It’s never too late to have a wake-up call.
Jeff Henderson, aka “Chef Jeff,” learned that life lesson as a young man in one of the darkest places on earth: prison.
Henderson shared his astonishing rise from struggling youth to drug dealer, inmate, prison cook, executive chef, author, and Food Network star Sunday at the 2022 CUNA Finance Council Conference in Las Vegas.
Henderson grew up hungry and poor in South Central Los Angeles, becoming a drug dealer because he saw no other option for survival.
“I’m not proud of that, but it’s an occupation that’s readily available for young people of color,” he says. “I made a lot of money at the expense of my own people. It wasn’t until I went to jail that I understood the impact of drugs and violence in inner cities.”
After his arrest and conviction, he fell in with a group he calls the “Wall Street guys,” former bankers and Wall Street inside traders in the prison who told him they shared many of the same skill sets: marketing, branding, distributing, and managing a team of people to move product.
“These are great traits to have as leaders and entrepreneurs,” Henderson says. “They told me, ‘You have all the skills; you just have to change your product.”
Henderson found his true calling while learning to cook in the prison kitchen. After 10 years, he released and entered the high-end culinary world by becoming a “master duplicator,” mirroring successful chefs with sheer determination.
“I switched from my prison walk to my corporate walk,” he says, becoming the first African American chef at Caesars Palace. “Those who understand their strengths and weaknesses are those who win.”
Henderson’s Chef Jeff Project aims to break the poverty mindset, where people fall into generational cycles of poverty, prison, and foster care because they don’t see positive options. This creates “generational trauma,” he says.
“When you see the world through a poverty mindset, you can’t see the opportunities in front of you,” Henderson says. “We need to shift the thinking of the people we’re trying to help. If you can see it, you can be it.”
Henderson brought a young man named Andre, who participates in the Chef Jeff Project, on the Las Vegas stage. The program arms at-risk young adults with the knowledge, skills, and opportunity for a new life and a culinary career.
Andre and his siblings are in foster care while their father serves a lifetime prison sentence.
“The program isn’t about cooking,” Henderson says. “It’s about healing trauma and harm. Imagine being in survival mode your whole life. It’s something you never want to experience.
“We’re all one choice away from being in handcuffs.”