Chef Jeff Henderson speaks at University, offers advice for success

Ashley Hardwick and Ashley Hardwick

Chef Jeff Henderson is a well-respected chef on the Food Network, a successful businessman, author and motivational speaker to prison inmates and college students, but he is also a convicted felon.

“Some might say, ‘Why are they bringing someone here who has been to prison?’ Well, life is about choices,” Henderson said. “I never went to college. I failed school and it wasn’t because I’m a dummy.”

Dean of University Libraries Sara Bushong organized the event and helped select Henderson as the speaker.

“Last year, we brought in Elizabeth Smart and I wanted to bring in another ordinary person who is also extraordinary,” she said. “His story really appealed to us and connects easily to our campus.”

Henderson admits that his environment impacted him greatly.

“My mom and dad divorced when I was young and my mom struggled— was on welfare at one point,” he said. “I watched my mom come home late and drink herself to sleep— as a little boy that hurt me, I didn’t want to see that. I wanted my mom to be happy, at peace and I carried my mom’s dream with me.”

Growing up in poverty on the streets of Los Angeles, Henderson was put in a tough position.

“When I was 18, my mom told me I was the man of the house because there wasn’t anyone else,” Henderson said. “She put the world on my shoulders.”

He felt financially obligated to support him and his mom.

“I was told to go to school, but nobody ever told me why,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t have time for school. I have to make money.’”

At the age of 19 he was running a $35,000 a week cocaine drug operation. At 25, he was sentenced and sent to a federal prison.

Throughout his 10-year sentence, he thought about his life and knew he needed to change.

“It’s never too late to have a wake up call, even if it takes a disaster in your life there’s always time to recognize that you have power,” Oprah Winfrey said in a video used to introduce Henderson.

During his time, he reminisced on his childhood and used that as motivation.

“On the bus ride to school we always drove through the suburbs. This was the first time in my life that I saw my American dream,” he said. “I wanted the white picket fence house on the hill. I wanted a cookie jar in the kitchen. I wanted a fruit bowl on the table and a two door refrigerator.”

There, he discovered his love for cooking.

“I learned how to cook in prison. Eventually, I became the head chef and baker— it was the first time I was being praised for something.”

After he was released, he had difficulties transitioning to his freedom.

“When I got out of prison, my biggest issue was that I didn’t smile. I was paranoid, claustrophobic and nervous— I had to overcome that. I had to learn how to smile, but one thing I knew when I got home is who I was.”

He also says his relationships with his family members suffered.

“Prison makes you a little hard, so I didn’t know how to be compassionate. I didn’t know how to be sensitive to others,” he said. “[My family is] still getting to know who I am.”

He says prison has changed his life for the better.

“I made every excuse I could to blame everyone else, but prison saved my life,” he said. “I was rescued from the streets— I grew up.”

Since then, he has written a best-selling memoir titled ‘Cooked,’ been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show and is continuing to motivate young adults.

He says he enjoys speaking to prison inmates and young adults who have anger issues because he can relate to them.

“I do have flashbacks [visiting prisons] when I hear keys jingling and doors slamming— it’s good to never forget because there’s so much value in transitioning from drug dealer and inmate to chef to success.”

Journalism instructor Kim Lauffer was interested in Henderson’s story and hopes to learn more about his role as a mentor.

“I thought he did a nice job— both positive and negative— to encourage students to strive for success,” Lauffer said.

Others also felt inspired after hearing his story.

“I thought it was interesting to hear his story— from where he came to now— it’s truly inspiring,” junior Kaleb Page said.

Although Henderson still thinks about his nights of dealing drugs and time spent in prison, he chooses to remain positive.

“I never let statistics define me. I wasn’t born a criminal. I made poor choices, but I keep my head up high,” he said. “I love myself, my family and this country and at the end of the day, America is a country of second chances.”