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.
Do you think religious faith is important for at-risk youth, or is having passion enough?
Yeah, I think having a connection to a sort of spirituality that works for you makes you a better person. Young people today just have a disregard for religion and spiritual faith because they’re disgruntled with the churches, the preachers and the lifestyles of some of these mega-churches.
I believe that, in order to bring a young person who comes from adverse backgrounds, who has no confidence and hope in themselves or this country, that you have to work on changing their thought process first.
How do you define manhood?
In my former life, I defined manhood by having the most cars, the most beautiful women, money which brought status and credibility in my circle and in the world that I was living in.
Today, I define a man as a person, a man of purpose, a man of structure, a man of conviction, someone who values his family, his children, his community, and is not valued by what he has materialistically.
Having missed out on having loving male figures in your life as a young man, how do you show love to your wife and children, to the young people that you mentor?
I try to give them what I never got. I’ve seen and been around examples of love and fatherhood. When I speak to young men especially, and my sons, I hug them. I encourage them. I reinforce them. You know, I let them know that I believe in them and I see potential.
I know the smile that it brings to a young man’s face when I tell them I love him and I care about him, and I see potential in him. And I truly believe the foundation of change and success, whether it’s fatherhood, personal, or professional success, is that you have to find your purpose before you can have a dream. And, you know, once you do that, then things begin to manifest in your life.
What do you think is the first most basic thing that a kid who’s heading toward trouble needs to hear to make them change course?
Tough love talk about the consequences of making bad choices, because a lot of young people make wrong choices as far as gangs, drugs, and crime, but they don’t know the consequence. They don’t know the outcome. They don’t know the impact it has on community, on victims.
What do you think makes an effective mentor? Do you have to have a personal narrative to tell, like yours?
I truly believe to be an effective mentor, you have to have the experience and the understanding of the person you’re attempting to mentor. To be trying to mentor an at-risk inner-city youngster who’s been involved in gangs and drugs and crime and comes from generational poverty, the mentor has to have a deep understanding of that whole subculture in order to pull them in the direction they need to go in and to convince them that, you know, they have potential to change.
It’s like, if somebody was talking to me back in the day from the suburbs who was highly educated, I couldn’t relate. I would have had to heard it from someone who understands what I’ve gone through with my life to be able to guide me out.
Have you ever had to give up on anyone you were trying to mentor?
I have given up on some individuals temporarily until they hit certain crossroads to get them to understand that it’s time to make a change and a difference. I was hard-headed when I was young. I had to go to prison. That’s the only way I was going to get it. And some youngsters have to get in a deeper hole to understand they need to change.
I feel that my time’s valuable and many young people need my help, and I can’t waste my time with someone who doesn’t want to accept change, accept responsibilities, and sometimes I have to let them go until they find their way.
Then, when they hit rock-bottom, then all the teachings and the messaging that I’ve been doing with them, they finally get it and they finally say, "Okay, it’s time now. I’ve got to make a difference. I get it."
What’s more important—believing in yourself, or having someone believe in you?
There has to be a level of balance between the two, because you can’t get an opportunity or reach a level of success without both. Building up your self-esteem and self-confidence to be able to go in there and face a potential employer or face the potential opportunity, you need that. You have to be able to convince that individual or organization that you have potential, you have the skill set and the mind set to work within that particular company and be an effective employee that produces that is results-driven.
That’s one thing that I was able to bring to the table because, I knew that I had to create some leverage. I had to leverage my skills to convince employers, whether it was instead of a 90-day probation, give me a 30-day probation, or showing them I was first to work every day, last to leave, I didn’t take a lunch break, and went above and beyond and moved heaven and earth to learn everything that I could to have personal growth in that company.
Maybe it’s 75 percent confidence in yourself, and a potential employer may only have 25. But, you have to tilt that to your advantage.
What is "self-talk" and how do you use it? Is it similar to prayer?
I guess it could be like a prayer, but it’s a prayer to yourself. What I would do is mumble to myself, sometimes verbally out loud and have a self-talk before I would enter into a situation or a circumstance. I would run scenarios before I went in for an interview, before I had a meeting, before there was a confrontation. I would talk to myself about the pros and cons of a situation that has an outcome.
Like, if I go into a meeting to ask for a raise or for a new position, I would talk out both scenarios. What I would say if they say yes, how I would react if they said no? I would play that role out in my head first so I didn’t come off as angry or bitter.
What, in your opinion, is the perfect bite of food?
I would have to say my grandfather’s bread pudding with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’ve eaten it before for dinner.