Chef Jeff Henderson

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Henderson shares lessons learned on his redemptive journey from incarceration to celebrity chef to mentor and best-selling author.

"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 hit docu-reality series on the Food Network, The Chef Jeff Project. 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's devoted to mentoring and makes numerous speaking appearances. He's a best-selling author, who, in his latest book, If You Can See It, You Can Be It, shows how anyone can apply the lessons he's learned.


Tavis: “New York Times” best-selling author Chef Jeff Henderson makes no secret of the struggles he’s had in the past. He went from incarceration to celebrity chef, and his first book, “Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove,” dealt frankly with the challenges he’s faced.

Now he’s written a new book about the lessons he’s learned over the last two decades (audio drop-out) “If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success.” Chef Jeff, good to have you back on this program.

Jeff Henderson: Likewise, good to see you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man, good to see you.

Henderson: Yes, sir.

Tavis: Tell me how difficult it has been to make the transition from there to here.

Henderson: Well, it definitely was many, many challenges, but I think one of the keys to changing anyone’s life is changing the mind-set. When I was in prison, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got out, and that was become a chef and be successful and get rid of the whole criminal lifestyle.

I had many doors closed in my face. I had many people, many naysayers who said that I could never become a chef at a high-end restaurant or hotel. I proved them wrong.

In “If You Can See It, You Can Be It,” I laid out many of the street-smart strategies and recipes and lessons throughout my whole journey over the past 20 years to get here to this day.

Tavis: How’d you come out of prison so confident? I ask that because the one thing that we hear consistently about our criminal justice system – and there are many – but one of the things we hear consistently is that it really doesn’t rehabilitate people.

That it’s incarceration, but it’s not really rehabilitation. But it seems to have worked for you, because you came out knowing exactly what you wanted to do and you got on your grind.

Henderson: Yeah.

Tavis: So where does that confidence come from in you when others come out and they can’t seem to find out where they’re supposed to be?

Henderson: Well, since I was a little boy I always was confident in the things that I want to do in life. When I was in prison, with many inmates doing prison, some learned to do the time, but others let the time do them.

I was fortunate to have been in the federal system, where I was locked up with some of the most brilliant minds in prison. During the prison I was in prison, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken was in there; many of these Wall Street guys talked business in marketing classes, and this one guy said, “You’re a smart dude, man.”

I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “When you were on the street selling drugs, you never used them. You understood marketing, branding, you managed a diverse workforce, you understood budgets, logistics.” He said, “All you got to do is change the product.”

Once I had this moment of self-discovery in prison, learning how to cook in prison, learning how to speak in prison, I utilized my gift (audio drop-out) I came out focused.

The key is one being able to reinvent themselves, and that’s what I had to do. So the prison system doesn’t rehabilitate you, you have to rehabilitate yourself. That’s what I did.

Tavis: You mentioned these 12 street-smart recipes for success, and that’s what the book, in part, is built around. I want to just pick a couple of them out and have you say a word about how these end up becoming the recipes for your success. In no particular order, the self-controller.

Henderson: The self-controller is the individual who really understands a level of leadership, an individual who takes control of his life. That was important for me, because in prison they take control of you. They give you that direction, they give you that guidance.

So I wanted to really make sure that I let people know who reads the book to understand that you have to be in control of your own life and your own destinies, based on many other aspects as well.

Tavis: So it’s really about strategic self-discipline.

Henderson: Absolutely, and discipline is key. I’ve always been very disciplined, even in prison and even in my life today, laser focus. I don’t waver from what I’m trying to do, and discipline is one of the strategies for anybody becoming successful.

Tavis: The gab-master.

Henderson: The gab-master, wow. Growing up in the ‘hood, when you talk a lot and you’re wheeling and dealing, people say, oh, that boy has gift of gab. So I wanted to refine gift of gab, because it’s connected to negativity, so I called it the gab-master.

In the corporate professional world, they call that a great communicator – a person who uses his mouthpiece, who uses words, who negotiates, who communicates well, and I’ve always done that well. That’s one of the recipes that any individual needs to build relationships, to get a job, to manage people.

To make change in your life, you have to be a gab-master. You have to be able to communicate well with other people.

Tavis: There are a number of terms that you introduce. I call it the Chef Jeff vocabulary. (Laughter) You have your own kind of terminology, and one of the words that I love that you’ve created is called “hustlepreneur.”

Henderson: Hustlepreneur.

Tavis: Hustlepreneur.

Henderson: Man, let me tell you, everybody loves that term. We did a brain dump when we went to put this book together, and we had a group of folks with my publishing company and tried to pull out all the strategic rules and lessons in how I became successful.

When I look at myself of always being a hustler as a young kid growing up, a hustler is born out of poverty. A hustler is born out of someone who is in survival mode in their life.

But as you know, the word “hustler” has a bad connotation to it, so I wanted to redefine the word hustler. Most hustlers have some ability, have entrepreneurial genes. So I blended the two words, the hustler and the entrepreneur, so I call it the hustlepreneur.

Tavis: But these days, I think even everyday white folk get that now. Everybody’s hustling now.

Henderson: Absolutely.

Tavis: Jay-Z’s famous don’t believe in knocking hustle. But everybody these days is, in his or her own way, getting their hustle on.

Henderson: Yes.

Tavis: I’m not even sure the word is as negative as it used to be.

Henderson: Well not really, because they kind of brought it into mainstream. But what defines the legit hustler and the illegal hustler is the product and how one conducts business.

I tell people I’m still a hustler today; I just changed the product and built integrity and character. So it’s okay to hustle. We have to hustle. We live in a time and era today, if you don’t hustle, you won’t eat.

So I try to make sure I put those emphases in to folks I work with around the country. This book is not just for incarcerated individuals. This is for folks who have, may lost a job, people who are stuck in life. There’s over 2.5 million people in prison, Tavis, in America, but there’s tens of millions of people who are mentally incarcerated.

Self-imposed barriers and roadblocks that they put on themselves, with blinders on. So the key to reaching any level of success and breaking out of that bubble is making sure that you understand the whole traits and be able to break yourself free of that mental incarceration.

Tavis: I remember the very first time that I was invited to speak at a prison. I wanted to go, because I wanted to be in solidarity with the brothers who were there. I wanted to give them a positive word; I wanted to say something that would be inspiring and uplifting for them.

Then I got scared out of my mind, and what scared me was how do you bring a word of encouragement to a cat who’s sitting in prison for 15 years or 25 years or for life? What do you say to them?

I recall having a conversation with my friend and yours, Cornel West, Dr. West, who has spent 35-plus years doing prison ministry, doing prison work. Again, I won’t express it the way he kind of lays it out, but he basically made the point to me that you’ve now just made.

That there’s some folk behind prison bars who are more free than those of us who are walking the streets, because it’s about –

Henderson: The mind-set.

Tavis: It’s about the mind-set.

Henderson: Yes.

Tavis: Once you’re on lockdown, however long you are serving, you’ve got to find a way mentally to adjust and to deal with your incarceration.

Henderson: Absolutely. It’s two answers to that question. There’s an art to doing time, and if you don’t learn how to do time, time will do you. I have what you call the 70-30 rule that I wrote in this book.

The 70-30 rule is where I spent my mind locked into 70 percent doing time, but 30 percent was on the outside, reading “The Wall Street Journal,” watching “60 Minutes,” “20/20,” “Primetime Live,” building relationships with individuals who are fresh off the streets into the prison.

That was key for me, so when I came out of prison I wasn’t in a time warp. The key word that you gave to many of the men and Dr. West and T.D. Jakes and many of the brothers and sisters that go into the system is hope.

Hope is key to know that there’s hope for us to go legit and blend back into society on the outside. But one of the key messages that I give these guys in prison is use that time to grow your mind. Use that time to free yourself.

Man, they can keep you locked up all day long. Nelson Mandela was locked up 27 years, but he wasn’t mentally locked up.

Tavis: He was free the whole time.

Henderson: He was free the whole time.

Tavis: Yeah.

Henderson: Through reading books and so many brothers becoming conscious in prison, reading books allows you to expose yourself to what’s going on in the world. That’s what I did.

Tavis: One of the things that makes this book possible is the fact that you are consistently on the lecture circuit, espousing these principles, but you do a lot of this in front of corporate America.

I just – it tickles me every time I think about you in front of Fortune 400 companies.

Henderson: Yeah, me too. (Laughter) Like, “How did I get that call?”

Tavis: Exactly. But I know that after you – speaking of being a hustlepreneur – these companies have you come speak to their employees all the time. What are you saying when you get these corporate invites to talk to major corporations? What do you say to them?

Henderson: What I do is I take the principles out of my success as a drug dealer, which is a part of my life that I’m not proud of, when I was dealing drugs. But in order to be successful in any entrepreneurial endeavor, whether legal or illegal, there’s certain traits that you have.

Being able to manage people, seeing opportunities. You wouldn’t imagine how many of those executives and upper management folks come up to me afterwards during a book signing and say, “Hey, your story is my story. I have a son that made poor choices; I just didn’t get caught. But I was once at that crossroads in your life as well.”

Tavis: Do you think it’s possible that anyone who has been incarcerated, and even beyond folk who’ve never been incarcerated; people who have been aimlessly trying to find their way, do you think these recipes work for anybody and everybody?

Henderson: It does. This book has a broad appeal to everyone. The principle scope for anyone, whether incarcerated, transitioning from welfare to work, getting out of college, they get a degree, but a college degree doesn’t guarantee you the American dream.

Just working harder isn’t good enough. You have to be very strategic, building the right relationships. So I deal with building relationships, building a brand, that whole entrepreneurial spirit.

Relationship-building, starting at the bottom, working your way up. So this is what’s a great deal about this book, it’s for everybody. It’s not just for folks in prison.

Tavis: Well, I think you’re part of the everybody, so you might want to get some of this. It’s called “If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success,” written by Chef Jeff Henderson, with TV shows and books (laughter) and product and everything else.

Henderson: Yes.

Tavis: So congratulations, Jeff.

Henderson: My pleasure.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Henderson: Yeah.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart sponsor ad.]

“Announcer:” The California Endowment. Health happens in neighborhoods. Learn more.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 30, 2013 at 11:37 am