COLUMBIA — Jeff Henderson grew up in prison. That's where he learned how to shave and read his first book. It's also where he found his passion for cooking. What he didn't know was that the California prison kitchen where he found his passion would lead him to make his dream of becoming a chef a reality.
Henderson, a Food Network star and best-selling author, visited Hickman and Douglass high schools Wednesday afternoon to share his story. After spending 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, Henderson pursued his dream of becoming a chef, eventually becoming the first black “chef de cuisine” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
Henderson travels to schools around the country sharing his life story with the hopes of positively influencing the lives of students.
“I really hit hard on the consequences, and they don’t like to hear that, but it’s true," Henderson said. “That prison door is always open, and it is always a reality.”
Henderson uses his life as an example, encouraging students to focus on education and pursue their dreams.
Miranda Wagner, a teacher at Douglass, said Henderson works to ensure other kids don't make the same choices he did growing up.
"He sees the mistakes that he made when he was young, and he wants to help make a difference in kids lives and teach them that there's another way," Wagner said.
According to Henderson, he uses an edgy approach in order to better communicate with students. He feels that by telling his story, he is telling their life story, too.
“He uses language that kids can relate to,” Wagner said. “He’s lived the lifestyle they’re living.”
Lorenzo Estes, a sophomore at Douglass also has dreams of one day becoming a chef. Having been in trouble with the law himself, he looks to Henderson as a role model.
“He gave a lot of good information to keep you out of trouble," Estes said. "He knows the game and he’s one of the people who changed his life.”
Before speaking to the high school students, Henderson visited the Central Missouri Food Bank on Wednesday morning to donate 12,000 pounds of meat to benefit Missouri families. Henderson is also a spokesman for Smithfield Foods.
Henderson's Food Network Show "The Chef Jeff Project" premiered in 2008 and allows six young men and women to intern at his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine. Everyone who completes the internship, located in Los Angeles, wins a scholarship to a culinary institute.