Chef Jeff Henderson: Incredible Journey From Prison To The Kitchen

Posted By ,July 15, 2016


Chef Jeff Henderson is one of the most influential chefs in the country. He has had is own shown 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 a 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.

“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.”

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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.


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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…

Prep Time:1 Minutes
Cook time:1 Minutes

1/3 c. canola oil
1 ½ rack of spare ribs, cut into individual ribs
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp. fresh garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 small carrots, roughly chopped
3 medium celery stalks, rough chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
2 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
3 tbsp. tomato paste
¾ c. red wine
1 herb bundle: (2 bay leaves, 2 thyme sprigs and 1 rosemary sprig)
6 to 7 c. low-sodium beef stock
1 c. canned diced tomatoes
1 c. cane syrup


1. Heat half the canola oil in cast iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season ribs with salt and pepper and sear on all sides. Remove ribs from pan and set aside.

2. In the same Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add onions, garlic, carrots, celery, jalapeño peppers and black peppercorns. Cook until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir thoroughly.

3. Pour red wine into pot to deglaze. Reduce by half and add ribs, herb bundle, stock and tomatoes. Bring to a rolling boil, reduce heat to a low simmer for about 1-1 ½ hours or until ribs are tender, but not falling off the bone.

4. Remove ribs from pot; set aside and strain cooking liquid. Add cane syrup and cooking liquid to a saucepan. Reduce by half and stir consistently.

Stack ribs on a plate and spoon sugar cane sauce over ribs. Serve with potato salad or French fries