Redemption through food: Renowned chef changed life cooking behind bars

Joey Matthews | 7/31/2015, 4:54 a.m. | Updated on 7/31/2015, 4:54 a.m.
At 19, Jeff Henderson was running a $35,000 a week cocaine operation in San Diego. Now 51, he has become ...
Mr. Henderson

At 19, Jeff Henderson was running a $35,000 a week cocaine operation in San Diego.

Now 51, he has become a New York Times best-selling author and stars in a nationally syndicated television cooking show.

He credits 10 years in prison as his “blessing in disguise.” That’s where he learned to cook and appreciate that he had a lot to offer in the outside world.

Incarceration “weighed heavy on my heart and on my mind,” Mr. Henderson said. “It was one of the darkest periods of my life.

“Some people have to hit rock bottom in order to re-analyze who they are, their gifts and their pathway to redemption,” he added.

Today, he’s on a mission to “pay it forward” by letting others know they, too, can lead successful lives after they are released from behind bars.

The renowned chef is scheduled to share his redemptive message at the 5th Annual Community Re-Entry Forum Tuesday, Aug. 4, at Good Shepherd Baptist Church, 2223 S. Crater Road, in Petersburg.

The forum, sponsored by the Petersburg Sheriff’s Office, will be held 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s designed to educate ex-offenders on reintegrating back into society and to connect them with agencies that can assist them and job opportunities, said Petersburg Sheriff Vanessa R. Crawford.

Mr. Henderson spoke with a Free Press reporter this week while vacationing in Cancun, Mexico.

“I look at myself in the mirror every morning and thank God that I was able to survive the streets, being in prison and that I have reached age 51,” he said.

“It’s unbelievable where I came from that here I am talking with you while I’m sitting at a Starbucks on the Gulf of Mexico vacationing with my wife, Stacy, and my five children.”

Mr. Henderson tells audiences that in 1988, when he was 24, the police arrested one of his couriers with $40,000 in cash and a large amount of cocaine. That led to Mr. Henderson’s arrest and conviction on drug charges and his sentence of nearly 20 years in prison.

He discovered his passion for cooking while serving time. He watched news programs on television, read newspapers and self-help books, took business courses and earned his GED. He also worked in prison kitchens, starting as a dishwasher and eventually preparing meals as a chef.

After his release in 1997, he moved to Las Vegas to pursue his dream of becoming an executive chef.

He made culinary history in Las Vegas in 2001 when he became the first African-American named “Chef de Cuisine” at Caesars Palace. He eventually became an executive chef at several top restaurants, including Café Bellagio in Las Vegas, where he worked until 2006.

His 2007 memoir, “Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, From Cocaine to Foie Gras,” became a New York Times best seller. He has since written three other books, including his most recent, “If You Can See It, You Can Be It.”

He also stars in “Flip My Food with Chef Jeff,” a nationally syndicated TV show which began in 2014. It airs 9 a.m. weekdays in Richmond and Petersburg on WUPV, Channel 65 on The CW network, according to his website.