Chef Jeff urges youths to cook up better future

Saturday, August 30, 2008 | 7:52 p.m. CDT; updated 10:13 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 30, 2008

ST. LOUIS - Jeff Henderson once earned $19,000 a week cooking powdered cocaine into crack as a major drug dealer in San Diego.

But after being caught and sent to federal prison, Henderson began a different cooking career - one that eventually brought him to the heights of the culinary world as an author, impending TV host and prospective subject of a movie.

Henderson was in St. Louis this week speaking to two groups of young offenders - one in federal court in the morning and the other in the juvenile division of St. Louis Family Court in the afternoon.

The message from the former executive chef at Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas: Stealing and drug dealing may bring glamour and gadgets, but they won't help anyone achieve his or her dreams.

He stressed that young people should worry less about impressing their friends on the streets and more about blending into the work force.

By one measure, Henderson has a lot in common with many of those who sat before him: He came from a broken home in an inner-city neighborhood with few opportunities.

Lacking or ignoring positive role models, Henderson said, he chose to emulate drug dealers and crooks. He spent his early years stealing cars and dealing drugs, hustling to earn money for meaningless things.

He earned a federal drug conviction, like many of the men and women sitting before him Thursday morning.

"So we're doing time for (expletive) tennis shoes and gold chains," he told them.

He warned the children in the afternoon session that they may face the same fate unless they choose a different path.

"You're lucky to get caught early," he said.

During Henderson's 10 years in federal prison, he said, he started a different hustle - hustling knowledge from other inmates, prison cooks and from books, magazines and newspapers he said he had never picked up before.

Henderson, 44, is now one of the finest chefs around.

His first book, "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras," was a best-seller, helped no doubt by his appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" last year.

October will see the debut of his first cookbook, "Chef Jeff Cooks," and his reality show, "The Chef Jeff Project," on the Food Network. Henderson will take six at-risk young people and put them to work in his Los Angeles-based catering business, Posh Urban Cuisine.

Actor Will Smith became interested in a movie based on Henderson's life and paid Henderson $1.2 million for the rights.

Henderson also spends part of his time speaking to businesses, focusing on hiring and managing entry-level workers who may be lacking in motivation or skills.

Doug Burris, chief federal probation officer in St. Louis, arranged the visit and said that speaking to young people is Henderson's real passion.

Burris said he hoped the listeners would come away with this message: "You don't have to go to prison for 10 years like he did to make your dreams come true."



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