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The New York Times Reviews the Chef Jeff Project

Amid Roasts and Recipes, Rehabilitation
Published: October 10, 2008

You’ve got to be some kind of Scrooge, some kind of high middlebrow purist, if you don’t think that the makers of “The Chef Jeff Project” have positioned themselves a little closer to heaven than the people behind, say, “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.” “The Chef Jeff Project,” a new series beginning Sunday on the Food Network, feels like reality TV giving back and compensating for a hundred prior sins.

At the center is Jeff Henderson, a former drug dealer who spent his 10 years in prison productively developing an interest in cooking and food. Once on the outside he worked his way to snazzy chef posts in Las Vegas — at restaurants in Caesars Palace and the Bellagio, among other places. A best-selling memoir, “Cooked,” followed; a film version of it is scheduled.

“The Chef Jeff Project” has Mr. Henderson mentoring six young men and women he puts to work at his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine, in Los Angeles. They are people like Shante, a 24-year-old single mother from Long Beach, Calif., who used to sell drugs, and Kathy, a former cocaine and heroin addict from the East Coast, who, as she puts it, “didn’t think I’d make it to 23.”

Shante and Kathy say they had never before felt appreciated. Among the others are Alonzo, whose mother was murdered when he was a child, and Adam, who cries in the first episode, believing that with his work on “Chef Jeff” he is accomplishing something for the first time in his life. What is striking is the matter-of-fact way the participants convey the various details of their biographies — they aren’t asking you to feel sorry for them.

We can say “participants” because no one is actually competing for anything on “Chef Jeff.” Everyone who completes the internship wins a scholarship to a culinary institute. This isn’t some sick social experiment where the least fit — those who have the hardest time pulling off a flambé — get sent back to the streets.

Mr. Henderson guides and encourages. He is beaming with empathy: “When you come from the streets you have never even seen a portobello mushroom,” he says into the camera. “When you’ve been selling drugs just to survive you don’t know the difference between fresh rosemary or fresh thyme.”

Though the initial episode indicates the prospect of future squabbling between two of the participants in particular — all of the mediated altruism doesn’t mean things get dull — we are watching largely to see if the group as a whole can get through the challenges of Mr. Henderson’s workday. Can it pull off a lunch of cumin-infused chicken for the cast of “General Hospital”? And how will the cast members react to a lunch made by former addicts, convicts and runaways? They will enjoy it as they have enjoyed no other lunch before, showcasing all of their liberal guilt. Mr. Henderson’s clients, it would seem, will be providing the most telling sociological moments.

Mr. Henderson himself isn’t desperate for thug credibility, which makes him a novel departure from Gordon Ramsay and a lot of rarefied television chefs who run around yelling at their culinary inferiors as if to compensate for some deep-seated fear that chefdom is ultimately considered too girly-man a job by most people watching. Mr. Henderson seems happy not to be getting his gangster on. It’s a card he already punched.

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