Chef Jeff is a Role Model

By Warren Cornelius

            Basketball Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley once famously stated in a tennis shoe commercial, “I am not a role model.”  Barkley insisted that parents should be the role models in their child’s life and they should not look to others to guide their decisions and lifestyle.

            However, for many inner-city youth who do not have the family structure that their middle-class counterparts enjoy, celebrities such as Barkley are often the only ones who have overcome similar circumstances to achieve enormous success, despite the obstacles.

            Therefore, Food Network personality and author Chef Jeff Henderson is determined to share his story of tragedy and redemption to as many youth as he possibly can.  The star of the Food Network reality show The Chef Jeff Project recently spoke to students at An Achievable Dream Middle and High School, a Newport News, Va. public/private partnership between businesses and the local school system.  The Achievable Dream schools educate socially and economically disadvantaged students in an attempt to level the playing field between them and their more affluent peers.

            The school brought in Chef Jeff as a motivational speaker to encourage students to avoid the pitfalls that altered his life and to never give up on their dreams despite the circumstances.

            “I know these kids,” Chef Jeff said.  “I know their thoughts, their fears, the negativity in their life—because I was in their spot years ago.  For me the lure of the street was too strong, I had no dreams and I felt I had no other options.  As I stood in front of these kids … I wanted to help them realize that they have great potential—they have options.”

            Unfortunately for Chef Jeff, early in life he chose the wrong options and paid dearly for them.    He was incarcerated for 10 years in federal prison for drug trafficking.  Nevertheless, it was in prison that he discovered his passion for cooking.  He has now turned that passion into a distinguished career that includes becoming the first African American honored as “Chef de Cuisine” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

            His inspirational life journey was portrayed in the bestselling book, COOKED, which is being turned into a screenplay by the producers of Will Smith’s film The Pursuit of Happyness.  In addition, his reality show is also inspiring others as he mentors disadvantaged youth who intern with his catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine, in Los Angeles.  Unlike other reality shows, no contestant is eliminated.  Instead, they are given the opportunity to prepare meals for such high-profile clients as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the cast of General Hospital.

            However, none of Chef Jeff’s accomplishments are as important as the message he gives to disadvantaged youth in classrooms across America.

            “We encourage children to attain a vision and develop a personal, achievable dream that will light the way for success and joy in life as productive citizen,” said Walter S. Segaloff, founder of An Achievable Dream.  “Chef Jeff has walked in their shoes and knows their streets.  He has a message the kids can relate to and respect.”

            That respect has been earned by Chef Jeff’s willingness to be a role model, despite the fact that others shun this important responsibility.

Cornelius is a writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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