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on Meetings CHEF JEFF

Serving good food: “The more bodies you have preparing the food, and serving and plating the food, will determine the quickness of the food getting out, the food being hot, and the quality. For a hundred people, you can even breakit down and have two plate-up areas per hundred, meaning one group would do 50 and the other group would do 50.”

Knowwho’s eating it: “You try to prepare food to give [attendees] an experience that they would appreciate. That’s why it’s so important for a meeting planner to talkto them, so you knowwhat types of food most of them eat.”

His speaking style: “I’m a storyteller, but my story is never told the same. There is no script. I don’t read from PowerPoint. I never have notes. I take them through my journey. I take them to the hood, I take them through federal prison. I take them through my life’s experience.”

back in Los Angeles. Then it was a return to Vegas, in 2005, to serve as executive chef at Café Bellagio in the Bel- lagio hotel—another first for an African-American. All of this—and not one formal cooking class. “How I

learned to cook cocaine was the same way,” Henderson said. “I just watched and I listened and I mimicked. I became a master duplicator of people. If there is something about you that I really like, I’m going to jack you for that piece of knowledge.” After about three years, in 2008, he published Cooked.

Will Smith bought the movie rights, and Henderson landed on “Oprah.” He left the Bellagio to do private chef work, consulting, and public speaking. The same year, he launched a new show on Food Network, “The Chef Jeff Project,” which followed Henderson as he brought a group of disadvantaged young adults to work for Posh Urban Catering, and schooled them in the kitchen and in life. “When I went to L.A., I was cooking for a lot of black

celebrities in Hollywood, and I couldn’t afford to pay top- notch,Wolfgang Puck–style cooks, so I went to Job Corps,” Henderson said. “I went to the hood and got these young kids who had a love of cooking. I brought them with me into these multimillion-dollar estates up in Bel Air, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and they helped me cater these parties. I found myself teaching more about social skills than cooking: ‘Pull up your pants.’ ‘When you come in someone’s home, you greet them.’ Teaching these things— etiquette, style, how to conduct themselves, breaking up lit- tle spats between them, leadership, teamwork.” He added: “That was the basis of ‘The Chef Jeff Project’—to help

“Robert, even though he was British and he was a black

man, he was very, very middle-class,” Henderson said. “He smoked great cigars, he associated mostly with white males in the industry—educated, wealthy—so his mentality was very corporate, very suburban, very upscale.…I never talked to him unless I had a question about what I needed to do, what I wanted to do, and he saw that hunger in me. First to work every day, last to leave. Came in on my days off. Every time I got a paycheck, I went out and bought the latest tools, books, and then he saw me studying everything and I asked ques- tions. And no matter what he needed me to do, I was on it.”

The Master Duplicator Henderson stayed on it, working at Gadsy’s restaurant for a year or two before leaving to make his own way through the world of fine dining—including stints as sous chef at the Coronado Island Marriott outside San Diego, and chef tournot and banquet chef at L.A.’s Hotel Bel-Air. Hearing about the booming restaurant scene in Las Vegas, he went to work at Caesars Palace, eventually becoming the first African- American to run one of its restaurants, the Palladium buffet. In 2001, the American Tasting Institute named him Las

Vegas Buffet Chef of the Year. Henderson took advantage of the exposure that resulted to raise awareness about dis- advantaged black teens and ex-convicts, and began speak- ing at schools and prisons. He also started his own company, Posh Urban Catering, to cater private parties

“I just watched and I listened and I mimicked. If there is something about you that I really like, I’m going to jack you for that piece of knowledge.”

change the culture, change the lives of these young people through the power of food, like it did for me.” The show only lasted a season, partly because Hender-

son spent so much time helping his young charges navigate life outside the kitchen. “The problem with ‘The Chef Jeff Project,’” Henderson said, “is that it started moving too far away from the food, and dealing with too many personal issues of the kids. People go to the Food Network because they want food.” Henderson is talking to the network about other proj-

ects, and in February released another book—the Ameri- can I AM Pass It Down Cookbook, a collection of soul-food recipes that he edited. Once upon a time, he wanted to open his own restaurant, but today, he’s not so sure. Nor is the hustler who saved his own life by learning to cook even sure how much cooking he wants to do. “I believe everybody has a calling in life and everybody is sup- posed to be doing something specific,” he said. “And I truly believe now that food may have not been my calling, but was a vehicle to give me a platform to speak, motivate, inspire people, and teach.” 

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene. 72 pcmaconvene May 2011

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