Chef Jeff Henderson has a big story to tell. Convicted of selling drugs in San Diego at age 25, he was jailed for 10 years, during which time he came into what would be a life-transforming passion: cooking. From the prison kitchen to a groundbreaking position as the first African American executive chef at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, "Chef Jeff" worked his way through the American culinary world. But he never forgot what it was like to be a directionless teenager caught in the dangerous world of drugs, gangs, and poverty.
In 2007, he authored the bestselling memoir Cooked, and this year, he published a cookbook Chef Jeff Cooks and launched a inspiring show on Food Network, The Chef Jeff Project."
Henderson spoke to Beliefnet about what it means to be a real man, why he was once so angry with Jesus, and what is the perfect bite of food.
Is there something inherently meaningful in the process of preparing and serving food? Or does that just happen to be where your personal passion lies?
I truly feel that food is a celebration of life. It’s the most important, most valuable gift that God gave humans. Without food, no one could survive. With food, you’re able to think. You’re able to be creative. You’re able to provide for yourself and your family.
For me, and for a lot of men and women who’ve been incarcerated, food has been a vehicle to a successful transition from prison to society because you’re able to work in an industry that’s open to former incarcerated individuals and, you know, you get to eat while you’re there.
Talk about the moment when food changed your life.
It wasn’t that I just started working kitchen that day and, you know, "aha," my life was changed. It began with education, because through education I was able to come into the thought process of accepting responsibility for the things I’d done wrong. And I had to begin to view the world different and think different in order to allow anything positive to come in my life to impact change.
After the first seed was planted, I worked in the kitchen. And over a period of time, I began to be praised for the foods that I prepared, the flavors, the pride, you know, that I put into cooking.
You never had a culinary school education, but you provide a culinary education for the crew members on The Chef Jeff Project if they complete the program.
Yes. They all win a two-year scholarship at the Art Institute.
How do you compare the value of official school education as opposed to what you can learn on jobs from mentors, from books?
Well, what I missed is the culinary terminology, better understanding of the science of cooking, the historical aspects of foods, proper cooking technique and things like that. I got on-the-job training, but there still were a lot of pieces that I missed, so I had to pick up on those by reading culinary curriculum and culinary books that were mandatory usage in the top culinary schools.
It’s one of the reasons why I want to give the young people scholarships to school versus money or gadgets and trinkets, because one day, when they find a point in their life they want to give back or reach back and give the same opportunity to someone that I gave them, they have the credentials to be able to teach in a culinary school. I don’t have the credentials to teach in a culinary school because I don’t have a diploma in culinary arts.
In Cooked, you talk about how during your trial, you sang a hymn to comfort yourself: "Jesus, I Know You’re Gonna Make A Way For Me." You write later, though, that while you were in jail, you became angry with Jesus. What is your faith life like today?
At the time when I talked about "Jesus, I Know You’re Gonna Make A Way For Me," my life was in the hands of a juror. And when I was found guilty and sent to prison, I became bitter and had disbelief in God.
Over a period of time, I come to the realization that this was part of God’s plan to get me at the point I’m in my life today, and it became a blessing in disguise. But it took trial-and-error and growth and development personally to be able to understand why I was put in that situation because, even when I was on the streets, I was a non-violent person. I cared about people. I had a heart. I had a certain level of consciousness. And, you know, I had to go to prison to find myself, to be able to teach and do the things that I do today.
I am a believer in God, and I am a Christian. And it’s by the grace of God that I’ve made it this far, to live to be 44 years old. I truly believe that my success is directly tied to God’s work, which is rescuing, motivating, inspiring, and uplifting people of all races and from all different communities.