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Jeff Henderson, better known as Chef Jeff, knows about success. At 44, he’s already served as one of the country’s premier executive chefs, authored a bestselling book, and sold the rights to his life story to blockbuster actor Will Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment. Though he credits his business acumen for propelling his career, Henderson points to past mistakes–and the steps taken to atone for them–as playing a bigger role in his rise to the top of the culinary field.
Always an entrepreneur at heart, Henderson delivered newspapers and cut grass to make extra money as a child. But the allure of big money and respect on the streets of South Central Los Angeles and San Diego proved enticing enough for Henderson to shift his focus to selling cocaine. He says that by the age of 19, he was making up to $35,000 a week. “When I saw people who I knew that were once successful get hooked on drugs, I’d think ‘this isn’t right,’” he recalls. “But I was addicted to the money, the lifestyle, and the power that I had.” On top of that, Henderson admits that knowing of no successful black role models to emulate, he saw no other options. “I knew I was black, but there was nothing great about being black in my mind. I couldn’t even imagine black people working in corporate America,” he adds.
But in 1988 Henderson stumbled upon a different path in the most unlikely of places: a prison cell. “I had convinced myself that I was invincible,” he says. Of course, he wasn’t. Henderson was sentenced to 19 Â½ years for selling drugs, but it was later reduced to 10 years and seven months. Several years into his sentence, Henderson ended up with kitchen duty and found that he had a knack and a passion for cooking–a surprise to him since “the only thing I ever cooked as a youngster was a fried bologna sandwich on white Wonder Bread with mustard.”
In his spare time he read culinary books, and everything he could about black history and current events including newspaper articles detailing the plight of drug addicted babies and other casualties of the drug trade. It was then that the magnitude of his past actions began to sink in. When his fellow inmates praised his cooking skills, he realized that cooking could provide him with the riches and respect he had been chasing in the streets. “I felt like I was the man again, but not for something that was destroying generations of young people,” he says.
After his release from prison a year early for completing a drug abuse program, Henderson took any job he could just to get in the door of any restaurant, whether it be as a dishwasher or line cook, and he worked his way into getting a chance at better gigs. Though he had no formal culinary training, five years later, he tried his luck in Las Vegas, becoming the first black chef de cuisine at Caesars Palace and later landing the position of executive chef at Las Vegas’ exclusive CafÃ© Bellagio in November 2004. He also penned his memoir Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove (Harper Paperbacks; $14.95). But as rewarding as the success was, Henderson couldn’t forget about the people he had hurt through his past actions, nor those who were currently being hurt by the drug trade. “Once I began to see the impact in our community, I knew I had to give back,” asserts Henderson. “When other people paid a price for what you were doing in the past, part of the whole redemption process is reaching back to help someone else.”
Therefore, as Henderson was perfecting his craft, he was also talking to young people in schools and prisons about applying their street smarts to legitimate business endeavors. “When I talk to people across the country I tell them, ‘It’s OK to be a hustler. I’m still a hustler; I just changed the product I sell.’”
Last year, he starred in The Chef Jeff Project, a reality show on the Food Network that brought six troubled youth from all walks of life into his kitchen for him to mentor personally and professionally. At the show’s conclusion, the young people were given full scholarships to culinary school.
While the riches and the respect did, in fact, come about through cooking, Henderson says the satisfaction of helping others turn their lives around is more rewarding: “I feel like a healer. I feel like a person who’s touching the lives of people that ordinary people can’t touch because I’ve been down that road. I’ve been to the bottom and I’ve overcome.” Yet, he says, there’s more work left to be done.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.