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Taking the long way to being a chef

ORLANDO — It's a long road from prison for dealing drugs, to a cooking show on the Food Network. Chef Jeff Henderson did it the hard way, and he credits the "power of food," with helping to turn his life around. He shared some of his experiences and his cooking expertise during a media seminar at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando.

"My life is built on second chances," he told his audience of food writers. "I grew up in poverty in Los Angeles. My father left when I was young, I got involved with the wrong crowd, and I ended up serving nearly 10 years in prison. That's where I found redemption."

That's where he read his first book and earned a high school diploma. When he got put on "pots and pans" duty, he discovered a passion for cooking.

When he got out of prison, he started at the bottom, learning from chefs along the way. He worked his way up to become the first African-American chef de cuisine at Caesar's Palace, and later executive chef of Café Bellagio, both in Las Vegas.

He wrote about his experiences in an autobiography, "Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras" (William Morrow, $24.95)

He was invited to talk about his book on "Oprah" — "And you know what happens when someone goes on Oprah," he added. Right after the show, he received two phone calls. One was from film star Will Smith, with an offer to buy the rights to turn Henderson's story into a motion picture.

The other call was from the Food Network.

On the Food Network's "The Chef Jeff Project," Henderson takes six at-risk people to work in his catering company, teach them cooking and life skills, "to allow them to go out and compete and pursue the American dream," he said.

The foreword in his cookbook, "Chef Jeff Cooks" (Scribner, $27) , Henderson names and thanks the many chefs he worked under, "who gave me the skills and the opportunity to fed my family. I will never forget the impact you have had on my life."

With Henderson's upbeat personality, the father of four was the perfect representative for General Electric, which is focusing more of its marketing strategy on male cooks these days. Henderson showed how to cook pan-roasted New York strip steak and barbecued shrimp scampi on General Electric's new Café appliance line.

Julie Meunnich, GE product manager, said more men are getting into the kitchen because of the role models such as Henderson on the Food Network and other popular TV cooking shows. Also, the economy brought layoffs in construction and financial jobs traditionally occupied by men. The female became the main breadwinner in some households, "and the male is at home doing the cooking."

A recent General Electric ad was obviously geared toward men, using terms such as "turbo-charged," and "culinary power house."

General Electric is also focusing on the "aspirer" cook who wants to be a great cook, and wants to buy the latest in appliances to help them accomplish it.

As expected, there are more bells and whistles in GE's appliances, such as a 20,000 BTU tri-ring burner (offering three rings of flame), double ovens, and a refrigerator that dispenses both hot and cold water.

I could be wrong, but for some reason I can't see an out-of work guy complaining to his wife that he needs a new fancy oven. But I do think there are a lot of "aspirers" people out there who have fun improving their cooking skills, and would enjoy using some of the snazzy new features.

In addition to "aspirers," GE identified three other consumer types:

the "laborer," who cooks but doesn't enjoy it and just wants their appliances to be reliable.

the "reluctant," person who doesn't enjoy cooking and considers their kitchen appliances as pieces of furniture.

the "enthusiast," who loves cooking and already had the skills and abilities to do it.

Here's the recipe Barbecued Shrimp Scampi that Henderson cooked for us, from his cookbook, "Chef Jeff Cooks:"


6-8 tablespoons unsalted butter

12 jumbo shrimp

1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion

2 tablespoons finely minced garlic

1/4 cup white wine (or chicken stock)

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/3 cup diced and seeded tomatoes

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

1/4 cup Smoked Molasses Barbecue Sauce (see recipe below)

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shrimp, onion and garlic and sauté for 3-4 minutes. The shrimp will begin to plump up a bit.

Add the wine or stock, lemon zest and juice, and 4 tablespoons more butter. Reduce the heat and gently sauté the shrimp until the sauce thickens. If the sauce is too thin, add 1-2 tablespoons more butter.

Add the tomatoes and parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the barbecue sauce and toss well. To serve, remove the shrimp from the pan with a fork, place on plates, and drizzle the sauce over the shrimp with a spoon.

— Jeff Henderson, "Chef Jeff Cooks"


4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 1/3 cups ketchup

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

1 cup, packed, dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

1/4 cup molasses

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until softened, 6-8 minutes.

Add the ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke and brown sugar. Stir until fully incorporated and bring to a simmer. Add the Tabasco and molasses. Simmer 25-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The barbecue sauce should be medium thick.

Let the sauce cool about 1 hour. Then pour into a blender and puree until smooth. Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

— Jeff Henderson, "Chef Jeff Cooks"

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at