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Celebrity chef details lessons learned in prison
By Jessica Karins
Celebrity chef Jeff Henderson considers himself an example of someone who took an unusual path to achieving the American dream. He may not have formal culinary training, but what he does have, he said, is a “PhD in streetology”.
Henderson spoke to Webster University students on Monday in an event sponsored by the Multicultural Center and International Student Association.
Henderson did not attend culinary school or grow up cooking, or sometimes even had a secure source of food. Instead, he learned how to cook in a prison kitchen and credits his business and interpersonal skills to his former life as a drug dealer and the white-collar criminals he met in federal penitentiary.
“You see, there’s a gift that’s born out of poverty, and the poverty gift is survival traits,” Henderson said..
Today, Henderson is a best-selling author of cookbooks, hosts the syndicated television show Flip My Food and has sold Will Smith the rights to make a movie based on his life story. His next goal is to open a restaurant of his own in the near future.
His path in life began as a child in Los Angeles. Born in an impoverished, mostly African-American inner city, he was part of a busing program to a wealthier suburban school.
“I got a chance to see the American dream every morning for that 40 minute school bus ride,” Henderson said.
However, he said no one in the school system he was part of ever treated education as a way to become successful or wealthy, so he did not take it seriously. Instead, he became a leader at a young age in the only field of business available to him–crack cocaine dealing.
“I was there in the beginning. One day, crack just showed up in the neighbourhood,” Henderson said. “They figured out a way to make it cheaper and flooded inner city America.”
He received a 19 year sentence for drug trafficking in federal prison, of which he served 10 years. Instead of stagnating his life, Henderson believes prison saved him and gave him the education the school system never did. He began reading regularly for the first time and got his GED. He was also a part of a positive community for the first time after growing up without a father and with a mother who was not often around.
He began cooking in the prison’s kitchen and discovered a talent he had never used before.
“For the first time in my life, I got praised for something good,” Henderson said.
After developing his culinary skills in prison, Henderson came up with a career plan for after his release; he would ask Robert Gatsby, one of the most prominent African-American chefs in America, to take a chance on him.
“When you come out of prison, you got a mean mug,” Henderson said. “In order to work in places like that, you have to fit the brand.”
He learned to, changing the way he walked and dressed to create what he calls “middle class swag”.
A background as a drug dealer and ex-convict is an enormous burden to overcome in the culinary world or corporate America, but Henderson said that in many ways, the skills he learned in his past help him navigate those realms today. He learned marketing, branding and relationship building, he said, as a drug dealer and in prison.
“I’m still a hustler, I just changed the product,” Henderson said. “All successful people hustle, it’s just the product and how you hustle.”
He tries to give back, both through hiring ex-convicts and setting an example for his six children.
“One thing they’ll never say, like I’ve been able to say, is that ‘my parents never gave me the tools’,” Henderson said.
Henderson said that even despite his extraordinary success, there are areas in which his criminal record still holds him back. For instance, he cannot hold speaking engagements in Canada; the country forbids him, as a felon, from entering. However, he said he believes passionately that it’s never too late for someone to turn their life around in the way he has.
“Anybody can change,” Henderson said. “Anybody can carve out their own version of the American dream.”