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Jeff Henderson: Chef Dad

Many people would have written Jeff Henderson off after he was sent to federal prison for selling drugs as a teenager on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, he never gave up on himself. Instead, Jeff discovered a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge while incarcerated, and when he found himself assigned kitchen detail, he decided he suddenly knew exactly how he would turn his life around.

It’s been a long and tough road, but now at the age of 44, Jeff has held executive chef positions at both Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio casinos in Las Vegas. He’s written two New York Times bestselling books (Chef Jeff Cooks and the autobiography Cooked) and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He’s been personally contacted by Will Smith, who is working on turning his life story into a feature film. And he’s also headlined his own Food Network reality show, The Chef Jeff Project, in which he took six at-risk youth and helped them turn their lives around by mentoring them both in and out of the kitchen.

Chef Jeff took some time out to talk with NYC DADS, reflecting upon how fatherhood has helped him mature and how his four favorite dishes-sons Jamar, 26, and Jeffrey Jr., 9, and daughters Noel, 9, and Troy, 6-inspire him to be a better man and keep helping others.

What were you doing right before you had your first child? Take me briefly through where you were at in life.

I wasn’t doing the right things. I was living a life on the streets, hustling and not being productive at all.

Do you remember what went through your head the first time you held your first son?

It was a problem, you know, the fact that I wasn’t prepared to have a child. He wasn’t planned. But when he came, I felt overwhelmed. I was happy, I was excited, and it was very pleasurable.

How has having children made you grow as a man?

It was my second round of kids, my young children, who really brought perspective to my life. Obviously I’m older, more mature, and I actually understand the importance of good parenting, community, and education. It’s the most joyful thing, having these kids. It’s really impacted me in a way that helps me to help kids outside of my family as well.

Were you close to your own father while you were growing up?

Not as much as I would’ve liked to. He was in my life, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of different things. He was with me how I was with my first son. In order to be an affective father, a teaching father, one must have an example of fatherhood around him as a child growing up. It’s not something that you go to school to learn. You learn from example.

Did it bother you that he wasn’t around?

It absolutely bothered me. I was very conscious of it. But I didn’t know what it was like to have a father in the house. I just never had one living with us. I never woke up in the morning and said, “Good morning, mommy” or “Good morning, daddy,” or sat at the breakfast table and had cereal with my mother and father. That really affected me a lot. Today, I make sure that I sit down and I eat with my children at the table and talk and stimulate their minds. They wake up every morning and say, “Good morning, mommy. Good morning, daddy,” and that means the world to me.

What are the biggest differences between Jeff Henderson before kids and Jeff Henderson after kids?

The biggest differences are that I value family. I value education. And I value quality family time.

What was the biggest shock for you in terms of fatherhood? Was there anything that really threw you for a loop when you first became a dad?

The added responsibility. The uncertainty. Just understanding that parents are the first teachers, and that you need to be a good example. And I wasn’t. So my son saw things and heard things that he probably shouldn’t have as a child.

Read the entire interview here

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