Chef Jeff Henderson didn’t find his passion for food in the kitchens of a prestigious culinary school.
“I didn’t find food, food found me,” Henderson says. “And food found me in one of the darkest places on earth: prison.”
Henderson grew up in the inner cities of Southern California, made “poor choices,” got involved in drugs, and spent nearly a decade in federal prison following a conviction for selling drugs.
For Henderson, prison was an opportunity to fix his wrongs. He earned his high school diploma, read his first book cover-to-cover, and was told he was smart.
He was also assigned to a job in the kitchen. That’s where he found his connection to food.
“In the pots and pans room, the connection came,” he says. “The connection was smelling all the food that was being cooked. In prison they give you three meals a day, and you don’t get extra. So food is one of the most important moments of the day.”
Being in the kitchen provided access to more food, says Henderson, who was known for his prison fried chicken and cinnamon rolls. “So the idea that I could eat extra food every day because I worked in the kitchen was the hook to keep me there.”
In the kitchen he helped the head inmate cook Friendly Womack Jr. serve 1,100 prisoners plus staff each day. In the process he learned skills such as how to properly season and steam food and how to tell if the food was done by appearance and scent.
His aunt sent him cookbooks that he studied. Henderson eventually worked his way up and became the head inmate cook and baker.
“When other inmates saw punishment, I saw opportunity,” he says.
Henderson is among the keynote speakers at CUNA’s America’s Credit Union Conference (ACUC), taking place June 28-July 1, 2018 in Boston.