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Jeff Henderson: Chef Dad  

Chef Jeff Henderson

Many people would have written Jeff Henderson off after he was sent to federal prison for selling drugs as a teenager on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, he never gave up on himself. Instead, Jeff discovered a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge while incarcerated, and when he found himself assigned kitchen detail, he decided he suddenly knew exactly how he would turn his life around.

It's been a long and tough road, but now at the age of 44, Jeff has held executive chef positions at both Caesar's Palace and the Bellagio casinos in Las Vegas. He's written two New York Times bestselling books (Chef Jeff Cooks and the autobiography Cooked) and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He's been personally contacted by Will Smith, who is working on turning his life story into a feature film. And he's also headlined his own Food Network reality show, The Chef Jeff Project, in which he took six at-risk youth and helped them turn their lives around by mentoring them both in and out of the kitchen.

Chef Jeff took some time out to talk with NYC DADS, reflecting upon how fatherhood has helped him mature and how his four favorite dishes-sons Jamar, 26, and Jeffrey Jr., 9, and daughters Noel, 9, and Troy, 6-inspire him to be a better man and keep helping others.

What were you doing right before you had your first child? Take me briefly through where you were at in life.
I wasn't doing the right things. I was living a life on the streets, hustling and not being productive at all.

Do you remember what went through your head the first time you held your first son?
It was a problem, you know, the fact that I wasn't prepared to have a child. He wasn't planned. But when he came, I felt overwhelmed. I was happy, I was excited, and it was very pleasurable.

How has having children made you grow as a man?
It was my second round of kids, my young children, who really brought perspective to my life. Obviously I'm older, more mature, and I actually understand the importance of good parenting, community, and education. It's the most joyful thing, having these kids. It's really impacted me in a way that helps me to help kids outside of my family as well.

Were you close to your own father while you were growing up?
Not as much as I would've liked to. He was in my life, but we didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of different things. He was with me how I was with my first son. In order to be an affective father, a teaching father, one must have an example of fatherhood around him as a child growing up. It's not something that you go to school to learn. You learn from example.

Did it bother you that he wasn't around?
It absolutely bothered me. I was very conscious of it. But I didn't know what it was like to have a father in the house. I just never had one living with us. I never woke up in the morning and said, "Good morning, mommy" or "Good morning, daddy," or sat at the breakfast table and had cereal with my mother and father. That really affected me a lot. Today, I make sure that I sit down and I eat with my children at the table and talk and stimulate their minds. They wake up every morning and say, "Good morning, mommy. Good morning, daddy," and that means the world to me.

What are the biggest differences between Jeff Henderson before kids and Jeff Henderson after kids?
The biggest differences are that I value family. I value education. And I value quality family time.

What was the biggest shock for you in terms of fatherhood? Was there anything that really threw you for a loop when you first became a dad?
The added responsibility. The uncertainty. Just understanding that parents are the first teachers, and that you need to be a good example. And I wasn't. So my son saw things and heard things that he probably shouldn't have as a child.

What's the hardest thing about being a dad?
Making sure that your children are provided for, making sure that their minds are being shaped, and that mom and dad are there to lean on for advice and inspiration. And that, in turn, builds their self-esteem. If you don't give them those key elements in life, they grow up with low self-esteem and you leave them vulnerable to the wickedness of the world. You're at the risk of losing them to the streets.

What are some of your favorite games to play with your kids?
We like to go to the park. We all have bicycles, so we ride our bikes to the park and we play basketball, soccer, and just chase each other around. We all love going to the movies. We love swimming. We have two dogs, Jenny and Biscuit. Jenny is a full blooded German Shepherd, and Biscuit is a Pug. They're funny when they get together!

How about reading? Are you a big reader with your kids?
Huge! That falls under the education thing. We have a library in our house, and we do a lot of reading and my kids are on home study. They do all their work at home and we have a teacher that comes several times a week and we do the lessons and stuff with them. Some of the stuff we do online.

How about favorite books: Are there any that they love to read with you?
My son Jeffrey Jr. loves science and National Geographic type of stuff. Troy is more into characters and silly stuff, because she's still young. Noel is maturing, so she likes history. She's a natural leader-a people-person, a manager.

What's been the most rewarding moment for you so far as a dad?
My most rewarding moment is when I saw Jeffrey and Noel walk across the stage and get their certificate and ribbon for being honors students in school. That was a tearful moment for me.

Since our site is called NYC DADS, do you ever get to NYC with your kids?
I haven't brought them yet, but we're coming. Actually, Jeffrey Jr. has been to New York, when he was a baby.

So when you bring the whole family, what are some of the sights and activities that you hope to show them?
I want to take them to Harlem, to Central Park, and to see the Empire State Building. I want them to really see what life has to offer. There's so much out there, and sometimes we see life through a tunnel.

And do you all cook together as a family?
Oh, yeah. All the time. Troy and Noel like to get in the kitchen. Jeffrey likes to be on the receiving end. But Noel's a little cook. Troy's a little cook. And they're both very passionate. They love it.

What types of things do they like to cook?
They like to make oatmeal. They make rice. They make their own sushi. Noel, she's a great heater-upper. She helps her mother a lot.

Do you think cooking is a good father-child bonding experience?
Oh, absolutely. It gives you time to really interact with your children and understand them better. And you have to do more than just hear them. You have to listen to them.

Tell us about your Food Network show, the Chef Jeff Project, and what made it unique. We hear you're waiting to see if it's picked up for another season.
It was amazing. It really allowed me to give back and help other people. It was rewarding for my children. They like when they see me help other kids and give people new chances in life.

What can people expect from Jeff Henderson recipes that they can't get from others?
They're definitely going to get historical, back-in-the-day style flavor, with a new generation presentation. I've taken some of my favorite Southern dishes and refined them with fresh ingredients and added ingredients. I call my food "posh, urban cuisine."

So what's tougher: Being a head chef or being a dad?
I would have to say being a father. Your children will constantly challenge you and the stakes are higher. Working in the kitchen is a job and something you love to do. At the end of the day you can always get a job but when you have children, you're shaping your legacy, your future, their future, and your grandchildren and great grandchildren to come. Parenthood is so important. It can't be given a backseat.

And which is messier, fatherhood or being a chef?
It depends on how old your kids are! [laughs] I think kids would be a little messier. They mess their rooms up and you have to go through diaper changing, potty training, and stuff like that.

There's a motion picture in the works about your life story, which is based on your book Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras. Where do things stand with that?
That's all in the mix. The script is done. I think they're going to do a little more tweaking. I'm going to consult on it. They haven't shown it to me yet, but they will.

And Will Smith is still involved with it and he's still going to portray you?
Yes. Absolutely. I couldn't have asked for a better guy, I don't think. I've spent time with him-a whole day, actually, on the set of I Am Legend. We chopped it up a little bit and had a good conversation. We share a lot of the same values.

Did you have any input into his casting?
No. They pursued me. After I was on Oprah, Will and Sony called and made a preemptive offer.

You've had two books out that have been very popular, Cooked and Chef Jeff Cooks: In the Kitchen with America's Inspirational New Culinary Star. Are there any others on the horizon?
Yes, I'm working on a new book now called The Chef Jeff Principles. It's going to be a motivational, inspirational type of book for socially challenged people. It'll guide them in areas of employment, self-esteem building, relationships, the art of networking, the game face-different things like that. It's an all-around self-improvement book.

How about another cooking or recipe book?
Not in the near future. I'm going to wait until I get a restaurant first. Then I'll be able to move into that area.

What advice would you give to all the NYC DADS out there who might be struggling with their own personal situations and looking for inspiration to be better fathers?
Take some pointers from fathers who have lived the life and survived the trials and tribulations. The ups and downs. Put your children first. Focus on them. Listen to them. Children see life from their own perspective. Sometimes squat down on their level and try to see what they see and what they're experiencing. Do your best in shaping them. And pray.