The Gift Gab
Convicted-felon-turned-celeb-chef Jeff Henderson shares life lessonsin and out of the kitchen.
When Jeff Henderson talks, people listen. This was true when he ran the kitchen at a high-end Vegas casino. It was true when he dished out tough love to aspiring chefs on his Food Network reality show. And it was true way back before he even turned 21, when he was a major LA drug dealer.
St. Louis got a taste of the charismatic chef’s appeal at a recent Missouri History Museum event for his newly released “America I Am: Pass It Down Cookbook.” Henderson gave a cooking demo and answered surprisingly personal questions before taking the stage to deliver what’s become his bread and butter: an insightful critique of African-American street culture from a guy who overcame a felony conviction to become a successful chef, author, motivational speaker and TV personality.
Keepin’ it real With Henderson, nothing’s off limits: one minute, he’s sharing the secret to flaky peach cobbler pastry crust; the next, he’s rapping about being a gangster, then cracks a joke about his lips.
Many people know Henderson from his Food Network reality show, “The Chef Jeff Project.” Its premise: young adults, most on the verge of becoming juvenile delinquency statistics, try to earn a culinary school scholarship by working at Henderson’s catering company. TV makes a great platform for sharing the bare bones of the “Chef Jeff” story, but in person, the 47-year-old Henderson exudes a passion that cameras can’t capture.
The show focused on turning lives around—like nearly all of Henderson’s endeavors since leaving his prestigious executive chef gig at Las Vegas’ Café Bellagio in 2006. Whether he’s hiring for his catering business or working with at risk kids, Henderson looks for people with fire in their eyes—people who remind him of how he was back in the day. “If someone would have seen the potential in me, that burning in my eyes, I could have become something greater than a drug dealer,” he says. “I wouldn’t have went that route.”
Second chances Ironically, it was in federal prison that mentors finally found him. White-collar convicts taught him that the corporate world would admire his skill for street hustling if he channeled it toward “seeking opportunity.” The kitchen staff taught him to cook. When he left prison 15 years ago, Henderson became what he calls “an intellectual ‘jacker’ who robbed for knowledge.” He soaked up the culture of high-end restaurant kitchens, starting as a dishwasher. He built a career. Then the Californian set his sights on Las Vegas.
A few years ago, radio and TV personality Tavis Smiley asked Henderson to help compile a soul food cookbook for the “America I Am” exhibit. The job sparked Henderson’s interest in culinary history, especially the ways in which slaves “took a discarded product and made it good” through techniques like braising. His interest in African-American history and his personal experience on the streets have both informed his persona as a public speaker. Henderson urges urban parents to break the cycle of materialism and short-term thinking that underlies social problems like poverty and teen pregnancy. He knows the topic well—he fathered his oldest child when he was 17. Today, Henderson has four more children (ages 13, 11, 9 and 10 months) with his wife, Stacy, and he talks with pride about the legacy he is building as a loving father who overcame mistakes.
His upcoming project—a vegan-inspired cookbook— is a tribute to his kids, who have grown up without eating meat or animal products. He’s also working on a self-help book. Not bad for a guy who didn’t read his first hardback until prison.
Henderson still owns a catering company, but with all of his public speaking, it would be easy to assume his heart is no longer really in the kitchen. That is, until he starts carefully weaving the crust for his peach cobbler across the pan. His stories trail off, and the standing-room-only crowd holds its breath as the chef concentrates on the most important thing in the room at that moment—a delicate soul food dessert.