September 20, 2017

From a Life of Crime To Fame: Chef Jeff Speaks at Rescue Mission

SHARING HIS STORY: Chef Jeff Henderson, left, shown with the Trenton Rescue Mission’s chef David Jawidzik, paid a visit to the Mission last week and gave an inspirational talk to clients about his road from prison to celebrity chef, author, and motivational speaker.

By Anne Levin

It would be an understatement to say that Jeff Henderson had a challenging childhood in South Central Los Angeles. Raised in poverty by a single mother, he learned to make money — eventually, some $35,000 a week — selling cocaine and crack. It all caught up with him when, at the age of 23, he was arrested and sent to federal prison for drug trafficking. 

Fast forward a few decades, and Henderson, now known as Chef Jeff, has served as executive chef at several high-end restaurants. He has written a few books, appeared on Oprah, and started his own reality show series called The Chef Jeff Project. Most significantly to him, he is a motivational speaker who spends more time than his wife and five children would like making appearances across the country, inspiring those with similar back stories to transform their lives.

A recent stop was Trenton’s Rescue Mission. Last Friday, Henderson gave a spirited account of his rise from a life of crime to a successful career, challenging clients — many former prisoners like him — to overcome their circumstances.

“I’m 53, and 30 years criminal-free,” Henderson told the rapt audience. “None of us was born criminal. We came out of our mothers’ wombs with a clean slate. But when you don’t have value systems, you don’t have freedom.”

Henderson took no fee for his appearance at the Rescue Mission. The organization serves those in need of food and shelter, many of whom struggle with addiction, and it is just the kind of place he likes to visit. “I was in a shelter for abused and battered women and children yesterday, so I go to these places quite often,” he said during a telephone interview before his appearance last week. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Henderson has recounted his story countless times, but there was no trace of boredom in his voice during the telephone conversation. It was behind bars, he said, that he came to recognize his talents. “When you grow up in poverty and a broken home and dysfunctional family, without middle class values, you make a lot of poor choices,” he said. “Sometimes they are born out of circumstances. Not being exposed to careers, art, museums, and books, I never discovered my gift until was in prison.”

That recognition came in the prison kitchen. Punished one day for an infraction, Henderson was sent to pot-and-pan detail. Right away, he recognized an opportunity.

“I love food. I was a hungry little boy and a hungry man,” he said. “I realized, first of all, that the guys working there got the extra food. I said, ‘Wow, this isn’t a punishment.’ Because food is one of the most important things to a person in prison, or the homeless. They started teaching me things. I loved the craft. I loved the art. It was a fast-paced kitchen. Before you knew it, I was head cook. And it was my salvation. I was finally doing something in my life that people praised me for, that was legitimate and legal.”

Told he would never get a job because he was a convicted felon, Henderson studied the marketing experts and financial types who were his fellow prisoners. He knew he had “the gift of gab,” he said. He took a Toastmasters course. He discovered the library. “I read my first book in prison,” he said. “I had never been to a library in my life before then.”

After serving 10 years, Henderson managed to land a job at Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas, eventually becoming executive chef. He was the first African American executive chef at Caesar’s Palace. His memoir, Cooked, has been out for a decade. “It’s legendary in most prisons and jails in this country,” he said. “I don’t look like I used to. I don’t talk like did, or walk like I did. All of that is in the book. I can switch back to the old language when I want to.”

That much was evident during the Rescue Mission talk. Wearing his white chef’s jacket and trademark black framed glasses, Henderson paced back and forth with a microphone in hand — not that he needed one — and lapsed into street talk as he told of his transformation. The audience responded with enthusiasm.

“It was great for me to hear,” said Mike B., a Rescue Mission client. “It’s not that common to see that kind of success come from where he came from.” Another client, John K., said, “It was inspirational and really hit home because I went down that same road. I was once successful and his presentation made me look in the mirror and see what I can be again. It helped me believe that I can get myself back.”

Following the talk, Henderson joined the audience in a meal prepared by the Rescue Mission’s kitchen. He made a point to talk one-on-one to as many people as he could. Mary Gay Abbott-Young, the Mission’s chief executive officer, saw the effect Henderson had on her clients.

“When you have someone with such an incredible life experience that parallels the life of those we serve at the Rescue Mission delivering a message of personal responsibility on finding your gift and using that gift …. It’s very impactful,” she said.