Jeff Henderson, popularly called Chef Jeff, moved from prison to become award-winning and the most inspirational African-American chef, a bestselling author, a TV host, and a public speaker.
He is the author of four books including Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove and Chef Jeff Cooks: In the Kitchen with America’s Inspirational New Culinary Star.
However, it took Henderson almost a decade of life in prison to find his passion for cooking. It was in the prison cell that he realized how good a cook he could be.
“I found my gift in prison”, he said.
Henderson was born in 1964 in Los Angeles, California to June Marie Giles, a welder, and Charles Henderson, Jr. and raised by his mother.
He attended a host of elementary and junior high schools. He grew up on the streets of South Central, Los Angeles, and San Diego amidst the daily brouhaha where local gangs battled daily.
He was already a millionaire at age 19, but in 1988 when Henderson was 24 years old, he was indicted by the federal government. He received a 10 years and seven months sentence. While incarcerated, Henderson said he read his first book. He was told for the first time that he was smart in prison.
It was 1984 that Henderson embraced a criminal lifestyle. His drug-dealing habits increased when his family moved to San Diego. He was earning as much as $35,000 a week dealing in cocaine in San Diego.
He was sent to the Kitchen where he started taking a liking for culinary art. He soon developed a passion for cooking which will turn his whole life around. He worked in prison kitchens as a dishwasher and eventually he began preparing meals as a chef.
By 1992, Henderson was transferred to Nellis Air Force Base where he worked in the dining hall. He was accepted into the Culinary Training School for inmates at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Henderson left prison in 1996 and as the case for many ex-felon, all attempts to find employment proved futile at first.
According to him, one day a Wall Street business mogul, Ivan Boesky told him “Henderson, you moved amongst gang members. You said you never had a fight. You never carried guns. You were never violent but you became a millionaire when you were 19-years-old.
“He says all you have to do is to change the product and there’s no stopping you”.
Henderson worked on building his brand and rebuilding his image. He later got a job as a dishwasher and was later promoted to line cook. He was so keen on learning from the best chefs.
He moved on to other Los Angeles area restaurants where he worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles and the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills.
He moved to Las Vegas, and didn’t give up on his passion as a cook. Henderson later found a job with Caesars Palace and within a year he got promoted to head chef.
In 2001, Henderson made history in Las Vegas, when he became the first African-American named “Chef de Cuisine” at Caesars Palace. He eventually became an executive chef at several top restaurants including Café Bellagio, where he worked until 2006.
He established The Westside Group, a non-profit organization to help troubled kids and in 2007, he published his memoir, “Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove”.
Today Chef Jeff is a role model to persons who need the encouragement to reinvent their life. As a way of giving back to the community, Henderson created “The Chef Jeff Project”, a Food Network reality television program.
The project identifies and takes in six at-risk young adults with the goal of turning their lives around by putting them to work in his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine.