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Personal Development
summer 2021

A Taste Of A Better Life

Celebrity Chef Jeff Henderson Shares His No-Nonsense Recipe for Getting Ahead
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

Jeff Henderson doesn’t recommend getting locked up as a career move, but for him, going to prison was “the best life experience.” It was while serving time for drug crimes that he first read about successful Black men who came from a similar background to him but who had been able to “break through the glass ceilings and be great in life.”

Doing so, he stumbled upon a path that would open up a whole new world of possibilities: relegated to kitchen cleanup crew for some infraction, he realized the guys working there ate better than the rest of the inmates.

“Where others saw punishment, I saw opportunities,” he says. “Food found me in a very dark place.” Through determination and discipline, on his release Henderson turned his years of serving up stodgy prison food into a celebrity career as fine-dining expert Chef Jeff.

Giving options
The Chef Jeff Project chronicled on The Food Network is not a cakewalk. Hard work is fundamental, Henderson says: It teaches the value of money and the importance of self-discipline. “We have got to get rid of that welfare mentality,” he says.

“No one’s going to give us nothing. Nobody owes us nothing. We may never get reparations. We have got to put the work in.”

He has no time for “that culture of laziness, that culture of handouts, that culture of somebody owes me something.” Sure, “we got handed a bad deck of cards in life,” he acknowledges—many didn’t have fathers at home or grew up in poverty.

But it is possible to overcome, Henderson believes. “We have the people, the resources and the lived experience and the wisdom to really make the change in our communities,” he says, “but until we do that we will continue to be a scattered people, a people who continue to complain and not be able to find a way in life. What’s important to me is showing these kids that you have options. You have the ability to carve out your own version of the American dream, but we must invest in them.”

Henderson believes in the importance of hustle, though he says we should rehabilitate the word so it loses its negative, street association. “What defines the word hustler is the product, the relationship and how one conducts business,” he says.

“It means you have grit. It means you’re mentally tough. You have the ability to pivot. You have the ability to take a vision to concept to marketplace. We have been selling and hustling our whole life, so I always say never lose the hustle.”

He had that sort of drive from early days—the top newspaper seller, the No. 1 candy seller. But he was in too much of a hurry to make it, which led him to making some poor choices.

Looking back, he realizes he should have “embraced the long game versus the short game. This is why many of us cut our lives shorter by getting killed or ending up going to prison… because we were playing checkers, not chess.”

We have the people, the resources, the lived experience and the wisdom to really make the change in our communities.

Personal branding
As a chef, Henderson knows that food needs not just to taste good but to look good, too, and he applies that same principle to getting ahead in life. He shares lessons he learned about building a personal brand when he came out of prison. “I was pretty yoked up. I didn’t smile,” he remembers. “I had to learn how to smile. I clean-shaved my face. I took makeup to cover my earring hole up. I invested in getting my teeth fixed. A lot of young people really don’t understand the importance of that personal brand and mastering middle-class values.”

Henderson is concerned about the divide he sees between the haves and the have-nots in the Black community. A lot of successful people don’t seem clear about the debt they owe to those who made it possible for them to get ahead, he says.

“I believe that every Black man, every Black woman who has made it has an obligation to reach back and crack that door open and give people access,” he says.
“But we have to become bigger influencers. We have to begin to get our hands dirty. We can’t just write a check and throw money at the problem. We need to come back into the community… we need to get in the streets and we need to become physical influencers and physical investors. We need to expose our young people to the American dream.”

Henderson tells how that sort of experience made a big impact on one of the young men in his Vegas kitchen project. Shot at 14 and seemingly prison-bound, “he realized that there’s a world bigger than the South Side of Chicago,” Henderson says. “Many of the young kids in our program have never seen the ocean; come on. Never been on an airplane, never been to a white-tablecloth restaurant. So there’s a lot that we have to do.”

It’s time for those who can to pay it forward, he says. Part of that requires overcoming divisions. “We can’t have fraternities, sororities, East Coast, West Coast, the haves, the have-nots.”

Man of integrity
It’s not unusual to ask celebrities which famous people they would most like to invite to a special dinner, but it’s a little different when the answer includes catering for the guests. Henderson puts Nelson Mandela at the top of his list: the anti-apartheid leader who became President of South Africa after almost three decades in prison was released while Henderson was serving his own time. “The example he was as a man, as a leader and of integrity and character after 27 years in prison, that would be a man that I would want to cook for,” Henderson says. “He was the father and the grandfather to all of us—the entire world, no matter what color or creed…”
Next at the table would be Jay-Z, with whom Henderson says he shares many similarities—both from single-parent homes, drug dealers who turned their lives around. He admires Jay-Z’s “style of branding, his values of family, community, and the things that he does…” And third on the list would be Oprah, whom he credits for helping provide the platform he’s been able to use to make a difference by having him on her show when his memoir was first published. “I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today without that.”

Chef Jeff’s Diver Scallops with Corn Maque Choux
Here’s what you will need to serve four:
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
1 cup spicy andouille sausages, chopped
½ medium yellow onion, diced
½ red bell pepper, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
2 celery ribs, chopped
½ tbsp. jalapeno pepper, minced
2 ears of corn, shucked, kernels removed
2 tsps. garlic, minced
Creole seasoning to taste
2 tbsps. duck fat
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh black pepper
8 fresh jumbo diver scallops
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
½ tbsp. fragrant honey
1 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped (for garnish)
1. Melt butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add sausage to pan and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally or until sausage is cooked through. Add onions, bell peppers, celery, jalapeno pepper, corn, and garlic to the pan. Stir and cook for about 3 minutes or until vegetables are tender and fragrant. Season with Creole seasoning and remove from heat.
2. Add duck fat to a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season scallops on both sides with salt and pepper. Place scallops and thyme in pan and caramelize for 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove pan from heat. Spoon maque choux on a plate, then place a scallop on top. Repeat the process for the remaining scallops. Drizzle with fragrant honey. Garnish with fresh parsley.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.