Chef-author Jeff Henderson

‘Chef Jeff’ explains why his America I AM: Pass It Down Cookbook is a document of history, as well as a collection of recipes.

"Chef Jeff" Henderson has been executive chef at several top restaurants and made Las Vegas history by becoming the first African American to be named Chef de Cuisine at Caesars Palace. He also launched a reality show on the Food Network. Henderson found his passion for cooking while serving nearly a decade in prison for dealing drugs and was determined to turn his life around. An inspiration to troubled young adults, he wrote a best-selling memoir and makes numerous speaking appearances. His latest book is America I AM: Pass It Down Cookbook.


Tavis: Jeff Henderson is a talented chef, best-selling author and the former host of the Food Network series, “The Chef Jeff Project.” His latest text is inspired by the traveling cultural exhibit that I’m very proud to be a part of. It’s called “America I Am: The African-American Imprint.” The exhibit is currently in Washington, D.C. at the National Geographic museum, and this terrific cookbook based on the project is called “The America I Am Pass-It-Down Cookbook,” edited by one Chef Jeff Henderson. Jeff, good to have you back on the program.
Jeff Henderson: Likewise. Good to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you, man. This thing is working. I saw you on the “Today” show, nice piece in “USA Today” this week.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: Saw you on “The Talk” on CBS.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: So you’re making the rounds. I guess people are responding well to it.
Henderson: They are. This is an amazing document of history, filled with amazing recipes from folks all across America. It wasn’t celebrity-driven. We have grandmothers, we have young people, we have historians, it’s filled with amazing stories. Great book.
Tavis: When you say it’s not just a cookbook but a history book, by that you mean what?
Henderson: Well, we wanted to document our story of food, how we played a role in culinary in America. How when Africans brought seeds over here 400 year ago in their bosom, in their hair and whatnot, and we wanted to show the world that we had amazing contributions to food in this country.
Tavis: I’m African-American, as if you couldn’t tell; Jeff is an African-American, as if you couldn’t tell. While we love the food that our culture has given the country and indeed the world, not all of it is the healthiest. So, how do you put together of a cookbook of 130 soul food recipes and give people what they want, but also give them some options to move things around, change things around in recipes, to make it even healthier for them if they want?
Henderson: Well, we knew when we put the book out with all these recipes here that critics will come and say, “Well, this food isn’t healthy.” This is a book that restores food that we have cooked, that has been passed down generation to generation as we know it. If we don’t document our own history, other people will tell our story.
So this was important about it. Most of these recipes in this book can be made healthier. Collard greens minus maybe the neck bone and add a smoked turkey. Chicken broth versus adding infused baking drippings that normally would go in there. There’s many great, healthy recipes in there as well.
Tavis: I laugh at the critics because I don’t see nobody who’s not eating it when you’re cooking on these TV shows.
Henderson: They tearing it up.
Tavis: I saw Matt and Meredith tearing it up on “The Today Show.”
Henderson: Yeah, from the booty to the snooty.
Tavis: (Laughter) Wearing it out. Let me ask again how – you intimated this earlier – how did you guys go about getting these recipes? You put a national search out for – just tell me how it happened.
Henderson: We used social networking, we used book signings. I spoke all across the country, asking folks for recipes. The African-American community, one thing that we don’t do is we don’t document our recipes. We’re what you call a (unintelligible).
Tavis: It’s a little pinch of this, a little pinch of that.
Henderson: Little pinch, little pinch, pinch of that, absolutely. (Laughter) So it was a challenge at first, but I think with the recipes that we have in this book and how great it is, I think many people now are going to be able to start documenting those recipes so we can pass it on to the next generation.
Now, a lot of this food in here may not be healthy, but we have to learn to eat in moderation. You can’t eat fried chicken every single day, but every now and the, it’s okay. But there is healthier ways of preparing many of the foods that we grew up on because we know that diabetes, we know that obesity, high blood pressure is really impacting our community.
Tavis: What’s the value of families passing down recipes from generation to generation? I asked that because I went to the book after you guys had put it together and started, to your point, reading some of these stories. So on every one of these pages where there’s a recipe, there’s a picture of the everyday American who submitted the recipe, a little bit about how the recipe came to be, about the history of their families.
That’s what Jeff means when he says it’s a history book as well. But what’s the value of generations learning to keep stuff in the family and to pass these things on for generations?
Henderson: Well, it’s important – in our community, many times the older folk don’t tell the stories of the ancestors and how we came about, our existence here in this country. We felt that it was important to teach young people how to cook and to preserve what we brought to this country and preserve the way how we used to eat from the beginning of time here in the country 400 years ago up until now.
Many of these soul food recipes as well have been elevated, they have been tweaked by the next generations that come, so we felt it was very important that we needed to be able to restore this and share this for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come.
Tavis: You know what’s fascinating, I thought about this book yesterday and I was thinking about the fact that we live in a world – you and I were raised in a world, many of our viewers were raised at a time where families did get together for meals every night.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: Part of the obesity issue, as you well know, we’re eating and running.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: Eating on the run.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: Eating fast food.
Henderson: Yeah, and not exercising.
Tavis: And not exercising. But I don’t know a whole lot of people, though, who sit down still every night, as we did growing up, for a family meal. What do you think the country, beyond Black folk, what are we losing as a country by not having that time of day where we sit down together for a family meal or whatever it is we’re going to cook?
Henderson: Well, so many companies now and restaurants, the quick service industry, we have two-parent working households, the mother and the father working, and people just don’t cook like they used to.
But I think we have to go back to the basics, because when I was growing up, as yourself, holidays and on Sunday after church, meals brought the family together. Peace was made over meals in the family. I think we need to go back to our roots and begin to sit back at the dinner table and talk about life and engage our children and our family as well.
Tavis: So I assume that you must have gotten in your kitchen, because when people send you recipes, a whole lot of folk think they can cook and they’ll send you their recipe. How do you know this stuff is actually good?
Henderson: Well, Tavis, I’m actually dieting right now because of – some of your staff were eating a lot of this food, so now I’m testing it all around the country with everyone as well.
But the recipes work. They’re amazing recipes. You have a little bit of Caribbean influence, a little bit of African influence. One of the stories that really touched me the most was called “The Black Hunter.” How Africans used to go out and hunt and they would bring back the meat, and the slave master kept all of the tender parts of the animal, and we had the tough parts like the oxtail, the stew meat, the short ribs.
And how the whole braising and slow-cooking technique came from the slaves, how before we went out in the fields to work from sunup to sundown, we would put these tough pieces of meat that the slave master didn’t want braising and cooking all day long.
So when we’d get home in the evening, then we had a meal. So when you talk about slow-cooked, braised greens, slow-cooked beef tenderloins and short ribs and whatnot, that’s a contribution we made.
Tavis: We took nothing and turned it into something.
Henderson: No, absolutely.
Tavis: Started a whole ‘nother process of cooking called “braising.”
Henderson: Yes, yes.
Tavis: One of the things I love about the book, and I’m glad to see the “USA Today” article, I think, pointed this out – I’ll let you explain it, but at the back of the book there are some blank pages. Explain what these pages are for.
Henderson: The blank pages in the back of the book are for everyday cooks, for family members to document, to continue this process of documenting the recipes that come from families. So this is the type of book that stays in the kitchen, stays in the home library for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come, so they can duplicate what our forefathers once cooked.
Tavis: The section of the book is called “It’s Your Turn to Pass It Down,” and has these headers in the back of the book for you to write in, as Jeff said, your own recipes, and to keep this tradition alive and pass down these great recipes.
I’ve only got three minutes to go, but I can never, ever talk to you – as long as I’ve known you, I can never talk to you and not hear a little bit of your personal story, because I know that on any given night, the way TV and radio works is that somebody may be seeing you for the first time.
They see you as this wonderful chef they’ve seen on the Food Network, you’ve been all over television and got this great book out now. They don’t know – as the old adage goes, they see your glory but don’t know your story.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: They don’t know the back story. So I’m going to give you three minutes to tell the story any way you want to tell it. I will tell you this – the story is so powerful that a guy named Will Smith has bought the rights to his story and look for Will Smith in a movie theater coming near you sometime soon as he tells the story on the big screen of the life of Jeff Henderson. But in two minutes, tell the back story.
Henderson: Well, Tavis, I’m amazed at my own success, and I’m a guy that’s very humble. But when I look back over 20-something years ago, I got caught up in the drug business in the mid-80s, and like many Black men used the selling of crack-cocaine as a vehicle to escape poverty and to try to live the American dream.
My purpose back then was to help my mother get out of the hood and make a better way for my family, but on the flipside it came at the expense of our own folks. Gang-banging, high incarceration of Black males, teenage pregnancy, children being born under the influence of drugs was born out of that decade.
I served nearly 10 years in prison. I was in prison when I read my first book and began to see the world different, and where I learned about cooking and found a new purpose in life, where I wanted to give back through food.
So as a chef over many years I’ve given opportunities to young people. The basis of the Chef Jeff project took young kids off the street, gave them a second chance to turn their life around using food as a power.
Tavis: So you learned how to cook, you started cheffing in prison?
Henderson: In prison, yes. But we didn’t have the knives and the sauté pans and stuff like that.
Tavis: I guess not. (Laughter)
Henderson: You know what I’m saying? It was more institutional style cooking, but it gave me the foundation, it gave me the vision. For the first time in my life I was being praised for something good, and I really convinced myself that maybe I can really take this on the outside and make something of myself, because I’d never, ever dreamed of becoming a chef, never desired cooking ever in my life.
Tavis: So you were hanging out with some – you were on lockdown with some major personalities in our culture – people like Ivan Boesky and others.
Henderson: Yes.
Tavis: What were these folk telling you about how to become a brand, how to perfect this gift once you got out?
Henderson: Well, many of the high-powered white collar criminals in prison, they taught business classes. We had a Toastmasters; we had a think tank, so we had some of the brightest minds in this country that was locked up.
So these men had an opportunity to create jobs for themselves, so they talked to other inmates who didn’t have a degree or never went to school about branding and marketing and business, so I just gravitated to these guys and began to really, really learn about myself and said, maybe I can create a business one day when I get out?
Tavis: So how surreal is it, then, that the guy who made the “Pursuit of Happyness” a blockbuster success is going to give you the same treatment at some point?
Henderson: Yeah, wow. I was blown away. It was like a dream come true. I had no idea. I went on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Two hours after “Oprah” aired I got a call from Will Smith and execs at Sony and they made a preemptive offer on my life story.
He was a great guy. We talked about life, we talked about all of the social issues that came up through the ’80s, some of the issues we talked about, and I’m blessed, I’m very humbled for the opportunity, yes.
Tavis: Well, as you can see, it’s a great story about how to take your life and turn it around, and he has done that and then some. His new book is called “America I Am Pass-It-Down Cookbook,” over 130 soul-filled recipes from Chef Jeff Henderson – edited by him, I should say. Jeff, good to have you on the program.
Henderson: Yeah, likewise. Good seeing you, Tavis.
Tavis: All the best to you, man.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm