Q&A: Jeff Henderson’s ‘Street-Smart Recipes’


Chef Jeff’s new book is available online and in stores. He will be autographing books at Eso Won.

Author and chef Jeff Henderson will appear at Eso Won Books on Monday at 7 p.m. to sign copies of his newest book, “If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success.”

Henderson’s path to success has been unconventional — before becoming “Chef Jeff,” he went to prison for dealing drugs. Now, the chef says he hopes his story will motivate others. We spoke with Henderson about his South Central L.A. upbringing, the new book, and his drive to inspire the young people who struggle like he once did.

Intersections South LA: This is now your fourth book. Why did you decide to do a self-help book?

Jeff Henderson: “With my fourth book, I decided to do a self-help book because with my first book, “Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove,” seven years ago I told my life story and everyone wanted to know: how did I do it? I felt that as my life evolved over the years that I got a second calling and my second calling was to inspire, motivate and engage people who needed to reinvent themselves, people who are stuck in life, who’ve lost a job, the have-nots, people who are mentally incarcerated with self-imposed barriers and roadblocks. And the idea was born. I based it off the 12 street smarts: the skills and traits that I used as a young kid, as a drug-dealer, as a person who strove to become a chef.”

How has your background influenced and inspired your book?

“My background was the inspiration and influence behind “If You Can See It, You Can Be It.” Everything I write is my own personal journey and the journey of so many people throughout this country. I believe that when I went to prison, I discovered so many things about myself. I developed myself, I figured out how I was, I figured out my gifts. I’ve learned some skills. I went to school and I said if I could become a successful newspaper, candy seller as a young kid, and become a successful drug dealer, I could become a chef. All I had to do was change the product because in order to become the best newspaper boy, the best candy seller and an effective drug dealer, although I’m not praising the drug dealer lifestyle. It’s not a part of my life that I’m proud of, but at the end of the day, it’s selling a product like everything else. And I was successful at doing that. I believe that I had the lessons and the rules and the strategies and the know-how to be able to put in a book to help other people who are gifted in so many different ways to become them, the best employee, the best entrepreneur as well.”

 You’ve had a unique path to success. How do you think your story can help other people?

“Well I think my story mirrors the story of millions of young, inner-city African Americans, Latinos, Asians and poor whites. The kid who came from a single parent household, never valued education, went to prison, had self-doubt around him a lot as a young kid. And I’ve made something of myself. So it’s that whole thing if you can see it you can be it. If he can do it, I can do it. So when folks hear my story, they think alright this guys never been to college. He didn’t have a father growing up, his parents were uneducated, he came from poverty, he hit rock bottom and went to prison, but he was able to stand up one day and figure out how to become successful. Well, if he can do it, I can do it. I believe that you have to see yourself successful. You have to be able to see yourself in the space where you want to be in life. If you can see yourself, and you put that in the universe, you can become it. ”

Can you talk more about your background growing up in South Central?

“I was born and raised near L.A. County General [hospital]. I grew up on Broadway and I lived on 83rd and Normandie. I’m a product of the LA Unified School District. I learned early on entrepreneurial skills from my grandfather. I came from three generations of entrepreneurs. I watched my grandfather as a young boy negotiate and communicate with the rich, wealthy folks up on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. I learned the value of the dollar. I learned hard work early on, but I was also an astute student to listening and watching the hustling- the guys who were dealing on the streets. As I experienced and I learned, I picked up a lot of great skills. I got stabbed at 16 in LA and my family sent me down to San Diego. I was in 11th grade and during that period 1982-1983 was when crack cocaine hit the inner-city community like a plague. I jumped in on it. I carved out my own little wicked version of the American dream. Get that house with a white picket fence. Get the Mercedes, get the gadgets, get the trinkets, so I could have some self-identity. But at the end of the day, it destroyed a generation of young people and built a massive industrial complex as we know it called state and federal prison.”

Since you will be coming back to your neighborhood to speak at Eso Won Books, do you have anything to say to youth in South L.A. in particular?

“There is a lot of talent in the hood. There is a lot of talent in L.A. I just want to say to all the young people, you’ve got to find your gift.  If you don’t discover your gift or if you do discover your gift and you use it for wrong, you’ll wind up in prison or you’ll wind up dead. We have to create a legacy. So many great people of color lay the foundation so we can achieve any and everything we want in this country. So we have to put down the drugs. We have to put down the guns. Prison isn’t a place that you want to wind up in. I’m excited about coming to Eso Won bookstore. I have a rich history with Eso Won. I ordered many self-help books and many inspirational and history books from Eso Won when I was incarcerated. So I’m really excited about coming there and sharing my testimony. I plan on bringing some of the books with me that I bought from Eso Won 20-something years ago during my incarceration. I’m excited to do some story telling and inspire some lives.”

Is there anything special that you have planned for your book signing at Eso Won?

“I really want to talk about the power of a dream at Eso Won. I really want to talk about how do we become what we envision ourselves to be. I want to tell that through my story and then open up the floor for Q&A. So it’s really about the power of the dream, about education and self-identity.”

One last thing — we’ve heard that there is a movie about your life in the works. What can you tell us about that?

“About seven years ago when I was on the Oprah Winfrey show when I wrote my first book, Will Smith and Sony auctioned the rights to my life story. From what I know, the movie is still in script form, so I’m hoping that one day, my journey and the journey of many young men from L.A. comes to the big screen because my story is not just my story. My story is the story of so many of us. It mirrors so many young people from communities around the country that wound up in prison, that became a statistic, that became a number, that came from the circumstances an the environment that I came from. So I’m coming back to say hey, I fixed my life. I reinvented myself. I want them to know that we can all reinvent ourselves and make something of ourselves.”

WHAT: Chef Jeff Henderson signs “If You Can See It, You Can Be It.” 
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Eso Won Books
COST: Free.

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