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Cooking up a new life

 
Jeff Henderson found his calling in a prison kitchen.

The chef, author, inspirational speaker and Food Network star was in Columbia today as an emissary for Missouri meat producers Farmland Foods and Premium Standard Farms, helping deliver 12,000 pounds of donated meat to the Central Missouri Food Bank.

Later in the day, he was to visit Douglass and Hickman high schools to talk to teenagers about “choices and consequences.” Young people listen to him, he said, because they know “I’m not a counselor telling them what to do. I’m a homeboy from the neighborhood who made some wrong choices.”

Brook Harlan, an instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center, said culinary arts students from Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools were excited about seeing “Chef Jeff.”

“I think this is great for a lot of the students to see they can overcome adversity,” Harlan said. This visit is “motivating for students, and I think a lot of them will relate to Chef Jeff.”

Henderson’s story illustrates that “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can be successful if you work really hard and are determined,” Harlan added. The message is universal, he said: “It has to do with pursuing your passion, whatever it is.”

In February 2007, Henderson’s story of “choices and consequences” was released in the memoir “Cooked,” subtitled “From the Streets to the Stove, From Cocaine to Foie Gras.” Later that year, actor and producer Will Smith bought the rights to the book for a future film.

Last season, Henderson starred in his own tough-love series called “The Chef Jeff Project” on the Food Network. He plucked six “at-risk” kids off the street in Los Angeles and put them to work for his Posh Urban Cuisine catering company. “The show was a 28-day, life-skills and culinary boot camp,” he said in a phone interview.

The young people “brought drama to my kitchen because they lacked communication skills,” he said. “They came in with sagging pants, didn’t smile, paid no attention to detail and had no sense of urgency.”

The young chefs weren’t sent home for messing up. Henderson saw all of them through the process. “I’m still in touch with four of them” who appeared on the show, he said.

“They are all in school and have earned full scholarships at the Culinary Arts Institute,” Henderson said. “They still have challenges, but I have faith they will do well.”

Henderson faced his own challenges as a teen in Los Angeles.

At 16, after he was “stabbed by some guys in a shopping mall,” his family sent him to San Diego, where he finished high school but “wound up in more trouble.”

At 23, he went to federal prison for trafficking in crack cocaine and remained locked up until he was 31. In prison, he was sent to the kitchen on “pot-and-pan detail” as punishment.

“I noticed that the inmates who worked in the kitchen got to eat better than everyone else,” he said. “Next thing you know, I was helping the cooks, and I was good at it.”

A year later, Henderson became the main cook in the prison kitchen. “I was inspired,” he said. “For the first time, people began to praise me for my food. I’d never been praised for anything before. I was an F or D student in school, always in trouble. I was a problem. I viewed the world that way, so I had an I-don’t-give-a-care attitude.”

In 1996, when Henderson got out of prison, he took a job as dishwasher at a Beverly Hills restaurant and worked his way up with the help of a few chefs who were willing to teach him the business. In 2004, he became executive chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Working his way to a top-chef position did not come easy. Outside prison he struggled to make ends meet. Still, he “read books, worked for free, two jobs, sometimes seven days a week, just to get the knowledge.” Now 44, he is happily married with three children.

Last year, his cookbook “Chef Jeff Cooks” was released. He dreams of owning his own restaurant, which he thinks will “define” his cooking style. “I’m working on a concept and looking for investors,” he said.

His other passion is working with troubled young people in detention centers and high schools .

“That is a big part of what I do when I’m not in the kitchen,” he said. “… The power is in books. I was exposed to learning in prison. It helped me see that knowledge is the difference between the haves and the have-nots.”


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