Jeff Henderson hasn’t had a birthday cake in 19 years.
After a demonstration Friday at the Culinary Vegetable Institute’s Chef Summit in Milan, Lee Jones, a host of the event, presented “Chef Jeff” with a birthday cake. Standing on stage in front of a group of his peers, media and hospitality industry movers and shakers, Henderson was visibly overcome for a moment.
The last birthday cake Henderson ate was at his 24th birthday party —a “high-roller” party he spent $10,000 throwing for himself. Six months later, he was in prison, sentenced to almost 20 years for dealing crack cocaine.
The birthday cake was just the latest in a series of pretty overwhelming moments over the last several months.
Henderson has an extraordinary story, much of it told in his recent best-selling book Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras. The book, which he started writing in prison more than 13 years ago, tells the story of his life: his childhood in Los Angeles and San Diego when he learned to be a thief; his young adulthood when he became a very successful crack dealer; his 20s and early 30s when he found redemption in a prison kitchen; and finally his freedom, when he overcame the stigma attached to being an ex-con and became the first black executive chef at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
His story has proved so compelling that Oprah Winfrey invited him on her show, and actor Will Smith and Sony Pictures bought the life rights to his book. Now, he has just gotten the green light for a reality show on the Food Network and he is planning to start the Chef Jeff Foundation.
Henderson’s show on the Food Network, however, isn’t your average cooking show. Henderson will take a bunch of at-risk teens into the kitchen and try give them the same chance he had to turn their lives around.
Working with young people at the brink, in fact, has been a big part of Henderson’s life for at least a decade and a half, he said. Starting before he left prison, and then later in Las Vegas, he has been talking to every group of youth he can. When he was invited to the events at the Culinary Vegetable Institute this weekend, one of the first things he asked was to speak to the inmates at the Erie County Juvenile Detention Center.
“I truly believe my calling is to redeem these kids,” Henderson said.
He never knows what he’s going to say at these events, he said. He reads the vibe in the room. He tells his story and he talks about choices and consequences. He tells them he’s not a preacher or a teacher, he’s just a messenger. Most of all, Henderson simply relates to the stone-faced youth he meets.
He’s not afraid to get in a kid’s face and say, “You say you want a job, but how much?” For instance, he said, do they want it enough to buy smaller jeans — jeans that fit?
“The way I pay back is with these kids,” he said, explaining, “if you fix the problem with these kids, you won’t have an adult prison population.”
He’s gotten “hundreds” of phone calls and e-mails, he said, from people who changed their lives after hearing him speak or reading his story.
He’s also gotten the calls from nearly every person he’s ever met since he started to become famous. And he’s going to be a star. People tell him so all the time.
Henderson is riding, expertly, a wave powered by his story and by a personality that doesn’t rest — that works every angle. While in town, Henderson approached both Lee Jones and Paula Deen about appearing on his show. He made the fried chicken with “jailhouse” spice recipe he learned from his mentor in prison. He said he wants to put out a Jeff Henderson watch with kitchen timers in the face. And he came up with the idea for the Cheff Jeff Foundation.
He wants to give scholarships to students that go from a 1.0 average to a 1.2 average — failing to passing. He wants to take kids who have never been out of South Central L.A. to New York — “escapes” that will broaden their horizons and show them the world beyond.
He even talks about putting his movie and TV money into his foundation and getting all the corporations he works with to put money in too. He said his growing success and fame will allow him to help more and more kids.
Ultimately, he will freely admit that it all goes together — that what made him a good drug dealer in the past is today making him a famous chef. Then, he said, he was addicted to money. He wanted the “house on a hill” with a picket fence, the life he saw on TV. Today, he’s over that addiction. He no longer gets validation and status from money — he’s driving the same Chevy Tahoe he bought when he got out of prison. Now, he said, he gets status and validation from the work he does with kids.
It keeps him going, he said. It’s therapeutic. And it’s the secret of his success. “My success is entirely due to the giveback.”