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Food Network chef dishes up ‘Chef Jeff Project’

By Davide Hinckley

THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS- The Food Network hit upon the smart realization, early in its life, that it shouldn’t serve only the upper end of the food chain.

So it carries whole blocks of shows about food ordinary people can eat, prepared by hosts who talk like Sarah Palin.

In a sense, it’s extending that philosophy with “The Chef Jeff Project,” in which host Jeff Henderson takes six “at-risk” kids and offers them a chance to go legit in the food biz.

It’s not that working-class people are rare in the restaurant, catering and food production business. The fact that a tiny portion of elite-bred celebrity chefs get a disproportionate amount of attention doesn’t negate the fact that most food people are regular people who just have a passion for what we eat.

But the participants here, who are competing for two scholarships to a culinary institute, aren’t simply blue-collar kids. The “at-risk” part of their rsums is real. Alonzo dealt drugs for years. Shante dealt drugs to help support her three children. Brett was on the demand side of the drug world. For two years, as he describes it, he pretty much obliterated himself on meth. 

So the unspoken, underlying drama is that if it doesn’t work out here, any of them could return to the dark side.

The screening process seems to have weeded out anyone who’s teetering on the edge, though and the contestants generally take a serious approach. At least in the early stages, they show more composure than the notoriously high-strung contestants on, say, the Gordon Ramsay shows.

What helps here is that Henderson has known some hard times himself. Prison is where he learned to cook and when he got out, he landed a job as a dishwasher. He then worked his way up, turned it around and today is a successful executive chef, married with three children.

He has a good sense of the balance between demanding excellence from his crew and providing the encouragement that’s clearly been lacking for much of their lives. This doesn’t mean patronizing anyone. It simply means acknowledging they have a different starting line.

In several ways, “Chef Jeff” is less about the competition between contestants and more about the contestants’ struggle with themselves.

Adam shows up late the first day and Chef Jeff tells him if that’s the way he approaches things, he’s gone. That said, he backs off a little to see if Adam can self-correct.

In the end, of course, this is a competition, with all the dramas that breeds. But it’s also one food show where most viewers will be as interested in the person holding the utensil as what he or she does with it.

Read full article here

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