Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Jeff Henderson’s influences were a mother who trafficked her body to make the rent and drug dealers he mimicked when he began his own street business in high school.
A child on the highway to prison, the future celebrity chef nevertheless was endowed with God-given gifts that he was beginning to unwrap — relationship building, a sense of urgency and a desire for something better.
Henderson, 55 — known as “Chef” — shared his story Tuesday with area educators to open the Junior League of Longview’s Poverty Conference at the Belcher Center.
In addition to hearing speakers, teachers from Longview, Pine Tree, Spring Hill and New Diana ISDs and the Asbury House Child Enrichment Center left with the descriptions and contact information for scores of local resources that focus on helping children realize better lives.
The annual one-day conference highlights nationally recognized keynote speakers whose work and expertise reflect issues of the local community, according to the Junior League. The event brings “community partners, educators, professionals and citizens together to create common conversation, strategies and vision regarding poverty.”
The author and host of the Food Network’s “Flip My Food with Chef Jeff,” Henderson told an audience reaching to the third balcony of the Belcher Center that federal prison had proved to be a blessing for him when he arrived in 1988.
Unlike state prison systems, federal lockups are populated by white-collar inmates — CEOs, stockbrokers, people whose lifestyles were alien to Henderson. The common room television played “60 Minutes” and “20/20,” he said.
“They were very polished,” Henderson said, describing his inspiration to pass the GED and to alter his walking and speaking patterns. “People embrace change when they see themselves in a different life.”
He said he absorbed a crash course in “the hidden rules of the middle class.”
“It’s the teaching of success,” he said. “It’s about sharing, it’s about building relationships. People judge you on how you sit in a chair. People judge you on how you walk, how you talk. People judge you on how you order off a menu.”
Henderson lost his prison-assigned job, which turned out to be another blessing when he was transferred to the kitchen.
That’s where he discovered his gift, and where his other gifts went into high gear.
“I started helping cooks out,” he said. “And I got really good. ... In poverty, you don’t know about a gift because it’s never exposed. ... Aha! This is how people dream and become successful is through exposure. Exposure is so important for people in poverty. I began to understand the culture of the middle class. For the first time, a black man put his hand on my shoulder and called me ‘son.’ He told me I have potential.”
The inmate studied the chefs in the kitchen as he washed dishes and cleaned the floors. By the time he left the lockup, after nearly a decade behind bars, he’d become the first black executive chef running the prison’s kitchen, with its $30 million annual budget.
That opened doors, as did his first book, “Cooked,” which caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey (Henderson said Will Smith recently called him to discuss turning the autobiography into a feature film).
Henderson also landed executive chef positions at Cafe Bellagio, in the Las Vegas hotel of that name, and at Caesar’s Palace just a few paces down the Vegas Strip.
Henderson opened his talk by sharing childhood fantasies.
“I dreamed about having a double-door refrigerator,” he said, describing delicious contents. “I dreamed about having a father in the house. I dreamed of living on streets free of gunfire and violence.”
And he dreamed of a house on a hill, with a basketball goal in the driveway and a white picket fence.
“School didn’t work for me, because nobody ever told me why I had to go to school,” he said. “No one ever connected education to the house with the white picket fence on the hill.”
Sgt. 1st Class Henry Jackson, who teaches a mentoring class at Foster Middle School, was among dozens lining up after Henderson’s talk to get an autograph on the chef’s latest of four books, “If You Can See It, You Can Be It.”
“A lot of the things that Chef Jeff talked about, I can implement into the classroom,” Jackson said. “He’s given me an idea of how to address these kids and how to give them a vision.”