Chef Jeff Henderson is one of the most influential chefs in the country. He has had his own show on the Food Network, is a highly sought after motivational and public speaker, an award-winning Chef and Author of the New York Times best-seller “Cooked.” Chef Jeff discovered his passion and gift for cooking in an unlikely place, prison.

Yes, prison.

Before cooking things like filet Mignon and oysters Rockefeller, Jeff was trafficking drugs. After serving nearly 10 years in prison for selling drugs in his 20s and 30s, Henderson, 52, had a stigma to live down. At one point, Henderson said he controlled about 40 percent of the cocaine market in southeast San Diego. Henderson was running a $35,000-a-week drug operation selling and manufacturing cocaine.

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“As a teenager, I took lavish vacations, brought my first home, drove luxury cars and owned expensive jewelry,” Henderson said. “In other words, I lived the so-called American Dream at the expense of my community, which I am by no means proud of.”

Henderson was arrested in 1988 at age of 24 for conspiracy with the intent to distribute drugs. He served most of his sentence in the Terminal Island Federal Prison in Los Angeles. While in prison, he became a kitchen cook and found his calling.

“I enjoyed the kitchen praise and the fact that I finally found something I loved to do that was not criminal, that I could eventually turn into a great career once I was released,” Henderson said.

In prison, Henderson started with cooking fried chicken, meatloaf, cinnamon rolls and Boston cream pie.

In 2001, he became executive chef of Caesar’s Palace of Las Vegas, the first African-American to hold that position. In 2006, at 42, he became head chef of Cafe Bellagio in Las Vegas. He now owns a catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine, was host of a Food Network TV reality show that takes six at-risk youths and follows them as they work at Henderson’s catering company and now has a show called Flip My Food.

But don’t think it was easy to accomplish all of this. He said he washed lots of dishes as he worked to get his life on track. It was difficult, he said, because no one gave him much respect because he was a convict. Coming out of prison he faced a lot of obstacles, but he didn’t let any of them stop him.

“I was a convicted felon,” he says. For that reason, “there’s always going to be people who are going to close doors on you. But my desire not to fix my wrongs, make my parents proud, to be around to raise my children,” is what kept him going Henderson said.

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