Chef Jeff encourages students to be ‘boss’ of lives
It was quite a road trip for Jeff Henderson – with Barnwell High School as his final stop.
Henderson, 50, is better known nationally as Chef Jeff, the cable and reality television personality and host of the series “Flip My Food” and the Food Network show “The Chef Jeff Project.”
Henderson was on a three-day speaking tour – the BeABoss Youth Summit Tour – which took him through seven South Carolina counties, six high schools and the Allendale Correctional Institution. The tour was sponsored by EdVenture Children’s Museum of Columbia with the goal of having Henderson speak to more than one thousand youth about his transformed life from a teen drug dealer and young adult inmate to now a multi-media culinary celebrity, author and motivational speaker.
“It’s never too late to have a wake-up call,” Henderson said to the students assembled Sept. 15 in the Barnwell High gym.
Henderson’s wake-up call came in prison. By the time he was 19 years old, Henderson had created an illegal drug network in southern Los Angeles that was netting him $35,000 weekly.
However, by the time he was 23 years old, he was in prison. Henderson served a 10-year sentence and was released in 1996.
In prison, Henderson worked in the kitchen and became interested in the culinary arts as a career. After being released from jail, he got his first big break when celebrity chef Robert Gadsby hired him to work in his Beverly Hills restaurant – as a dishwasher.
With Gadsby as a mentor, Henderson learned the recipes of success within high-profile food service and eventually became the first African-American as an executive chef at the MGM Resort property, the Bellagio Hotel, in Las Vegas. Henderson later left this prestigious position to become a multi-media celebrity chef.
Henderson said he gives his motivational speeches to young people so they will avoid the mistakes of his youth.
Making bad choices and developing relationships with bad people led him to drugs and jail, he said.
“You’ve heard that same message over and over – ‘Don’t do drugs.’ You’ve heard that so much but when you stop listening to that – that’s when the pitfalls come.
“Everyone has dark moments – a tragedy or setback and we are frustrated, angry and bitter,” he said.
That can lead to those bad choices or relationships, Henderson said.
It was in prison that Henderson had “an epiphany” that led him to want to better himself and get an education.
“I became an information addict. I wanted to learn everything,” he said. “How I operate is to study well-to-do and successful people in the field you are interested in.”
It was also a time to set goals and create a strategy for his future successes.
“Does everybody here have a dream?” Henderson called out to the Barnwell High students. “Not a fantasy dream, but a real dream that is achievable?”
Everyone has gifts and talents, which is why a person should have achievable dreams to capitalize on them, he said.
“We all bring something to the dinner table. We all have unique gifts,” Henderson said.
In introducing him, Barnwell 45 School Superintendent Jay Grissom gave a prequel to Henderson’s message.
“You are at a critical point in your life where your choices will have greater consequences. It’s not often that a big celebrity takes time out from his busy schedule to come to rural Barnwell to talk to us. Seize the moment and absorb the message,” Grissom said.