With heavy anticipation, culinary students lined the walls in a banquet room in the Applied Technology Center at the Grand Rapids Community College. They patiently waited, most with a book titled “Cooked” gripped tightly in their hands.
The diverse group of students waited for the chance to have a short conversation and get their books signed by Chef Jeff Henderson, the man who came to GRCC to tell the story of his transition from drug dealer on the streets of L.A. and 10-year prisoner to nationally known, award winning chef. He greeted every student that came through the line with a warm sincerity; he had a short conversation and stood for picture after picture.
Henderson spoke to a crowd of students, faculty and the community at the The Pietro and Regina Amphitheater in the ATC Building. He also treated the students to a cooking presentation.
“I had been brought here (Grand Rapids) by the Inner City Christian Federation to be a keynote speaker at their banquet,” Henderson said. “While I was here, the school asked if I would do a cooking demo and lecture. I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Henderson grew up in a troubled single-parent home in the inner city of Los Angeles. Growing up in a rough neighborhood, he started to cook and sell crack and at one point made as much as $35,000 per week. At the age of 24 he was arrested and sent to federal prison for 10 years.
It was in the prison kitchen that Henderson discovered his passion for food. After prison, he took classes and worked to take his life down a different path. He worked his way up to head chef at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. A recognized cook, his star began to shine when his life story was featured on “The Oprah Show.”
“When my story broke on Oprah, people became interested in my self discovery and improvement and my ability to really touch people who were dealt a bad hand in life,” Henderson said. “My career has taken a change to the more social aspect of community service, but food was the anchor. It was the vessel that put me here and I somehow connect the power of food to changing lives.”
Henderson expressed his desire to visit locations like GRCC, saying that it is community colleges and trade schools who open the door to everyone no matter their past. His inspiring story and cooking skills had great effect on the audience.
Christopher Montgomery, GRCC student studying Culinary and Business Management, appreciated hearing a speaker with an unconventional past.
“It was cool to hear his story,” Montgomery said. “His best advice was to never stop learning no matter what.”
Culinary Arts student Nancy Burns also attended the cooking presentation.
“Seeing him talk is a once in a lifetime experience,” Burns said. “He’s so heartfelt, and I plan to make his molasses short ribs for my family.”
Henderson appreciates the positive effect his story has on people.
“I use food to touch people,” he said. “As you can see today, many people in the audience had their own stories. At least nine people came up to me at the book signing and said that they were in prison or homeless, and that food had given an avenue to get into and hope.”
Henderson explained that the culinary field is open to hiring ex-cons or people with a varied past. It’s the second largest industry and can offer many people a second chance. He believes that every individual wants to change for the better; they just need a chance and a little help in the right direction.
Talking to an elderly student Henderson stated ‘it doesn’t matter your age or where you came from, you follow your dreams.”
Before his presentation, Henderson had a chance to take a tour of the Secchia Institute and meet some of the students at GRCC. He was impressed by the culinary department, describing it as one of ‘finest culinary programs’ he has seen.
Henderson praised the faculty at GRCC, stating that he has the inspirational story, but their teaching is a necessary piece of student success.
“I know the voice I bring is a little different,” he said. “I can say things they can’t say, but they can do things I can’t do. It takes a whole community to raise a community.”
As for food, Henderson believes in one final rule.
“You can make food look sexy or beautiful on the plate, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s no good,” he said. “It is all about the flavor.”
To watch Chef Henderson’s presentation, click here.
To find out more about the Chef’s story and information on his books, click here.