. I studied the best talent around me. I bought the same shoes they wore, the same chef jackets, the same eyewear, and the same books. I watched how they moved through the kitchen, how they held knives, how they seasoned, how they held a pot handle, a sauté pan, and incorporated it all into what I do.

What does food represent to you?

It means a lot of things. Early in my life, it was survival. In prison it was an opportunity for me to eat better. After prison, food became a career. It became that vehicle for my redemption. The power of food is like a metaphor; food changes life. I get e-mails and letters and blogs and tweets from people who talk about how food changed their lives.

What is the Chef Jeff Project?

It was born out of my Los Angeles business called the Posh Urban Cuisine, where we catered to Hollywood celebrities and corporate executives. I would always hire at-risk kids through Job Corps, Pro Start, and local culinary trade schools. I would take these young people into multimillion-dollar estates and catering events and teach them how to cook. Many of these kids had social challenges. They didn’t smile, they sagged their pants, and their facial expressions were intimidating. So I wound up teaching these kids the importance of self-presentation. Then the Food Network reached out to me after I was on the Oprah Winfrey show and said, “Chef Jeff we want you to do a show.”

So how are you able to break through to the kids you work with?

Most teachers don’t come from poverty so they don’t understand the mindset. They don’t understand the trauma that these kids have been through. Until you understand that, you can’t connect. You can’t get them to buy in to the idea that education pays off. You get them to buy in by building up their self-esteem. You have to help them discover their gift and figure out what they want to do [in life] and cultivate that. In my travels, I meet kids who have never been on an airplane, never saw the ocean, never been to a white-tablecloth restaurant, never been to a museum, never been told that they were smart, never been told that they have potential. These kids were born in poverty to drug-addicted parents, abusive single parents, and broken family homes. It’s them against the world and the odds are stacked against them. So you’ve got to let them taste it, feel it, and see it, so when they go back to that environment that little voice talks to them and says, “You know what, there really is an ocean, there really is a New York, there really are opportunities.”

Naomi Dillon|February 24th, 2012|Categories: NSBA Publications, Wellness, Urban Schools, Nutrition, Student Engagement, NSBA Annual Conference 2012|Tags: , |
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