This Sunday, the Food Network will feature “The Chef Jeff Project,” a new reality series that deals with a lot more than just cooking in the kitchen. Chef Jeff Henderson spent a number of years in prison on drug-related charges, and along the way discovered a love and talent for cooking. Now, he helps six young people make the same discovery by hiring them as his “crew” to launch his Los Angeles catering business. He talks with ESSENCE.com about making the transition from prisoner to respected culinary expert and the movie that’s about to change his life forever.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get your first big break after being incarcerated for nearly a decade?
JEFF HENDERSON: My first big break came at the hands of one of the top African-American chefs in the country, Robert Gatsby. I was so persistent because I wanted to prove to him that I was serious about working in a restaurant. He brought me on as a dishwasher. I was getting paid $5.59 an hour. There was a part of him that didn’t believe in me. We had a conversation about his frustration hiring African-American men who were always late or complaining, so he was reluctant. But I said to him let me prove that I’m different. I even worked a couple of days for free to show him how I roll.
ESSENCE.COM: Some of the youth you work with on “The Chef Jeff Project” have done time and others are former drug addicts. How did you find them?
HENDERSON: They hired a casting company in Los Angeles and went to juvenile probation, youth homes, homeless shelters and various nonprofit organizations that work toward enhancing the lifestyle of at-risk youth. There was an interview process, and they all had to speak to a psychologist. One of the things that is unique to this show is that I didn’t meet any of them until we said lights, camera, action.
ESSENCE.COM: Was that on purpose?
HENDERSON: Yes, because I didn’t want to be biased or start to have feelings for these kids prior to show. I really wanted to impact them with a fresh mind.
ESSENCE.COM: You call this experience “cooking boot camp.” Had you ever done anything like this before?
HENDERSON: Oh yeah. I went through a cooking boot camp with some of the top chefs when I first came into the industry. Many years ago, Tavis Smiley gave me my big break as the chef for his Youth Leadership Fundraiser in Beverly Hills. I did the event for 75 people, and back then I hired these at-risk, inner city kids from Job Corps. We pulled the event off and were told that it was the best they had had in five years of doing the event. So hiring inner city kids is something I’ve always done, and I infuse life skills and important strategies into working with them. A lot of them didn’t come from homes where there was a lot of love, hugs, kisses, or anyone telling you that you can be anything. So I make sure to praise them. At the end of the day, I know I’m not having all this success because I’m some great chef. I have a great story and God has blessed me, but this is how I pay back. This is the driving force behind me.
ESSENCE.COM: Isn’t this a big risk for your new catering company?
HENDERSON: For one, I believe in them and I believe in the power of food and how it impacts young people’s lives. I have been blessed with a real talent and I know I can always go back to a 9-to-5 chef running somebody’s restaurant. Everything that I do is tied to community, empowerment and socially challenged people. I don’t fear failure because failure is not an option for me.
ESSENCE.COM: What do the numbers 16138198 [Henderson’s former prison number] mean to you?
HENDERSON: It’s a lifetime reminder of where I’ve been. That number will be a part of me for the rest of my life. If I ever slip up and have a criminal relapse, that number will come back to life.
ESSENCE.COM: This is so different for the Food Network. Why do you think people should watch?
HENDERSON: This is very different for them. I really didn’t want to do another cooking show because it’s been done before and there are so many out there. I wanted to do something different and so I had this idea to do a mobile-catering show, where I would hire these young people who have a passion for cooking. It’s totally different for them because we have bleeps on our show (laughs). We’re dealing with real issues. A Hispanic boy calls a Black boy the N-word. You watch the first episode and it seems like he got away with it, but when you watch the second episode, you see how we deal with it.
ESSENCE.COM: What can we expect this season?
HENDERSON: You can expect a lot of drama, a lot of change, a lot of inspiration, twist in some highs and lows, a lot of cries and sad moments, but some happy moments as well. When people watch “The Chef Jeff Project,” it’s going to be like watching “American Idol.” People will come back because they are going to want to know the progress of these young people. Everyone knows Chef Jeff for his story. Now they are going to know me for my food. I’ve cooked for a lot of celebrities, but I just have never been able to get the platform to really showcase my food. I think, with this movie and the TV show, people will take another look at me and say okay this guy is a real chef.
ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of movies, we hear that Will Smith will be playing you in the movie version of your life. How do you feel about that choice?
HENDERSON: You can get no better than Big Will. I got a call from Will and an executive from Sony. He called me and was like ‘Hey, Chef Jeff, this is Will Smith.’ I was like, come on, man, who is playing on my phone. He was like ‘this is Big Will from Philly!’ He said he saw me on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and heard about my story and wanted to turn it into a movie. You know Will is in pursuit of an Oscar. In my movie, he’ll play three characters that he’s never played before: a young drug dealer, a convict in prison who struggles to change his life, and a struggling ex-con who gets released into a half-way house and gets a job in Beverly Hills. He’s hyped about it.
ESSENCE.COM: When will it be released?
HENDERSON: The first script is done but in “rewrite,” so I would say probably 2010.
ESSENCE.COM: Is there one tip that you can share with our readers about making cooking easier?
HENDERSON: You got to keep it simple. When you go to the grocery store, don’t try to get too fancy. Make sure you have salt, pepper and olive oil and just keep it simple. Read magazines and cookbooks to get ideas. Cooking is like singing. Not everyone can sing and not everyone can cook. The best thing to do is to stick with the basics. Once you master the basics, then you can take things to the next level.
Chef Jeff is the author of a new book, “Chef Jeff Cooks” (Scribner.)
“The Chef Jeff Project” premieres this Sunday, October 12, at 10:00pm ET/PT.