Today Jeff Henderson is Executive Chef at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and holds the distinction of having been the first black Chef de Cuisine at Caesar’s Palace. Will Smith recently bought the rights to make a movie about his life. He’s the best selling author of a memoir and cookbook, has appeared on talk shows including “Oprah, ” and is the star of a new reality series produced by the Food Network.
But thirteen years ago, Jeff was an inmate in federal prison, serving ten years for leading a drug operation on the streets of South Central L.A. where he grew up. In the prison kitchen, where he volunteered to work so that he could fill up on extra food, Jeff found a mentor and a passion for cooking. He channeled his tenacity and changed his life.
Now he wants to show others how food can be a catalyst for transformation. In “The Chef Jeff Project,” premiering Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. on the Food Channel, Jeff will put six young adults to work in his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine. The show chronicles their stories as each participant develops the knowledge and skills for a new career, and a fresh start.
When you were in prison, what about the kitchen inspired you?
Hunger was the driving force that opened the doors on this passion that I have for food. When I was in the kitchen washing dishes, there were different chefs who saw potential in me, and they allowed me to help them cook. One thing I really enjoyed about being in the kitchen before I discovered that I could be good at cooking is that you got to eat the extra food. So it was the place to be. And for the first time in my life, I was being praised for something positive and for the food that I was cooking. That was the building block for my road to chefdom.
Describe your cooking style.
My cooking style today is straightforward – simplicity with building blocks of flavors. I love some of my childhood flavors that I grew up on. I like cooking with sweet potatoes, collard greens. I’ve been able to learn more about international cuisine. Today I specialize in seafood and different types of meat that I’ve learned over the years. My food is very simple. I enjoy it and people love it, and I’m just blessed to have had the opportunities that I’ve had to really put this cookbook together, to show the world that I’m more than just a success story. I’m a serious cook and I really enjoy doing it.
Do food trends impact your cooking style at all?
I’ve worked with some great chefs from all over the world and I’ve really learned to appreciate the seasons and cooking with ingredients when they’re in the height of flavor. I follow some trends but not many. I always try to create my own style and my own take on progressive American food. I do keep an eye on what’s going on out there what’s available but I pretty much have my own style that I call “posh urban cuisine.”
How did you choose the recipes for Chef Jeff Cooks?
It’s based on my childhood favorite foods that I grew up eating from my grandparents to my aunts, and some of the chefs that I’ve worked with over the years. The book is filled with beautiful stories, a lot of cooking lessons, and inspirational testimonies about food and my life experience in the kitchen. These recipes are not all the ones I prepared at the Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace. It was most of the foods that I grew up on that really inspired me that built the foundation for the food that I cook today.
Tell me about “The Chef Jeff Project” and how you’re feeling about this premiere.
I’m really excited. This opportunity that I have with Food Network is really a dream come true for me. I’m able to live out what I’ve been doing for the past ten years: taking at-risk young people and giving them a second chance to work with my catering company. Through “The Chef Jeff Project,” not only have I been able to offer a second chance off the streets, but teach these young people the fundamentals and principles of cooking, and use my skills, all blended into one. It was an amazing experience for me, the 28 days I had with these young people, with food being the vehicle to impacting and changing lives. It’s a very powerful, heart-touching, moving show with beautiful food, and I think the audience is going to fall in love with these six young people. They all come from diverse backgrounds with unique stories, but not so unique from everyone else. These are true American stories of triumph and overcoming, and falling in love with food and finding their passion.
Did you ever think you’d see a movie made about your life?
Not in a million years. Thirteen years ago, I was in prison. For me to have fulfilled all of my dreams, from becoming a chef, to writing a memoir, to the cookbook, the Food Network show, the movie, I really have been blessed. Food definitely changed my life and the lives of many people working in kitchens.
Who do you want to play you?
It’s up in the air. Will Smith bought the rights along with Sony Columbia. I look on the Internet and everyone thinks Terrence Howard, and some say Jamie Foxx. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Will and go to dinner with them. Will’s a great guy and I think this would be a great opportunity for him. He would have to play the part of bad boy, then the guy who finds redemption in prison, and returns on that long journey toward his dreams to become a chef. So there’s like three roles that he would have to play. So I think this could be powerful.
Where do you get your tenacity?
I’ve always had a dream to one day get that house on the hill with a white picket fence and provide for my mother who struggled her whole life to raise my sister and I. I came up working hard. My grandfather had a janitorial business and he had me working when I was 5 years old. I just never let anything stop me from doing what I wanted to do. Once I figured out how to do it the right way, after I went to prison, I just let nothing get in my way. I was obsessed with success. I was focused and very passionate about being a chef. I never worked in the quick food industry. I came right out of prison into five-star restaurants and I never looked back. I draw a lot of my strength from providing opportunity for other people.
How do you spend free time?
I just finished fixing up my backyard. I had 24 trees planted and I love gardening. I’m doing an herb garden on the side of my house. I love travelling. I love reading. Every now and then, I find time to get to a movie. On a Sunday, get a matinee in, have some popcorn and Milk Duds. I enjoy that and I shut away from the world.
What’s in your future?
The television, the books, the movie, the Web, it’s all a way to get the Chef Jeff Foundation. I want to be able to provide money for what I call “hood escapes.” I want to be able to take a young kid from the inner city and take them on a trip to Europe, Spain, Africa, to New York City. I truly believe that the key to change is exposure. When you’re growing up young, you feel hopeless. You feel like you’re in a box. When you take a young kid or an adult out of that box, they see that they have options in life. That’s one of the things I’d like to get off the ground.
One of the things in the immediate future is to own a restaurant on the Las Vegas strip. I want to be the first African American chef-restaurateur to own a restaurant on the Vegas strip. I’m working diligently toward that. I truly believe that if I keep focused, it’ll happen.
Have you ever been to Richmond?
My sister lives in Virginia Beach. Richmond has been calling me. Several people have reached out to me and once I finish the book tour, I would love to visit.