Chef Jeff serves up delicious food, compelling story - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Chef Jeff serves up delicious food, compelling story

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

We're cooking up something new here on FOX 8 in the fall. A show called "Flip My Food" debuts, and the star has deep New Orleans roots. Chef Jeff Henderson is a character who can make any dish healthy. His amazing life story is a lesson in redemption.

"That's a nice grill, bro!" said Henderson to trumpet player Kermit Ruffins. Ruffins' Mother in Law Lounge on Claiborne is the backdrop of one of Henderson's Flip My Food episodes.

The premise of the show is to make favorite dishes healthier. Jeff will make South Louisiana his culinary playground this summer.

"We'll be down in New Orleans filming 25 episodes," he said. "We'll be down once a month."

New Orleans is the city where his story begins.

"My family from New Orleans, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my mom and dad," he said.

His mother grew up Uptown, and his father lived in the Magnolia projects. In the 1960s, most of his family moved to Los Angeles.

"There was an influx of people who moved to L.A. back in the day for a better opportunity," he said.

L.A. and San Diego were home to Jeff, but opportunities were not always positive. By his late teens, the money and power of the drug trade lured him - expensive cars and cash beyond his dreams. He was a high roller in a dangerous game.

"There was a period in my life when I had to accept responsibility of the mistakes that I had made," he said.

Eventually, the fast life caught up with him. Federal agents arrested Jeff on drug trafficking charges in 1988, just days before Christmas. He spent almost a decade in prison.

Prison was a wakeup call. After a couple of years at Terminal Island, the inmate found his way to the prison kitchen - and a new beginning.

"I fell into it by accident," he said. "I started cooking and I was good and I was learning and the older gentlemen saw something in me. They took me under their wing."

Friendly Womack, the older brother of singer Bobby Womack, showed Jeff there was freedom in food.

"He told me, ‘Jeff, you have the goods and you have the gift. You should pursue being a chef.' That was a lightning rod for me," he said.

When he walked out of prison in 1996, he knew his career would be as a chef. The question was how.

"I was faced with adversity," he said. "Many people didn't want to give me an opportunity, and I had doors closed in my face. There were periods of sabotage in my career. I stayed resilient."

A job as a dishwasher at an L.A. restaurant led to jobs in restaurant kitchens. He watched and learned and his skills were undeniable.

"I wasn't afforded the opportunity to go to culinary school, so my school was moving from restaurant to restaurant training under the best chefs in the world," he said.

When he moved to Las Vegas in 2000, his first big break came. Many hotels turned him down. Caesars Palace took a chance on him.

"I started out at Caesars as a sous chef, the assistant to the executive chef," he said. "After working there for three or four months, I was promoted to the first African-American executive chef in history. I've never been to culinary school. Self-taught. Learned from reading books."

He did the same thing at the Bellagio. He was the first African-American chef running a multimillion dollar kitchen.

"This is the American dream," he said. "This is how you stay out of prison. This is what you have to do to make it in the world."

He takes the message to young people everywhere to pay it forward.

"I've been to Angola, Cafe Reconcile," he said. "I've been working for them for nearly 10 years."

He met us for the interview at a firehouse in Mandeville, where he will show firefighters tips on healthy eating.

His ease in the kitchen comes from his New Orleans background. His grandfather taught him how to make gumbo, but refused to allow him to peek in the pots.

For Jeff, family is first. The father of six married a pen pal he corresponded with in prison 17 years ago.

"Her name is Stacy, and we fell in love while writing letters," he said. "She was there for me, and we built the Chef Jeff brand."

His fairy tale is complete.

"Through my blessings, I've worked with the finest hotel restaurants on the West Coast," he said. "I've been on Oprah, I wrote four books, and I've been on four TV shows - and now Flip My Food. I've been embraced by New Orleans and by a lot of people giving me an opportunity."

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