Chef Jeff Henderson infuses new book with wisdom on career, life

Jeff Henderson is no stranger to creating tasty recipes and then sharing them with others.

The Las Vegas-based chef has worked in the most upscale hotel kitchens along the Strip. He has starred in TV series that showcase his culinary expertise, including a new syndicated series, “Family Style with Chef Jeff,” which airs Saturdays on KVVU-TV, Channel 5. And his best-selling cookbook, “Chef Jeff Cooks: In the Kitchen with America’s Inspirational New Culinary Star,” offers recipes for classic homestyle favorites.

So feel free to think of Henderson’s latest book as a sort of cookbook, too, even if the fare he’s offering this time around are recipes for succeeding not at the table, but at life.

In “If You Can See It, You Can Be It: 12 Street-Smart Recipes for Success” (Smiley Books, $26.95), the charismatic chef, author and motivational speaker uses his own experiences and the experiences of others in a guide to reinventing one’s career and one’s life.

Recently, Henderson spent a few scarce moments during a book tour stop in Chicago talking about his new book via phone. The affable — and considering his schedule, apparently unflappable — Henderson explains that he’s scheduled to speak at a school in 45 minutes.

“I spend a lot of time on the road lecturing, speaking at Fortune 500 companies, culinary schools, academies, nonprofit organizations,” he says.

It’s a natural given that Henderson’s personal success story is set against an unlikely backdrop: By age 19, Henderson, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and San Diego, had become a self-made millionaire dealing drugs. Then came his arrest on federal drug trafficking charges and nearly 10 years spent in federal prison.

But Henderson used his time in prison well. The lessons he learned there, and in the years following his parole, form the basis of “If You Can See It, You Can Be It,” a well-written, practical book grounded in the realities of everyday life and aimed, Henderson says, at “people who feel as if they are stuck in their lives or are without direction.”

The program Henderson offers is based upon what he calls “the 12 street smarts,” which he describes as “street-smart strategies” that encompass “all the strategies I used coming out of prison in 1996 and in working to become a chef.”

Henderson asks readers to examine their own strengths and weaknesses and determine “what recipe works for you.” Then, he asks readers to articulate and prioritize their goals and determine the steps they’ll need to take to realize them.

Henderson incorporates into the book lessons he has learned along the way. For example, Henderson learned early in his budding culinary career that “you have to learn to be a soldier first.”

For most of us, that means “starting at an entry level position,” he continues. So “you study the boss, how they move, how they talk, how they cook, how they operate, and you draw from those. That’s how I became a chef. I had never been to culinary school in my life. I was self-taught.”

Henderson’s culinary career began in prison, where he started on the pots and pans crew in the prison kitchen and eventually worked his way up to head cook. He knew nothing about cooking initially, but concentrated on learning all that he could from everybody he could at every step of the way.

“Every job after prison, I took the job at the bottom and worked my way up, and that’s the majority of the workforce in this country,” he says. “They start at the bottom and work themselves up.”

The book is free of self-help buzzwords or insider jargon, although Henderson has coined one term, “hustlepreneur,” in seeking to reclaim the root from its less savory connotations.

While “hustler” has become “connected to the drug dealer — slippery, slimy people,” Henderson says, hustling “is not a bad thing. In the real world, at the end of the day, everybody hustles.”

Hustlepreneurs work hard, take risks, and are determined to do what they need to do to achieve their goals, he says. The parent who works an extra job on the weekend? The single mom who works returns to school to make a better life for her family?

Hustlepreneurs both, Henderson says.

Fittingly, Henderson’s book comes when many Americans are finding the need to re-create themselves after a brutal, and by some accounts still lingering, recession.

“Many people have been forced into circumstantial poverty,” Henderson says. “They have lost their jobs, their jobs were downsized, the economy crashed. There were people who had been doing the same jobs for 15, 20, 30 years and now need a boost, now need to reinvent themselves, now need to figure out, ‘How do I take everything I’ve learned over the years and how do I transfer that into another career or, maybe, go entrepreneurial?’ So this book really speaks to a broad range of Americans.”

Henderson lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Stacy, and their five children. But Henderson says he first became acquainted with Las Vegas “when I was a big-time drug dealer during the ’80s.”

He was a high roller then, spending money and time at hotels such as Caesars Palace. Then came arrest, prison, parole and his newfound quest to become a chef. That search brought him back to Las Vegas, only this time as a convicted felon trying to land a job at the same places he once had partied.

“Everyone turned me down except Caesars Palace,” Henderson says. “They gave me my first shot in Vegas as a convicted felon.”

Eventually, Henderson would hold a series of restaurant positions here that includes chef de cuisine at Caesars Palace and executive chef at Cafe Bellagio.

Henderson never missed an opportunity to learn from fellow prison inmates who, he notes, at one point included “some of the most brilliant minds in this country” from Wall Street, politics and corporate America.

One, he recalls, “told me, ‘You’re a smart guy. You were on the street selling drugs. You understand the basic principles of marketing, selling, public relations, how to manage a workforce.’ Then he told me that the only difference between him and (dealers) is, I had a bad product and that, ‘If you change products, there’s no stopping you,’ and that never left my mind.”

Through his books, TV series, speaking engagements and workshops, Henderson brings both his message and a few practical tools to others. He has noticed that his own story — with an assist from an appearance with Oprah Winfrey — “has created a platform for me in that, I think, the public saw more value in my personal transformation and in my ability to inspire and move and challenge people than my cooking.”

Will Smith’s production company has optioned Henderson’s memoir for a feature film. He’s kicking off a series of clinics based upon his latest book. And he works on programs designed to help convicted felons begin new lives.

But Henderson hasn’t forsaken the culinary world. He’s involved in a restaurant project in Los Angeles, and his new TV series takes, he says, “a holistic approach to cooking the food Americans want to eat.”

And, Henderson says, his dream is to open a place along the Strip.

“Food is what I do,” Henderson says. “I love cooking, but it’s almost like I had a second calling.”

Also among the roster of recently published or soon-to-be-published books that deal with local themes or which were written by local authors is Penn Jillette’s “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!” (Plume, $16), in which the Vegas-based performer offers thoughts about holidays both real and imagined (Chiquita Banana Wednesday?).

But, really, the collection is a jumping-off point for Jillette to discuss, thoughtfully but hilariously, just about anything that crosses his mind, from God to Jillette’s turn on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

“Raise the Bar: A Radical Approach to Customer Relations” (Amazon/New Harvest, $26) is a guide for running a successful business, be it bar or other service enterprise.

Your guide: Jon Taffer, a hospitality industry expert and host of Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” who knows a thing or two about turning around a failing business, and who includes in the book firsthand advice gained from his own career and the careers of others.

“Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3” by Robert Matzen (GoodKnight Books, $26.95, to be released in January) investigates the crash of the actress’ DC-3 about 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas in January 1942.

At the time, Lombard was returning to Los Angeles after a trip to Indiana to sell war bonds. In his book, Matzen draws upon sources that include government files and TWA documents, as well as new interviews.

“The Third Kingdom” (Tor Books, $29.99) is the sequel to best-selling Southern Nevada author Terry Goodkind’s No. 1 New York Times best-seller “The Omen Machine.”

Goodkind, who fans also know from the author’s best-selling Sword of Truth series, picks up Richard and Kahlan’s story as Richard tries to stop a conspiracy with the help of a young healer named Samantha.


Other recently published, or soon to be published, books include:

“Bishops, Bourbons and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama” by the Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, an Alabama native and now rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Las Vegas (University of Alabama Press, $49.95, to be published in January) is a look at how the Episcopal Church has influenced that state’s culture, economy and politics.

“Deadly Gamble” by Shirley Kennedy (Inkspell Publishing, $14.99) is about a haunted Las Vegas casino, set amid locales that include the Springs Preserve.

“Death Valley National Park: A History” by Hal Rothman and Char Miller (University of Nevada Press, $24.95) offers Southern Nevadans a comprehensive environmental and human history of one of their favorite getaways. Rothman was distinguished professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“The Hero” (Harlequin MIRA, $7.99) is the third book in best-selling romance novelist Robyn Carr’s new Thunder Point series.

“La Bella Mafia” by Morgan St. James and Dennis N. Griffin (Houdini Publishing, $14.95) is the true story of Bella Capo, the abused daughter of a crime boss and an abused wife who went on to create an online support movement to help other women.

“Laff It Off” by George Wallace (Chaite Press, $10.99) offers the Las Vegas headliner’s advice for living life with laughter.

“Lucky Sevens” by Cynthia Vespia (CreateSpace, $12.99) is a Las Vegas-based suspense-with-a-bit-of-magic story about a former Navy SEAL and casino security head investigating a series of deadly potential accidents.

“Pope on the Dole” by David E. Miller and Michelle Miller (CreateSpace, $12.95) is a religious satire that revolves around the adventures of the last pope after the Catholic church shuts it doors.

“Santa is Coming to Las Vegas!” by Steve Smallman (SourceBooks, $9.99) is a picture book that depicts Santa Claus’ visit to Las Vegas, complete with illustrations of local landmarks.

“The Secret History of Las Vegas” by Chris Abani (Penguin, $16, to be published in January) is a murder mystery, set in Las Vegas, that involves conjoined twins, a series of murders of homeless Las Vegans, and nuclear testing in the Nevada desert.

“Through the Seasons of Life” (Tate Publishing, $8.99) is a collection of poetry by Nathaniel J. Reed.

“When the Humor is Gone” (Archway Publishing, $30.99), Las Vegas stand-up comedian and casino host James Bean’s chronicle of struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and offering advice to others.

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