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Stepping out of the Kitchen
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Executive chef Jeffery Henderson wants his life to be an example of what not to do.
In the 1980s Jeffery Henderson was one of the most notorious drug dealers in Southern California. In 1988 he was sentenced to Terminal Island Federal Prison, San Pedro, Calif., for 10 years on drug charges. While incarcerated, he was assigned to work in the prison kitchen as a cook and baker. “Getting caught and going to prison saved my life,” he says. “Working in the prison kitchen gave me the foundation to pursue a new profession in the culinary world.”
He’s now the executive chef at AJ’s Steakhouse at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. “Cooking in prison built my confidence and provided me with the realization that I have a talent other than selling drugs,” says Henderson. “I discovered cooking as spiritually rewarding by seeing the joy my food gave people.”
After his release in 1996 (two years early for good behavior), he worked for chef/owner Robert Gadsby of Noé in Los Angeles as a dishwasher and pastry chef. Gadsby often helps people recently released from prison reestablish themselves into society. “The time I spent with chef Gadsby broadened my knowledge of food and wine and helped sharpen my culinary skills,” he says. (See December 2003 Chef magazine to read more about chef Robert Gadsby.)
In 2001 he headed to Las Vegas, but found it difficult to find employment even though he worked for Gadsby and had been out of prison for almost five years. He feels that people remained uncomfortable with his criminal background. “I understand that fact and can accept those consequences,” he explains.
But Caesars Palace looked beyond his checkered history and was more interested in his cooking. Instead of a question and answer interview, Henderson had to prepare a five-course meal for Caesars’ management.
“They were so impressed with my cooking ability they hired me as the Palatium Buffet chef and then later promoted me to chef de cuisine at Café Lago,” he says. “Caesars’ management had a choice, and they chose me. I will always be grateful for the start they gave me.”
The kitchen, however, is not where Henderson’s work stops. It is only the start. He has a powerful message to tell today’s youths. From gang violence to prison to an executive chef, he’s been able to overcome many obstacles and find success. “I understand the plight of inner city youths and know the difficult journey in front of them,” he says.
Henderson takes his message to young adults by conducting seminars and workshops. He first reached out to troubled teens through a teenage awareness program (TAPS) he started while in prison. He was allowed to bring a dozen or so young adults into the prison and talk to them about their choices and show them life behind bars. The program was well received by all those involved, including prison officials, so much so that officials allowed Henderson to leave the prison grounds under supervision to conduct seminars on a larger scale by visiting high schools.
Henderson continues to reach out to young adults through seminars called “Reality-Based Education 101.” His mission is to save youths whose futures are in jeopardy, and his message is that everyone has choices no matter how one starts. “I tell kids that they have many choices to make each day and for every choice they make there’s either a price you pay or a reward you earn,” he says. “The reward could be success for making the right choice. But, by making the wrong choice, you pay with unemployment, harm to one’s family, prison or death.”
Seminars and workshops are presented in 1 1/2-hour programs, which includes a question and answer period. He says the seminars and workshops are reality based, thought provoking and presented by himself and other individuals who have found success despite harsh consequences of living a gang and criminal lifestyle. “I tell the kids where I grew up, what I did wrong and about the time I was in prison,” he says. “But I wear my chef uniform and they are amazed on how I turned my life around.”
Henderson also works with adults to arrange job interviews, advises them on how to dress for an interview and coaches them on how to conduct themselves during an interview.
He accomplishes this mission through his “Corporate 500 Game Face,” which is an intense seminar and workshop designed to teach employment social skills to people dealing with poverty or personal barriers. “I teach them how to be a chameleon and adapt to corporate America,” he says.
Henderson also works with local high schools that have, or want to start, a culinary program. He’s focusing his attention nationally on his involvement with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation ProStart program. In 2002 he became involved with ProStart at Mojave High School in Las Vegas.
“I was invited to come into the school and teach the kids about making desserts and cooking techniques,” he says. “The kids responded to my message and welcomed me into their classroom.”
Henderson has accomplished a great deal since his release from prison, but he’s nowhere near being finished. “My goal is to make a career of helping youth and adults struggling with life’s challenges, and help them find opportunity in life,” he says. “I want to give everyone I encounter a positive message and hope that my life story serves as an example and an inspiration.”