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From Prison to Professional Chef: The Tale of Jeff Henderson

Professional chef Jeff Henderson discovered his passion for the culinary arts in the most unlikely place: prison. His memoir "Cooked: from the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras" chronicles Henderson's ascent from prison dishwasher to executive chef of Las Vegas' Cafe Bellagio. His experience lays bare the secrets of a successful culinary career: determination and drive.

Culinary Career Secrets

You can learn the skills for a successful culinary career in chef school. But you can't rise to an executive chef position unless you have some crucial character traits as well. As Henderson's memoir makes clear, a passion and talent for the culinary arts was only part of this chef's recipe for success.

Putting the 'Executive' in Executive Chef

Besides culinary skill, Henderson relied on the following qualities to build his culinary career:

  • Persistence. Henderson faced an uphill battle gaining acceptance as an ex-con. He convinced executive chef Robert Gadsby to give him a job in his swank Beverly Hills eatery. Not long afterwards, he wowed the executive chef of Caesar's Palace with a six-course culinary extravaganza, and the groundwork was laid for his own career success.
  • Precision. Cooking cocaine is not much like cooking foie gras, but there's one crucial similarity: there's no room for error. Foie gras is "absolutely unforgiving in its delicacy," Henderson observes. "Just like when you're cooking cocaine, one miscalculation of heat can destroy your product." Today, Henderson applies his perfectionism to produce five-star results as Bellagio's executive chef.
  • Resilience. Prison bred in Henderson an unquenchable desire to turn his life around and make something of himself. That drive carried him through his chef training and kitchen apprenticeships, until he finally hit the culinary career jackpot at Caesar's.


Chef training allowed Henderson to transform his life, focusing his executive chef-worthy qualities with solid culinary arts skills. There's no reason why you can't do the same.

Sources
Cooked, by Jeff Henderson
EGullet.org, "Kitchen Hustle"
ABCNews, "Excerpt: 'Cooked' by Chef Jeff Henderson"
The Oprah Winfrey Show