HEAD OF THE CLASS: On “The Chef Jeff Project,” his Food Network show, Henderson took six disadvantaged young adults and put them to work at his catering company —“to change the culture,” he said, “change the lives of these young people through the power of food, like it did for me.”
was the American dream to many of us, because we were so limited in our thinking.” It turned out that Henderson had a head for this particular
American dream. He was smart and focused, learning how to cook high-grade crack by watching T-Row and other dealers do it, making connections with suppliers in other cities, stay- ing neutral and independent when it came to Crips and Bloods, and avoiding violence at all costs. “I understood mar- keting,” he said. “I understood PR. I understood the impor- tance ofrelationships. I understood the importance ofa brand. But I never knew those words until I went to prison.”
The Prisoner When Henderson finally fell, it took about a year. Around Christmas in 1987, one ofthe dealers he supplied was busted, and Henderson’s name came up. Soon he was under police surveillance. The following December, he was arrested by the San Diego Drug Task Force—made up of
federal and local agents—and charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute. Henderson opted for a jury trial, and lost. He was sentenced to the maximum term: 19½ years in federal prison. The one bright spot was that he began serving his time
at Terminal Island in San Pedro, Calif., just two hours from San Diego, meaning he’d be close to family and friends. And, after 18 months, there was another positive develop- ment: He was transferred to the prison’s more relaxed South Yard for good behavior. He ended up on the kitchen crew, washing dishes, and suddenly was surrounded by people whose job was to cook food for other people, in a giant, industrial-sized operation. He got to know Big Roy, the inmate who ran the kitchen, and within a few months got a chance to work food prep, washing and seasoning chicken for a Juneteenth celebration. That was it. Henderson knew what he wanted to do.
“So, so many young people, [when] I say, ‘What do you want to do when you get out ofhigh school?,’ they say, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’” Henderson said. “Because they haven’t had a certain exposure and experience to trigger that. So that’s what it was for me in the [prison] kitchen. They offered me an opportunity to help cook, and then finally, I was getting praise.…It was the first time in my life that I ever got the pat on the back for doing something