Before becoming the executive chef at one of Las Vegas's premier dining establishments, chef Jeff Henderson spent nine years in prison for dealing drugs. With no prior cooking experience, he learned how to cook in prison and turned his life around. In his book, Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras, he chronicles his journey from prison cook to top chef. Gayle talks to Jeff about his book and his inspirational life story.
Raised by his single mom in Los Angeles and San Diego, Jeff says he turned to selling drugs in the hopes of getting a better life. By the time he was 19, he was earning up to $35,000 a week and was one of San Diego's top cocaine dealers.
Then, at 24, Jeff was arrested and sent to prison. At first, he says he blamed everyone but himself for his misfortune, but he gradually came to see that going to jail was the best thing that could have happened to him. "I grew up in prison, I became a man in prison, I found out who I was in prison, I found my spirituality in prison, and that was the whole process of redemption for me," he says.
A few years into his sentence, Jeff began working in the kitchen as a dishwasher. Then, he was promoted to cook and soon after, fellow prisoners began to take notice and praise him for his cooking. Inspired by the positive feedback, Jeff began to hone his skills, determined to someday become a chef.
After reading an article on the top African-American chefs in America, he started writing letters to some of the chefs in hopes of securing a job upon his release from prison. Eventually, Jeff received an offer for a job as a dishwasher. In 1996, after serving nine years of his sentence, Jeff began his first job in the restaurant business.
Today, Jeff is the executive chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas. He says success didn't come easily, but by working hard and educating himself he was able to become someone others could look up to. "I'm being praised and I'm somebody proud for doing good things…and making people happy through food!"
Published on March 06, 2007