Chef Jeff Once Learned from Fellow Convicts
When Jeff Henderson, now known as Chef Jeff, was in federal prison serving a sentence for drug-dealing, he learned how to succeed from an unlikely source: convicted white-collar criminals.
“I became friends with all the Wall Street boys. See, I was in the federal system with Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky,” he said, infamous names from the Wall Street insider trading scandals of the 1980s.
“These guys taught business, marketing, public relations. They started a Toastmasters,” he said, to laughter from the crowd gathered to hear him at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in November. “Though they used their genius for the dark side, you cannot take the intellect away from these men. I built relationships with the smartest guys in the room.”
The operating mode was a pattern for Henderson. Today he is a celebrated chef hosting The Chef Jeff Project on the Food Network, where he takes young people from tough backgrounds through culinary boot camp. If they make it, they get a scholarship to cooking school.
His former trade was criminal. By age 19 he “became a millionaire drug dealer,” he said. “I studied the strengths and weaknesses of the best drug dealers. I was able to build relationships that allowed me to corner the drug market in San Diego in the 1980s. But it was a bad product.” One of those mentors in prison taught him to keep the skills but change what he was selling.
Henderson urged the crowd of restaurant owners and finance execs, whom he pointed out employ thousands and thousands in their businesses, to realize they can change the lives of people who need a second chance.
“They’re people with stories. They’re people with potential,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who never went to culinary school. I’m one of those guys that started at the bottom. They used to call me a dreamer.”