There’s nothing stronger than the will to persevere. Just ask Jeff Henderson, a former drug dealer and convicted felon who went on to become an award-winning chef, renowned public speaker, bestselling author and reality television star. In this interview, “Chef Jeff” talks about his transformative journey, overcoming life’s obstacles and the importance of pursuing your passions at all costs.
You spent your teenage years dealing drugs on the streets of California, USA, only to find yourself in prison for nearly a de- cade. What did those 10 years of incarceration teach you?
JH: Prison, or what I like to call ‘Federal University,’ was where I discovered my full potential. I was born again, and discovered new ways to apply myself. When I was dealing crack cocaine on the streets, I learned a lot about managing, delegating and marketing your product … but it was in the wrong environment. Prison opened my eyes to a bigger world and taught me how to harness my skills in a more constructive and positive way. In those 10 years, I built relationships with people outside of my culture: former judges, Wall Street brokers, CEOs and presidents of businesses. By tapping into their experiences, I was given a global view on life and business, and I turned that into a vision.
While in prison, you discovered a passion for cooking and began to turn your life around. In what way was cooking your saving grace?
JH: In prison, I had so much time to study and clean my mind out. I built relationships with the smartest people and learned how to leverage the opportunities given to me. For punishment one day, I was put on pots-and-pans duty in the kitchen, where I tried my hand at cooking. Cooking helped pass the time, and it gave me a chance to put all of my energy into something positive for a change. I got to be really good at it, and was inventive with what little we had. When I left prison, food served as my bridge back into society. I took my newfound passion and knowledge, and applied it to the real world.
Having no formal education and a criminal background, you struggled to transition from prison life to professional life. How did you get your foot in the culinary door?
JH: When I got out of prison, it was hard to land a job. I was a convicted felon with no real culinary experience. So, I decided to leverage what I did have—my story—and began to market myself. I wanted to be honest about my experience and transparent about my commitment to the culinary arts. I knew that with little experience and no formal education, I had to stand out. I finally got my shot at a white-table restaurant called Gatsby’s. I started out washing dishes and cooking, and eventually worked my way into the role of executive chef at Café Bellagio and chef de cuisine at Café Logo in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. From there, I used my focused passion to propel me to new and exciting opportunities.
You went on to become a leading figure in the culinary industry and a voice of personal transformation. What advice do you have for other people facing unexpected detours?
JH: Before prison, I was a visionary … but I had the wrong vision. Learning the ins and outs of business and finding my focus in cooking gave me the direction I never knew I needed. I’ve seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of challenges, but I always had a focus; I just turned that from a negative into a positive. There are always going to be detours in life, but at the end of the day, it’s your reaction to those challenges that will dictate your success. Anything is possible when you find your passion and commit the time and focus needed to master it.
From earning US$35,000 a week dealing drugs to teaching millions how to cook on the Food Network, you’re a testament to human potential. What would you like people to take away from your journey?
JH: I want them to know that no matter who they are and where they come from, they have the potential to make an impact if they’re passionate about what they do. From a business stand- point, I would say always know your strategies and products— that’s huge. Also, always stay relevant in your space; continue to learn as you go and never stop studying to be the best in your business. If I can go from selling drugs and surviving prison to having my own cooking show and inspiring today’s youth to be chefs, anything is possible.