Jeff Henderson knew at age 7 that he wanted “the house on the hill with the white picket fence.” Growing up in South Central Los Angeles under the watchful eyes of his mother and grandparents, Henderson was treated as “the man of the house” — an expectation that fueled his desire to provide for his family, by any means necessary, it turned out.
“My dream was fueled by poverty,” Henderson told TCEA 2013 attendees in an afternoon keynote address on Thursday, Feb. 7. “Our mindset is shaped and dictated by what we see, hear and experience on a daily basis. My grandfather wasn’t asking me if I had done my homework. He was taking me out to work.”
Henderson acknowledged that he soon became addicted to making money, eschewing his education along the way.
“When you have blinders on, you don’t see the value of education, of information,” he explained. “Education has an element of delayed gratification to it,” and when your goal is to make as much money as you can, as quickly as you can, “it’s hard to wait.”
By the time Henderson was in high school, he had a new purpose: to become a drug dealer. “But I wasn’t going to be an ordinary drug dealer; I was going to be an extraordinary one,” he said. And he was: By age 19, he was a millionaire, dealing first in marijuana and later crack cocaine. He never took drugs himself, nor did he engage in the gang violence so common on the streets where he lived.
But his “poor choices,” as he described them, cost him: In 1988, Henderson was indicted by the federal government on drug charges and spent nearly a decade in prison.
Whipping Up a New Worldview
Ironically, Henderson found his true passion during his incarceration. “I’ve always said, ‘I got rescued from the streets, not arrested,’” he told conference-goers. “At first, I played the blame game, but there’s no ‘aha’ moment to having a personal transformation. There are seeds that have to be planted for everything we do.”
While working in the prison kitchen, Henderson learned to cook — and realized he loved it.
“Food is one of the most important things to a person who’s incarcerated,” he explained to ABC News when chosen as its “Person of the Week” in October 2008.
Slowly but surely, the “blinders began to come off,” Henderson told the TCEA crowd, and he began to see the world differently and to think differently.
“I turned prison into federal university,” he said, using that time not only to earn his GED, but also to become “laser-focused” on reinventing himself.
“You have best practices that you live by when you’re on the streets,” he explained. “All you’ve got to do is change the product, and there’s no stopping you. In this case, the product was me.”
Upon his release in October 1996, Henderson focused on becoming a chef. He started out as a dishwasher in the kitchen of Chef Robert Gadsby, and then worked as a sous chef at the Coronado Island Marriott in San Diego and as chef tournant and banquet chef at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
When he was hired by Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, he became the first African-American Chef de Cuisine to run its restaurants. In 2001, the American Tasting Institute named Henderson Las Vegas Chef of the Year, and he eventually went on to work as executive chef at Café Bellagio.
Today, Henderson hosts his own show, The Chef Jeff Project, on the Food Network and is a regular on the speaker circuit. His 2007 memoir, Cooked: My Journey From the Streets to the Stove, was a New York Times bestseller and is being turned into a feature film starring Will Smith.
As Henderson explained to TCEA attendees, “It’s never too late to turn your life around.” As educators, he said, “It’s your responsibility to help every student connect to the American Dream. Going to the best college doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll achieve that dream.”
Young people need to understand that “they can become anything they want to be, that they were born with a gift. Everyone was born with a gift. A gift is the one, two or three things that a person does at a very high level with the least amount of effort,” Henderson said.
Once a student identifies his or her gift — with the help of a dedicated teacher, he added — the sky’s the limit.