NEWS: TV chef to offer dish of reality for students living in dire straits

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Chef Jeff talks with students. Photos provided.

Chef Jeff talks with students. Photos provided.

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |  Chef Jeff Henderson broke out of the cycle of poverty and drugs, but first, he had to serve more than nine years in a federal prison in California.

Henderson, a nationally-known chef with television shows and books on his resume, will tour the Palmetto State next week in programs coordinated by Columbia’s EdVenture Children’s Museum.  He’ll challenge disadvantaged youths to aspire to and live the American dream, not get sucked into generational poverty that too often traps people in a downward spiral.

“The one word that I always use when I’m speaking to men in prison who have life [sentences] who will never get out is ‘hope’,” the 52-year-old ex-con said.  “The word I use to folks who come from generational poverty is ‘hope.’

“We always have to cling to hope that there is always going to be a better day.”

Chef Jeff’s story

These days, Henderson is a success, with four books to his credit and television shows airing on cable TV.  A movie based on his life has been optioned and may make it to the silver screen.

Chef Jeff Henderson

Chef Jeff Henderson

But he well remembers the days in the 1980s that he spent on the streets in Los Angeles dealing drugs and cooking something else — crack.  At age 19, he operated a $35,000-per-week cocaine operation, according to a Food Network bio.

“I became addicted to money and addicted to the lifestyle,” he said in a related video.  “I never thought in a million years they would catch me.”

But they did.  Arrested in the late 1980s on federal cocaine charges, he received a 19.5 year sentence, later reduced to almost 11 years.  After serving almost a decade in the Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro, Calif., he was released, determined not to return.

Food saved him.  In prison, he wasn’t happy when he got kitchen duty to scrub pots and pans for violating prison rules.  Then he met the chief inmate cook, an inspirational figure who taught Henderson to cook.  Soon, he started to believe he could do be a succeed as a chef on the outside.

After being released in 1996, Henderson first was a dishwasher who helped on the line every now and then.  Then he got better and learned more.  Looking for a new challenge, he eventually applied to run a restaurant at the famous Bellagio resort in Las Vegas.  He got the job, becoming the hotel’s first African-American chef.  That led to more good things, including television, where he currently stars in Z Living Channel’s “Flip My Food with Chef Jeff.”

16-0909-jeff_cooking_lg“Food allows me the opportunity to stay off the streets, take care of my family,” Henderson said.  “But most of all, food allows me to use my life story to, in turn, impact young people, ex-convicts, people who want to have a second opportunity in life through food.  That’s why everything that I do is about the power of food.”

Next week’s agenda

EdVenture is working with Henderson for what he calls “reality-based education” during a Youth Summit Tour across the state with stops in Columbia and Hartsville on Sept. 13 and in Orangeburg and St. George on the following day.

On Sept. 15, Henderson will head to Allendale and Barnwell counties, two of the six counties in the state’s challenged S.C. Promise Zone.  In Allendale County, 44.4 percent of children live in poverty; it’s 2.5 percent higher for Barnwell County children.

Nikki Williams, Edventure’s executive vice president, says Henderson’s tour and inspiring story may help change some children’s lives.

logo_edventure“As a children’s museum that focuses on the whole child and the family system, we listen to our communities and hear the challenges that are faced. Education and health are two focal points for us as an institution,” said Williams, a Hartsville native who heads an education workgroup in the Promise Zone.

“We are not just a children’s museum or an education institution. We are a human services organization that believes that without a healthy beginning and a solid foundation of educational opportunities, we will continue the cycle. We want to make an impact on the lives that need it the most.”

Among the other Youth Development programs that EdVenture offers to engage youths are:

  • Future Leaders After-school Programs for 7th and 8th graders, which engages at-risk youths across the state.
  • Museum Apprentice Program for middle and high-schoolers to volunteer at the museum and learn life skills in a professional environment.
  • Youth summits for 7th to 10th graders to develop leadership skills and set goals for the future.

Chef Jeff’s message

Chef Jeff says he isn’t a speaker who seeks to cause students to be “scared straight.”  Rather, he hopes to inject a healthy dose of reality to help them expand their horizons.

16-0909-jeff_highschoolFirst, he’s going to ask students to tell him what poverty is.

“My hunch tells me that the majority of these kids don’t even know what poverty is,” he said in an exclusive interview.

Why?  Because they are living it, not questioning it.  Many who live in poverty grow up in homes with few male role models, just as Henderson grew up in California.  Mothers, some of whom are teenagers, have their problems spawned by generations of despair.

“When you have no middle-class values, you begin to value the things that send you to prison, that keep you poor, that keep you ignorant of the process that allows ordinary folks with those values to achieve their own versions of the American dream,” Henderson said.

“My talk is always deeply-rooted in the American dream.  Many never had the dream.  They were born in survival mode and were born in harsh circumstances. … When I speak of this, I speak from experience.”

He emphasized he wants young people who may be dazzled by drug money or short-term bling to really understand what generational poverty means.  He said he’ll talk about the stigma of poverty, how it produces drug dealers, gang-bangers and others who don’t see a payoff in regular society.

“Young people are told to go to school every day, but nobody explains why,” he said outlining the importance of learning fundamentals –reading, writing and arithmetic — to get by better later in life.  “Most young parents send their kids to school because it’s a babysitter.  When they come home, the education isn’t reinforced.  They’re not meeting with teachers or joining the PTA because they don’t value education.

“My goal is to connect money and education to the American dream.”

He said he is going to stress to students that the decisions they make now will impact how they spend the rest of their lives.

And if they don’t listen? “The reality is another generation of poverty.  Prison is a reality.  Dysfunction is a reality.”

Henderson says he understands that one talk can’t fix all of the problems associated with poverty.

But he said he can plant a seed “for young people to think about my message, to investigate the possibilities beyond their environment.”

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