Chef Jeff Henderson is an award-winning chef, bestselling author and popular public speaker — and an ex-offender, having served nearly a decade in prison for drugs.
Prior to cooking delicious five-star cuisine, celebrity chef Jeff Henderson cooked something else entirely crack cocaine. As a teenager, he had manufactured and sold the drug in his native Los Angeles. By the time he was 19, Henderson was earning as much as US $35,000 per week. He was later apprehended and imprisoned for 10 years after one of his men was caught carrying a big shipment.
Mr. Henderson first found his love for cooking while serving his sentence. After eighteen months in prison, he was transferred to a unit that was “reserved for inmates who showed signs of rehabilitation and were on good behavior,” as he wrote in his novel, "Cooked". Eight months later, he lost his job in a cleaning crew by neglecting his responsibilities while studying in the library, ultimately earning his G.E.D. He was told to report for kitchen duty at 6 o’clock the next morning.
“I couldn’t imagine washing pots and pans for 1,500 inmates three times a day. My idea of a kitchen was being at Grandma’s waiting to eat the food that I loved. Now I was going to be locked up in this massive industrial kitchen full of steam and grime. It never entered my hard head that any good could ever come of it.”
Mr. Henderson didn’t know anything “about mass production cooking, or restaurant cooking, or any noncrack cooking!” he wrote. “But I was anxious to learn and to prove myself.”
He worked his way up through the prison kitchen ranks -- first washing dishes, then learning to bake biscuits with a mix, and later taking over the commissary at Federal Prison Camp Nellis in Las Vegas when the previous supervisor had completed his sentence.
This discipline and dedication served Mr. Henderson well upon his release. Having initially been given a job as a dishwasher by Chef Robert Gadsby, Mr. Henderson moved on to master numerous kitchen stations in a variety of restaurants. He ultimately became the first African-American Chef de Cuisine at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and was later named Executive Chef at Café Bellagio before leaving for his current projects.
All the fame and success hasn’t gotten to Henderson’s head and he has continued to share his experiences with at-risk youth to show what they can achieve in life with the right choices.
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