Jeff Henderson’s love affair with food and cooking began in a most unlikely setting: a federal prison. At 24, Henderson was sentenced to 10 years for selling crack cocaine. Soon, he was trading his culinary creations (chicken-and-cinnamon rolls, for example) with other inmates for shirts and whatever else he needed.
Today, Chef Jeff, as the 45-year-old South Central Los Angeles native is popularly known, owns a catering company and can be seen on television’s Food Network. He’s also an author and mentor to at-risk youth.
Henderson specializes in California French and Northern Italian cuisine. “You are not going to be a top chef by simply cooking soul food or ethnic food,” Henderson counsels aspiring chefs. “You need to go out of your zone, learn the history of food — how to serve it, how to prepare it from the masters. You need to know what makes other foods great. Once you get global experience, the blinders come off and you open yourself to the world.”
A relentless work ethic and his determination to join the circle of über chefs Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, G. Garvin and Ethiopian-born Marcus Samuelsson are fueling his career. He has managed to turn every aspect of his life into a brand that champions the pillars of his own success: work hard, learn from your mistakes, pay your dues, be willing to learn from others and explore. He has even managed to make the label “Black male with a criminal record” work for him.
“The idea of branding and gorilla marketing is what I knew in the streets as hustling,” Henderson told The Network Journal during a recent book-tour stop in New York City. “I basically changed the product from cocaine to me and my ability to cook. I educated myself through books and hard work and studied the people who were doing what I wanted to do.”
His Food Network show, The Chef Jeff Project, portrays Henderson with at-risk youths from South Central Los Angeles whom he hires to work for his catering company. He provides these youth with the tools not only to begin a career in the food industry, but also to be successful in life in general.
Henderson perfected his own skills in many small restaurants in California and in Las Vegas, where he became the first African-American executive chef at the renowned Bellagio Hotel. “You can’t let your situation limit your exposure to the world. So when I could not travel out of the state, I basically read about all the chefs that I wanted to learn from and read about the successful businessmen who built themselves up,” Henderson says. “And I was willing to work in any kitchen to get the experience.”
Understanding that his own story would help aspiring chefs or those who have served time in prison, Henderson wrote Cooked: My Journey Through the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras. Actor and producer Will Smith recently bought the rights to the book and plans to make it into a movie. At presstime, Henderson was in negotiations to move his television show to another network and was working on a new book in collaboration with journalist Tavis Smiley’s America I AM: The African American Imprint. The book, titled Pass It Down Cookbook, will showcase a collection of family recipes that anyone who is willing to publicize can submit online at www.passitdowncookbook.com.
Henderson has not forgotten how far he has traveled and is committed to helping others find their passion and achieve their potential. “If I wasn’t cooking or writing books, I would still find a way to help others,” he says.