Chef Jeff's Redemption Story Jeff Henderson rose from Los Angeles' mean streets to become the executive chef at two top Las Vegas hotels, and wrote a best selling memoir. Now he aims to pass on what he's learned to other struggling young adults in a new reality TV show titled The Chef Jeff Project.
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Chef Jeff's Redemption Story

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Chef Jeff's Redemption Story

Chef Jeff's Redemption Story

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

When you think about redemption, getting a second chance at life, do you think about cooking? You might if you know Chef Jeff. Jeff Henderson, or Chef Jeff, as he's known to just about everybody, grew up in South Central Los Angeles, went to prison for selling drugs, but then he decided to spend time in the prison kitchen. And there, he learned a skill that would change his life. He went on to become the executive chef at not one, but two top Las Vegas hotels. He wrote a best-selling memoir.

Now, he wants to see if he can pass on what he's learned to six other struggling young people who are trying to make a change. It's a new reality show called "The Chef Jeff Project," and it premieres this Sunday on the Food Network, and he is with me now. Chef Jeff, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JEFF HENDERSON: (Host, "The Chef Jeff Project"): It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Now, for those who don't know your life story, drug dealing to cooking, how did that happen?

Mr. HENDERSON: You know, it's crazy. When people ask me how did I get into cooking? Did I used to cook as a child? And I would say, no. I never dreamed in a million years that I will one day become a chef. You know, I kind of fell into cooking when I was incarcerated and found a hidden passion, found my purpose in life. And 20 years later, I'm here as a chef.

MARTIN: What do you think sparked it for you? Was there like a eureka moment?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, you know, after I went to prison and eventually accepted the responsibility for the wrong that I was doing out here, and I started going to school, and, you know, I read my first book in prison and whatnot. And I had humbled myself, and when I was put in the kitchen on pat-and-pan detail, I realized that the inmates who worked in the kitchen ate better than the rest of the inmates, and every inmate is always hungry, you know. And if there was extra chicken, extra bananas, extra cinnamon rolls, you know, the inmates in the kitchen, they got to get those. And there were several inmates who took a liking to me and offered me an opportunity to help them cook, and I was bit by the culinary bug at that time.

MARTIN: What is it that you most like about cooking?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, you know, I like the taste of food, for one thing. I love eating, you know. I love the process of cooking and baking, you know, from seasoning meat to searing it to putting in the oven and smelling the flavors and marinating and the whole nine yards, especially taking flour, some butter, some yeast and a little bit of salt, maybe some pepper or sugar, depending on if you're making sweet dough or bread dough, and four hours later, you have a finished baked - a bread product, whether it's a cinnamon roll or homemade fresh cloverleaf rolls.

MARTIN: You're making me hungry. You're making me crazy. I'm sorry...

Mr. HENDERSON: And I'm getting hungry, too.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. You kind of...

Mr. HENDERSON: I'm making myself hungry.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. HENDERSON: Wow.

MARTIN: You've got two projects going on at the same time. Actually, you have a new cookbook "Chef Jeff Cooks" - it's actually your first cookbook; your first book was a memoir - and this reality show. I want to talk about the cookbook in a minute. But I want to hear about this reality show and ask you, where did this idea come from?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, this idea came from catering that I was doing in L.A. many years ago, and I used to always give ex-offenders or at-risk young people from Job Corps an opportunity to work for my catering company, and I would cook for, you know, some high-profile African-Americans in Beverly Hills and whatnot, and I would hire these young kids and bring them on this catering job. But I found myself teaching them less cooking and more about being responsible.

They brought drama to these people's houses I was working in with them. Some of them didn't get along. They weren't on time, and they had listening issues and whatnot. And I became their preacher, their father, their teacher, everything to these guys, you know, and I kind of, like, mentored them, you know, even after a catering event.

And when Food Network approached me, I said to them, I don't really want to do a show that a lot of other chefs are doing - standing, cooking and traveling and things like that, though they were interesting. But I want to do a show that impacted the lives of young people, and everything I do today is tied back to the community. I'm all about second chances, and this is a great thing, "The Chef Jeff Project."

MARTIN: It's actually kind of what you're doing anyway, isn't it? I mean, in a way, it was like more real than it would be otherwise, if that's really what you're trying to do.

Mr. HENDERSON: Absolutely. I mean, this show came so natural for me. It's unscripted. None of the young people are put against each other. Everything happens organically, and it's a diverse group of young people from different racial backgrounds, and they all had different criminal pedigrees, whether it was from heroin addiction to gang activity to just petty crime. And it was a perfect mix for me. It was a challenge. But within the 28 days, you know, I truly believe that I impacted their lives when I was with them.

MARTIN: What was the plan, though? That if they all made it, they would all get jobs?

Mr. HENDERSON: At the end of the day, none of them really were promised any jobs. They are working now, but they all won a Food Network scholarship to attend the Art Institute, a culinary scholarship.

MARTIN: OK. But it wasn't a situation like "Survivor," where you're trying to make somebody lose...

Mr. HENDERSON: No, no...

MARTIN: In the ideal world, all would have graduated successfully and had the opportunity to further their education.

Mr. HENDERSON: None of them were put against each other. No one got eliminated. They all survived the tough love for 28 days with Chef Jeff.

MARTIN: Let's play a short clip. This is you talking to one of the contestants, Cathy. She was a little down about being chosen for one of the less glamorous...

Mr. HENDERSON: Dishwashing job.

MARTIN: Jobs on the crew. Here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Chef Jeff Project")

Mr. HENDERSON): I noticed Cathy, you know. She seemed a little down. Her spirits were a little low, so I wanted to approach her. It's an important role in the kitchen, and I'm taking you that low so you can see the big picture. And I'm telling you right now, if you listen to me, you focus, you're going to be successful. 10 years ago, I was where she was at, a dishwasher.

MARTIN: It was a tough moment for both of you actually.

Mr. HENDERSON: Absolutely. I mean, the whole show was tough. I mean, it was filled with high emotions, happy times. But these young people got an opportunity to be cared about and to be loved, and all of them had low self esteems. None of them had been praised or had any pats on their back, and most of them come from dysfunctional families.

MARTIN: What would you like people to get out of "The Chef Jeff Project?" A lot of people who watch the Food Network are mainly interested in the food. But what would you like people to draw from watching your show, which is different from a lot of cooking shows on the air?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, there is actually a lot of cooking. We do some fabulous food on there. We cater some very high-end parties and whatnot, but I want young people to know that the food industry is a very tough industry to work in. But if you have a passion for it, you can be successful. But not just in the food industry, that's in any industry that you work in, and you have to be passionate about what you do. So I want them to understand choices. I want them understand the consequences and hopefully take away some inspiration or motivation to get out there and make something of themselves.

MARTIN: And, of course, I want to spend the couple minutes we have left on your new cookbook, your other baby that you have out right now.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes. Wow!

MARTIN: "Chef Jeff Cooks."

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: How would you describe your cuisine? What's that set apart?

Mr. HENDERSON: This cookbook - my first cookbook that I had on "Chef Jeff Cooks," is an inspirational cookbook. It's almost like a memoir cookbook. It was filled with a lot of stories and the foods that were inspired by my childhood growing up, my grandfather and all the people in my life, my sister Janelle, who cooked. So it really much was like a dedication to them and to so many chefs that I worked with.

I specialize in California-French cuisine, but I do a food that I created on my own called posh urban, where I take a California-French styled dish and add a little touch of soul to it. For instance, you're going to get hungry when I name this. It's one of my favorite dishes.

MARTIN: I'm already hungry. I'm already sorry I even asked. But go ahead.

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, you know, a posh urban cuisine dish would consist of like a roasted Chilean sea bass with some slow-braised collard greens and caramelized turnips with heirloom tomato water in a beautiful, white Bernardo bowl with a little bit of micro greens on the top. And that's what posh urban cuisine is.

MARTIN: One of the things I noticed about the cuisine is that you tried to cut the fat in some of the traditional recipes, like the collards and the chicken and so forth. Why do you feel so strongly about that?

Mr. HENDERSON: You know, I tried to put a little more healthier approach to some of the dishes, you know, and I had to smoke turkey wings, turkey legs or liquid smoke or whatnot, instead of using the traditional pork.

MARTIN: And I understand that, while you eat meat and prepare all kinds of food - do I have this right - that your wife is a vegetarian?

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: And so there are also I see a number of vegetarian choices in the book as well. So gosh, dinner at your house must be interesting.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yeah, very interesting and to know the fact that my children are vegans. My children have never had any dairy or any animal ever since they were born. They're 10, 9, and 6. ..TEXT: MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, you know, my wife wanted to bring them up that way. She never really had been a meat-eater, and she's been a vegetarian for many, many years. And, you know, so much hormones and so many additives are added in the food today, which makes a lot of young kids hyperactive and overweight. And my kids, they love, you know, they eat tofu and, you know, sushi and everything that I cook. I just make it vegan style, and they're very smart, very attentive, and I don't have that hypertension with these children I have...

MARTIN: Well, could you hold it out - as a hamburger - out as an extra incentive or something...

Mr. HENDERSON: Oh, no, no. They have the vegan veggie patties.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. HENDERSON: So they love them, though. I mean, my wife actually shows them videos and stuff of how they kill animals and different things, and they give me a hard time if they see me eating some chicken, like, oh, daddy, you're eating feathers and wings and legs, you know. So I try not to eat too much meat in front of them, you know.

MARTIN: OK, all right. Chef Jeff Henderson is the author of "Chef Jeff Cooks." His new cookbook is in bookstores now. His new reality show, "The Chef Jeff Project," premieres on the Food Network on October 12th. We'll have more information at our website, npr.org/tellmemore. Chef Jeff, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you, good luck with all your projects.

Mr. HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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