Person of the Week: Jeff Henderson

Ex-con finds his calling in the kitchen and gives back to troubled youth.

Oct. 17, 2008— -- After doing hard time, many felons end up on the street or back in prison, but Jeff Henderson made a complete 180: He went from a crack dealer on the streets in California pulling in $35,000 a week, to a prison inmate, and then to a celebrated chef.

His love for cooking started in the least likely of places: the prison kitchen.

"When I first went to prison, I pretty much felt I was done, I was finished," Henderson said. "I blamed everyone for my shortcomings. But it wasn't until several years after my incarceration when I began to value education, I began to accept responsibility for my past. And that planted the seed for change."

During his 10 years behind bars, Henderson landed a fortuitous jail-time job in the kitchen, where he learned how to cook.

"The basics of cooking in prison is a little different from most restaurants," Henderson said. "You don't have the six-burner stoves or the sauté pans.

"We made sure we were putting out a great product, you know, for the prison population," he said. "We took pride in what we did. ... Food is one of the most important things to a person who is incarcerated."

In prison, Henderson read cookbooks from all over the world, ordered curriculum from the Culinary Institute of America and studied.

"It was through reading, it was through exposing myself to inmates in prison who were Wall Street business moguls, who were ... intellectuals, who saw the intelligence and the potential I had, which allowed me to be able to believe that I can become successful and I can shake the dark past of a criminal lifestyle," he said.

With a sense of hope and drive, Henderson was released in 1996, into a world full of new ingredients and produce that he had never tasted or experienced before.

He started as a dishwasher, soaking up everything he could from other chefs. Eventually, a mentor at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas took a chance on Henderson.

"I had to defuse the prison stigma. I had to make the felony jacket disappear," Henderson said. "I had to straighten up the way I walked. You know, I had to clean-shave my face. I put make-up to cover my earring hole up, and I learned to smile."

Diffusing The Prison Stigma

Four years after he was released from prison, Henderson became an executive chef of the buffet at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

For many cooks, something like that is the ultimate accomplishment, but Henderson wanted more. He wrote a best-selling, warts-and-all memoir, entitled "Cooked," started a catering company in Los Angeles and now stars in his own show, "The Chef Jeff Project," on the Food Network.

"I wanted to create a show that changes lives, inspires lives and motivates lives," Henderson said. "Through the power of food, I was able to take six young people who come from diverse backgrounds -- gangs, drugs, homelessness, dysfunctional families -- and create an opportunity for them."

If they all make it through Chef Jeff's six-week culinary boot camp, he will provide them with scholarships to a cooking school.

"Prison saved my life: You know, I was rescued from the street," he said. "I hope these young people can make a change in their life in society today without having to go to prison and take the journey that I had to take."

Through the show, Henderson has exposed them to different foods and opportunities in life.

"As a little boy when I was growing up in L.A. and San Diego," he said, "if somebody would have told me that I was smart, I was intelligent and I have potential, and I had an opportunity to partake in project called the 'Chef Jeff project,' would it have impacted my life? God only knows."

Henderson currently is on tour promoting his new cook book, "Chef Jeff Cooks," and speaking in prisons and schools throughout the country. But the best-selling author hasn't forgotten his brothers on the inside.

"There's a lot of people who have been to prison who are successful out there," he said. "They just don't talk about it. I talk about it."

One of Henderson's favorite dishes is still "Friendly Fried Chicken," a recipe he learned from his prison mentor, Friendly Womack, Jr. He serves it with red beans and rice, and corn bread.

"That [is the] meal that gives me the most joy [when] preparing," he said. "Food is a celebration of life, and I believe that every recipe, every dish has a story behind it."

Looking back, Henderson knows that he has come a long way from his days on the street to find his passion for food and to working to change lives.

"I know for the rest of my life I'll be giving back, fixing the wrong," he said.

"I'm not proud of what I've done in my former life," Henderson added. "Today I do truly believe it is my responsibility, but it's also my passion. Besides cooking, I truly believe it's my calling to touch the lives of people who feel they have no hope or have no potential to be successful."

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