The tale of Jeff Henderson is a long and storied one – the tale of a street hood who went to prison, found himself, and began his new life as a changed man, making his way to the top of the food industry. Arrested for possession of cocaine, he did nearly twenty years in prison, reforming himself and learning the art of cooking in the process. After significant personal trials and tests of resolve, Henderson managed to make himself one of the top chefs in America. Henderson’s story is an inspiration – more than that, however, it is a story of redemption and finding one’s purpose in life amid unfortunate life choices and circumstances.
Redemption can be defined as the act of saving oneself; the ability to overcome hardships or previous mistakes to become better as a person. Jeff Henderson’s story most definitely fits this definition, as he learns the consequences of his old life in the harshest ways imaginable, and seeks to make up for those mistakes by giving back to the world through food. In this essay, an extended definition of redemption will be detailed through the context of Jeff Henderson’s story, as told through his autobiography Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras.
The distinguishing characteristics of redemption consist of the many steps that one takes in order to achieve it. First, there is the committing of wrongdoing by the individual who needs to be redeemed. This started with Henderson’s stealing, which he started when he was five years old. His grandfather taught him how to steal, and despite his own reservations, his youth and the fact it was a family member doing it helped ingrain that act into his structure of values – “Part of me knew it was wrong, but then again, I really didn’t understand what it was about” (Henderson, p. 14). He started to see these acts as justified, due to the poverty and racism he had to encounter as a lower-class black child, stating that it is okay if the money was used for the good of the black community. He used stealing to elevate himself to the level of his peers, to get ahead, because there was no other way to do so (p. 16).
After that, he became a baller, a gangbanger; he started dealing drugs, like cocaine on a large scale. This went on for years until he was finally caught, a series of circumstances that he even denied for a bit – “I just couldn’t believe that I could be convicted without ever getting caught with drugs or money. I was in serious denial” (Henderson, p. 94). His crimes resulted in getting sentenced to nineteen and a half years in federal prison. At that point, Henderson thought his life was over- he would be in his forties by the time he was released from prison. All of the stuff he had done came crashing down upon him, and he knew instantly that it was wrong to do them. He regretted committing those crimes and acting the way he did; however, he was well aware that it was much too late for him to do anything about it.
In the next stage of redemption, the person committing the wrongdoing must hit rock bottom, or finally see a comeuppance for what he has done. While in prison, he endured violence, his wife Dana leaving him, and his loss of faith in God. He was angry about being in prison and away from his family. In this stage of the redemptive process, he was still fighting the consequences of his actions. He felt as though he did not deserve to be in prison – that the white man put him there, not his own deeds (p. 117).
After that, the wrongdoer has to come to an epiphany; an awakening of the mind, a moment of clarity wherein they recognize that what they have done is wrong, and it is not what they want to do. In prison, Henderson began to listen to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, which tended to conflict with his Christian beliefs at first. These taught him to be a strong black man, and not feel as much of a victim in an increasingly hostile society (p. 117). While it taught him at first to hate whites even more (“A white jury gave me nineteen and a half; the white man brought drugs into the country,” etc.), he eventually reconciled his own beliefs, and learned to take responsibility for what he’d done.
The negation within Jeff Henderson’s story occurred when he realized the falsehood of his belief that he is tough, that he can handle whatever comes his way, and that performing crime is the only way to get ahead for a poor black man. He began to understand that, despite his circumstances, it did not help him to get ahead in life the wrong way. By doing that, it only led him down a path of destruction. Once he truly realized, in prison, that the way he was living his life was not the way it should be lived, he rejected it and started anew. He had proven his old lifestyle false, and worked to create a better, truer life for himself.
Once that epiphany has been reached, steps have to be taken to fix their behavior and learn better life habits, committing oneself to a more productive purpose in life. Merely feeling sorry for yourself and regretting your actions does not redeem you; taking action does. While in prison, he was assigned to kitchen duty, and there he found his calling. He found that he loved making food, experimenting with it; finding new ways to make something good and original. It was in prison that he learned the trade of the culinary arts, a vocation that he sought to take with him outside prison. With his love for cooking, he knew that he could use that as his avenue of redemption, his way of finding success on the outside.
After his release, Henderson scoured the job market looking for any culinary position that would take him. He hounded chef Robert Gadsby for weeks on end, remaining persistent until he was allowed to start out for him in his restaurant as a dishwasher.
The important thing to consider in a redemptive story is that the person being redeemed is thankful for his opportunities, and never ungrateful or entitled in his actions. Henderson was grateful from the start to Gadsby for the chance he was given, and he did the best job he could. Eventually, he worked his way up to sous chef of a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles, proving himself time and time again as a skilled chef.
Often, sacrifices have to be made in order to repair the behavior that got the person into trouble; this extends to cutting out the people in their lives that lead to the bad behavior. He stopped associating with all of his former gang members, and even his relationship with his family had become strained, especially with his father, who betrayed his trust by spending the money he was holding for him. Only after all of these steps and more have been accomplished can a person truly reach redemption.
Unfortunately, there are often roadblocks on the road to redemption, and these extra obstacles can make the journey somewhat more difficult. Eventually, a spat in the kitchen left Henderson jobless once more, and he had to work his way back up to the top. Despite his experience and reputation, he could not get a job in Las Vegas no matter how hard he tried. Most of it was because of his criminal record, but some of the blame was on his skin color – in Henderson’s estimation, not many black people get the chance to work in a restaurant, as there is too much of a stigma of them causing trouble (a happenstance he reluctantly corroborated when he fought in his own kitchen). Luckily, he strove hard to get back up to the top, and after getting a job at Table One restaurant, he became banquet chef again, and eventually became executive chef of Café Bellagio in Las Vegas. His name is known throughout the culinary industry, and he serves as a bright example of someone who can fight obstacles of race and prison to still succeed.
In many ways, Henderson’s story is analogous to the myth of the Phoenix, the bird who rose from the ashes after being burned to death. Like the Phoenix, Henderson was reborn as a new man after prison, recognizing the consequences of his actions and how ill-conceived they were. Going forward with renewed purpose, he did not let his second chance go in vain. While there were missteps along the way, they only serve to remind him of his imperfections and his continuing journey. The redemption of an individual is never truly over – they will always have to work to maintain their good behavior and their changed lifestyle in order to succeed. This extends to the recurring cycle of the Phoenix as well, who is constantly reborn every 500 years (Herodotus, 1998). Luckily for Chef Jeff, the accomplishments he has gained speak highly of his integrity and his willingness to overcome obstacles.
The story of Jeff Henderson fits the definition of redemption to a tee; he starts off life as a criminal and wrongdoer, though he means well at first. He gets wrapped in a life of drugs and gang violence, justifying his actions through his life in the gang. Once his actions catch up with him, he ends up in prison, where he learns the hard lessons that allow him to negate that previous perspective and desire to do better. By the time he gets out of prison, he fights hard to get past his status as an ex-con and find a job, eventually becoming a celebrity chef. It is a true rags-to-riches story, one that is redemptive and inspirational.
Henderson, Jeff. Cooked: from the streets to the stove, from cocaine to foie gras. New York: William Morrow, 2007. Print.
Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. R. Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Book 2, Chapter 73.p.