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© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2002
SAN ANGELO, Texas -- I love few things more than a story about a young African-American man who rejects a life of crime to become a role model of individual success.
Corny, yes, but such a story can mean the difference between life and death to many black youngsters. The story of Los Angeles native Jeffrey Henderson, 39, is a shining example of a life that went from crime to personal salvation.
I first learned of Henderson last year from a man in St. Petersburg, himself a success story, who had served prison time with Henderson in California. Then, two weeks ago, I was surprised to see an article about Henderson in Jet magazine.
Before turning 15, Henderson was regularly earning as much as $35,000 a week cooking his own cocaine powder and selling the addictive end product to all comers, even school-age children. At 19, he was operating an enterprise that attracted the attention of drug enforcement officers working big cases.
His crack empire crumbled in December 1988, when police stopped and arrested one of his couriers at a border checkpoint. While searching the courier's car, which belonged to his boss, police found $40,000 in cash and a huge amount of cocaine. A utility bill in the glove compartment led authorities to the 24-year-old Henderson.
He was charged with conspiracy and intent to sell cocaine, and he was sentenced to 10 years and seven months in state prison.
There, his metamorphosis began.
Before confinement, the only thing Henderson had cooked was crack. In prison, he was assigned 20 minutes a day to the cigarette detail, sweeping up cigarette butts. He did such a lousy job that he was fired and reassigned to the kitchen's pot shack. Washing pots and pans all day was tough, but kitchen work introduced him to food service. Plus, he got to eat better than other cons, he said.
Soon, he was cooking for his fellow inmates and realized that he was a natural with food. He was inspired by the new experience and remained a cook for the duration of his sentence.
"I caught on very quickly," he said in Jet. "I'm the type of person that whatever I do I have to be the best at it no matter what."
When not in the kitchen, Henderson was in his cell reading, especially articles and books about food and cooking and wine. After reading a New York Times article about the nation's best African-American chefs, Henderson decided that upon release, he would become a chef in a top establishment somewhere in the country.
A short time before release, he wrote to Robert Gadsby, one of the chefs highlighted in the Times article. Gadsby did not respond. Disappointed but not discouraged, Henderson kept reading until the day he walked out of prison a free man -- a transformed man determined to succeed.
And succeed he did.
His first major act in the free world was to look for work at Gadsby's restaurant. He was turned down. He came back several times before Gadsby tried him as a dishwasher. Impressed bosses made him a pastry cook, then a line cook.
Knowing he was not learning enough to become a leading chef and unable to afford culinary school, he left Gadsby's and sought work in Los Angeles' best hotels and eateries. Experience would be his teachers. Meanwhile, when not working, he studied the Internet, read books and pored over menus he picked up at restaurants.
After a few years, he felt confident of his skills, said a temporary goodbye to his wife and five children and flew to Las Vegas. There, he prowled the strip for work. Several chefs were interested and wanted to try him until Henderson told them about his prison record.
"That's when I was told, "We'll call you back,' " he said.
Desperate and worried about his family in Los Angeles, Henderson attempted the impossible: He went to Caesar's Palace and challenged its culinary snobs to sample a five-course spread he would prepare.
They accepted the challenge, and Henderson was hired on the spot. Within a year, he was promoted to head chef. In 2001, he was honored as Las Vegas Chef of the Year by the American Food and Wine Tasting Federation.
Now, the rest of the story.
Personal success has taught Henderson, now 39, the virtues of responsibility to others. He established The Westside Group, a nonprofit organization. The one-time cocaine dealer and thug keeps a busy schedule visiting juvenile lockups, where he advices troubled children about the allure and ugly consequences of the drug life. He uses his own life experiences as his textbook.
"Prison pretty much saved my life," he told Jet. "It rescued me from the streets. I have an obligation to give back, because I feel like it was my generation that destroyed another generation of young black males."
I agree. But unlike so many other black men who destroyed the lives of black boys and walked away, Henderson is redeeming himself. His goal, according to Jet, is to build another business. The new menu will feature fine food -- not crack cocaine.