Learning to cook changed my life—it didn't save it.  I've had it good.  But the tools I learned and the changes I made in order not to humiliate myself on a hotline, made me a better writer and a more effective, efficient creature outside the kitchen.  It also gave me entree into a whole new world, it gave me a new language.  It wasn’t easy, and I took some serious risks in order to do achieve what I did, but … relatively speaking, it was easy  because I’ve had every advantage.  Great parents who adored me but held me to their standards of honesty and hard work, a solid middle class home in my favorite city on earth to live, the best education, etc., and because of this good fortune, I had all the tools to make use of the cooking advantage when it came my way.  Nevertheless, learning to cook gave me yet another boost up, a huge boost up, from where I was.  What I'm trying to say here is that learning to cook helped in huge and unforeseen ways even one of the most privileged.

                                                                                                Photo courtesy of The Food Network

Which is why I was thrilled to watch the first episode of “The Chef Jeff Project,” in which a convicted felon, Jeff Henderson, who learned to cook in prison and made a career for himself in the kitchen after his release throws six inner-city kids, most of them with prison or drugs in their own past, onto the line, into the fire. 

What was true for me in the kitchen is true for them in the kitchen, is true for everyone in exactly the same colorblind, socialblind way: you can’t lie in a kitchen.  To yourself, to your colleagues.  You are either on time or you are not there, you are either in the shit, or you are organized and on top of it, your food is cooked and ready to go or it is not.  It is plain and inarguable.  There aren’t many occupations where you can’t lie to yourself.   And the humiliation for one of these kids who gets booted off the line at a real restaurant in the second episode—the humiliation is just as deep for him as it is for any trained cook who gets their ass handed to them.  You’re not good enough.

Chef Jeff
wrote an excellent memoir about his life, Cooked—it’s available on CD (and audio download) in which he gives a compelling, visceral reading.  What’s fascinating about his story is that he was successful as a drug dealer—very organized, didn’t do drugs himself, ambitious—in the same way that he would became successful as cook—organized, diligent, driven, ambitious.  The thing is, fresh out of prison, he was lucky to get a job as dishwasher.  From prison to dishwasher to this.  Great story.  He has a cookbook that’s just out.  He was ABC Nightly News’s person of the week last week.

I have to admit I approached his show  skeptically—is this going to be another ordinary chef looking for extraordinary celebrity because of his unusual story, cleverly devising a vehicle that will make him look altruistic when he’s really just promoting himself and his business?Cover

The show, on Food Network on Sunday nights, is everything that culinary
documentary and reality television ought to be (favorable NYTimes review here).  There is no quick fire
challenge, and no one gets kicked off after each show, yet it’s
dramatic, and more, genuinely moving.  It’s moving to me in that the
first episode reminded me how powerful learning to cook can be, what a
transformative force it is.  And it reminded me that the power of
learning to cook, the opportunities it can give to anyone, anyone at all willing to do the work, are relative to how much they need
that advantage.   Learning to cook moved me up another rung or two.
Learning to cook for one of these hoodlums could possibly be
other-worldy in terms of its impact on their lives  It’s fascinating to

Chef Jeff is smart, he’s good, an excellent leader (which is what chef really means), he’s clearly inspirational to these neophyte cooks.  A couple years ago I wrote an article exploring reasons for the dearth of black chefs in a chef obsessed culture.  I wish I’d interviewed him.   His inspiration is genuine and goes far beyond race.


56 Wonderful responses to “How Cooking Can Save Your Life”

  • MadFud

    Nuff said, the TiVo is set!

    I was so hoping it wouldn’t be schlocky as so many of those gone-from-rags-to-riches expose pieces.

    Also curious if you’ve an opinion on Bourdain’s AT THE TABLE format? I think it has some really fun potential…

  • Beth B

    I approached this show a bit skeptically, but was happily surprised at how “REAL” it was…Instead of kicking people out, Chef Jeff works his hardest at getting them to stay…Instead of a fake job for a year the prize he offers them is self-esteem, respect and a career…

  • The Italian Dish

    I love this show. My sons and I watch it together and they are glued to the screen. This guy teaches lessons that are valuable to everyone, especially young people. He is so impressive. I have a book club and I’ve added the book to our reading list. I can’t wait to read it.

  • johnmark7

    This is a copycat of the Jamie Oliver series he did in England with a reform program for young, going nowhere kids.

    Fine with that, but I wonder how far can you get in cooking if you don’t really love food? So far, I see kids just trying to learn to work, and that’s fine, too, but it may not be enough motivation to change their lives. It takes a real passion to be a chef and stay in a food industry that makes some intense demands on time and performance.

    And frankly, some of these kids make me question their mental capacity to have clear, organized thoughts.

    You can train almost anyone to construct a plate of food, but cooking a piece of meat, making a sauce has so many variables that good kitchen sense requires a fair degree of smarts.

    Adam, for example, could function well at McDonalds, but I don’t ever see him really cooking, and then given his attitude, enough said.

  • ruhlman

    i saw some episodes ofthe jamie oliver show and, while it was fine, it wasn’t nearly as compelling as this.

  • lux

    I missed the first episode but caught the second and was very impressed.

    One thing that has me wondering — is whether “having it” is actually an inherent part of one’s personality or not? Chef Jeff, for example, needed the catharsis of prison and kitchen work to get off the wrong path, but it sounds like he had the tools for success even before that experience.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Not just the inner city kids, or those with criminal pasts, you are forgetting a huge population of those with intellectual disabilities who can learn simple restaurant tasks and be employed and self-sufficient.

    I have a friend who opened a restaurant in my hometown with that specific purpose in mind for his son’s future. Before that many a Montreal Chef friend employed this young man, and thought highly of him and his skills and learning and work ethics.

    I, for one, would love to read of Chef Jeff and hope you can get him to post here too.

  • e. nassar

    I’d have to disagree with you Michael about this being better than the Oliver show. While this has it’s heart in the right place AND Chef Jeff himself is very admirable, I think Jamie Oliver’s show was much better. It had better production value, more interesting “cast” and a much more reaching effect. All of his “graduates” worked in his kitchen as cooks and I loved how he very realistically dealt with each of their problems, all 15 of them! On this show, I am seeing a pattern emerge, mainly the consistent feud between Adam and Alonoso. It’s ok, and a huge step up for FTV, but I’m getting a bit tired of it after few episodes. I’ll keep watching for now and hope it will get better.

  • JoP in Omaha

    I’ve been watching the show with interest and will continue to do so. It’s fascinating to see the kids struggling to find their way away from the life they’ve had to something different, better. It’s an unfamiliar and scary journey for them.

  • johnmark7

    I don’t quite understand why the reality show format has to include all these very dull and silly talking head moments. Top Chef does it, too. They try to manufacture conflict, wring confessions, elicit observations from people who aren’t interesting, articulate or self-aware.

    The Oliver series did a better job of following the kids around and illustrating their problems, how dumb, obnoxious, or diligent they could be, and so forth.

  • Charlotte

    I’ve been really liking this show, and find it enormously touching. It kills me how many kids out there feel that no one has or will ever believe in them, that they’re worthless. But I do wonder about the skills part of cooking — most of these participants seem to come in with only the most basic cooking skills — is there an actual training portion of the show that we’re not seeing?



  • Bob McGee

    Both shows are inspiring, and I’ve seen the difference role models can make with at risk youths.
    Equally important to me as an employer in the kitchen, however, is the willingness to hire these young adults after they’ve been in trouble.
    I try to give everyone a fair shake in the hiring process, but in the end, I always have a little more respect for the ones that have to work a little harder to meet my expectations.

  • Greely

    Well, it seems like I’m going to have to stay up and watch this on Sunday night to see what it’s about. If Michael is giving it such good comments, it must be worth something.

  • FoodPuta

    Jeff is simply and inspirational personality, this story could be played out in any venue.

    Chef Jeff is the kind of person I would want teaching my children, regardless of profession.

    Well, except drug dealing… I would hope for them to fail at that.

  • Pavlov

    I love the show, as it has nothing to do with the typical TVFN formats (thank heavens). It is about a wonderful person helping people. How can it be any better or simple than that!
    Thanks for bringing it up Michael, Cheers.

  • Matthew Sievert

    It was nice to see The Chef Jeff Project on The Food Network.

    I look forward to seeing more content like this in the future.

    Maybe a return of programs like “Cooking School Stories.” Which the Food Network has moved away from in recent years.

  • MissV

    Those who have not tuned into the show…. please do. It’s not competition reality, it’s very candid reality, and it’s good. Not just good TV… it’s good.

    I’ve been wondering why there is not much press on this… I had the TV on and I left it on for the first episode and I was hooked. This is really about some troubled kids and Chef Jeff really trying to teach the lessons that saved him from the future he saw, and the future these kids see, before they realize what they can be in a kitchen.

  • Judith in Umbria

    But why is it? Why does cooking offer a road that say, making clothes does not? Or any other creative field?

    I sincerely wish I could see this. Will recommend it to cooks stateside.

  • Ray

    I would say it’s because cooking is something that doesn’t have as many prerequisites as many other professions. White collar jobs want you to have a college education and a clean criminal record. No hiring manager in an office is going to take in a hoodlum off the street, no matter how eager he seems. A creative profession like art or fashion design wants to see your pedigree and who you’ve socialized with. All of these are barriers to somebody who doesn’t know the right people or who didn’t have the fortune or circumstances to get an education or spend lots of time perfecting a luxury hobby or stay out of trouble.

    Anybody can put a plate together, that’s why the kitchen is a place where somebody can plausibly get a second chance if he really wants it. There are probably other trades where one can start anew and make a good living for himself, it is true. But since this is a forum about cooking, it would follow that a discussion about learning to work in a kitchen would take priority over the others.

  • Ray

    Also, being a line cook is not really about being creative. It’s a trade, not an art. You do repetitive work and the satisfaction and pride comes from perfecting your production, not designing it. It is true that some of those kids may not develop enough of a passion to take the next step and decide to create in a kitchen of their own but I think all of them will take the lessons of perfecting a craft to heart and apply it to whatever trade they ultimately decide to go onto.

  • jscirish27

    I think one of the points being missed here (at least through my quick perusal) is that these kids are learning not only a discipline, but discipline. Being a line cook may not be high art (I should know), but to do it well requires a tremendous amount of focus, discipline, endurance, and pride. These kids may not all end up in a kitchen, but the physical and mental skills they are acquiring can translate into many other areas of their lives. Besides, creativity in any field does not truly begin until you master the basics, learn the techniques, and build a solid foundation on which to grow. Also, for the record, not anybody can put a plate together; anybody can put food on a plate.

  • claudia (cook eat FRET)

    my tivo is set and thanks because i’d not heard of this and i look forward to checking it out.

    i think i need to see a food show that has some heart and meaning… i was starting to feel this abounding lack of soullessness.

    after watching with mouth agape in literal shock horror the debacle that is ‘on the road again, spain’ with batali, bittman, paltrow and that useless but gorgeous spanish chick – and then (and i love my tony) bourdain’s ‘at the table’… i was feeling kind of stupid, embarrassed and shallow and well, like my priorities were askew.

    but that’s just me…

  • Rhonda

    Hi Claudia:

    It is so funny you say this. I saw (your Tony’s) show on the weekend as well and decided to find his website to see if, well, maybe I got dropped into a parallel universe. According to his blog, he is wallowing in a good dose of shame, self-hatred and embarrassment (more than usual) as well. His fans turned on him and he needs a hug… Ruhlman?… As far as the Batali disgrace, I couldn’t finish watching it but do give the man credit for masterfully crafting one of the biggest boondoggles in Public Television history. Bravo!

    Good timing for Chef Jeff to come along.

  • Ricky

    This post reminds me of this restaurant I heard of in San Francisco. The Delancey Street restaurant. They hire, as the site says, former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom. Supposed to be a really good place.

  • rockandroller

    Similar to Ricky’s post, I saw a piece once a few years ago (maybe on 60 minutes?) about a bakery somewhere in CA that turns out these GORGEOUS and DELICIOUS cakes – pretty complex cakes too if I recall correctly, and they became so popular they are now available for mail order all over the country. They’re not cheap but I remember going to the site and drooling about them. This bakery was entirely staffed by disadvantaged/at-risk kids and I agree it was great giving them a job and teaching them a skill, I love stuff like this.

    I wish all cities had restaurants/bakeries like this. While single restaurants come and go, the food industry is definitely a solid one and I think it would be great to have a “city year” or “americorps” type national organization but that was training food workers instead.

  • ruhlman

    a commenter who had a critical, though valuable thing to say, posted anonymously. can’t do that. at least have to leave a working email address. your comment was good though–if you’d care to post again, “joe,” please do.

  • Natalie Sztern

    SEATTLEMAN, you happen to be absolutely wrong. The problem lies more in what Bob McGee states in that the problem lies in the employer not willing to take a risk on the risky. Speaking from experience of living with a man whose job requirement is to put people into Bankruptcy. Imagine the lowest rung you can be on when you have lost every dime you have, risked your business and your family and lost – then try to sink 5 ft lower than that.

    But my husband is a man who gives a second chance – son and his father have had private boxing lessons because a humble human being chose to give back to the down and out boxer who came also came out of jail; I have owned racing horses so the trainer can get back on his feet and have a weekly income for a while; I have been partners in restaurants I didn’t even know about till the right investor came along; not to mention the various limbs hubby went out on to help those he trusted.

    Not everyone can or is to be trusted, but the kitchen is not the only place for the down and out to rise again. A man/woman who gives back doesn’t have to be only a Chef and why be defensive, even if that were true.

    Canada has a famous dinner theatre known world-wide for their talent on the stage and in the kitchen. Almost impossible to buy tickets; and yet the performers, the wait staff; the entire ensemble is handicapped – so should Harrison Ford feel that his profession is being demeaned. Or knowing how difficult his work is; would he not stand up and be proud of the performance and the crew, knowing his own talent doesn’t stand in the balance.

    Chefs create with skills that are taught and without offending anyone; one doesn’t have to hold a degree from an accredited university to get into a kitchen – although there are many Chefs out there that do. Seems to me, it would be an honour for a Chef to have mentored a successful protégée.

  • EB

    I’ve really liked watching this. It seems genuine. It’s also a reminder that many kids who don’t have a lot in their lives, just need someone, somewhere to let them know that they can do something. That they can try, fail, try again and be rewarded.

  • brett duffee

    it’s T.V…just T.V… genuine..hardly..shattered..period..sorry rhulman..lov ya but naaaa naaa boo boo

  • cherylk

    I work in a high school and every year I loose sleep over the group of kids I refer to as the “lost boys”. They’re everywhere, even in the upper middle class neighborhood where my school is located. I’ve seen more than one of these kids, some low functioning, some the victims of bad parenting, find their lives work through vocational programs. Three cheers to Chef Jeff and anyone willing to help kids that many others would write off. I love this show.

  • Chef Troll

    Well-written piece. I’d never heard of this guy but, because of YOU, The Troll Report will review one episode of this Food Network Show.

  • Lynda

    I watched the Jamie Oliver show and appreciated how he took the young people and actually taught them how to cook before selecting his group for his Restaurant 15. It will be interesting to see how Chef Jeff teaches cooking skills to his group. The second episode threw them into the fire of cooking for a catering project for a television program straight away. While it required some skills from the as yet un-trained group, it seemed to me to be more of a TV moment, enhanced by celebrities and a seemingly high-profile engagement from the get-go. The 2 shows differ in approach and culture, and I look forward to watching Chef Jeff teach these young people the basics of cooking – skills they will have for life.

  • Earl

    I had made an observation earlier regarding Chef Jeff that was taken down and was invited to repost.

    I’ve read all these glowing things here about Jeff Henderson. You would think you were reading about Mother Teresa of the culinary world. We seem to be forgetting a few things though.

    The guy is a convicted felon. Hardened street criminal who dealt dope. Crack. Bad stuff.

    Many drug dealers turn to dealing to support their own habits and while he himself didn’t use, this alone may give you an insight into his true character. People who are incarcerated or law enforcment types may know what I am referring to.

    I wonder just how many families or individuals he has touched with his drug dealing activities? How many people died as result ? How many parents lost loved ones because of one guy who obviously knew how much carnage he was bringing to those he sold drugs to ?

    I think our friend just may have found himself a new hustle while spending time as a guest of the federal government and was able to hone his skills even further. The Food Network in a desparate attempt to bring diversity to their programming line up, give him a show that follows a storyline many others have told previously . We roll out a hero’s welcome and brand the guy a visionary when I am not sure he is deserving of the accolades.

  • Heather

    Wonderful post about Chef Jeff and his show and even more fascinating is the NY Times article, where was I two years ago when you wrote the article…

    Everything in it is unfortunately true, I was the only black woman (person) in my culinary school class at ICE (back then it was Peter Kumps) in 2000. My family although not against me going to culinary school was definitely surprised that I would want to go cook in “someone else’s” kitchen. Although I never wanted to be the next Jean Georges I wanted to be the next MFK Fisher, getting into Food Writing was and still is a struggle for anyone not just us black folk.

    There is a horrible stereotype that all we cook is Fried Chicken and Collard Greens. The irony is I never cook Fried Chicken and Collard Greens much to my husband’s dismay, It’s mainly mediterraen and Italian for me and finally just like any other prestigious career it really is all about who you know. It’s often times hard to find those people that are willing to give you a shot.

    And Jennie is so right about people with criminal backgrounds in restaurant kitchens, and even those without nobody’s perfect and not everyone’s wrong doings get caught.

  • Ray

    Re: Earl

    I’ve been reading his memoir and it’s a fascinating story. For him, the drug dealing was purely business. There was a definite mental disconnect between the negative consequences of his line of work and the positive. It was only after he was sent to prison that he really saw how drug abuse made people desperate enough to risk death for a fix. It’s true that he traded one hustle for another with cooking but if cooking can help a convicted man sublimate his ambitious desires to be successful in a socially acceptable and maybe even admirable way? I don’t see the problem with that. The fact that he also seems to be earnest about helping kids who are in danger of going down the same path that he went raises him up in my estimation as well.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Some snappy writing here pilgrim; I loved reading this. I especially liked paragraph 3 wherein you describe how it is so hard to hide incompetence in a kitchen.
    I’m not sure if I’ve ever conjured with that notion before. But now that I have -thanks to you- I get it.

    I wonder if adding

    “Your food is either ‘done right’ (as in soigne) or it sucks.”

    to this

    “You are either on time or you are not there, you are either in the shit, or you are organized and on top of it, your food is cooked and ready to go or it is not.”


  • ntsc


    I’ve had the privilege of eating Edna Lewis’s food when she had Gage and Tollners in Brooklyn (it is now a TGIF -yuck). She went way beyond Fried Chicken and Collard Greens. The Swede who had (has?) Aquavit is also way beyond Fried Chicken.

    By the way her Fried Chicken is to die for, if I remember correctly it is fried in lard.

  • kanani

    I saw the preview and was intrigued. Glad to see you do a write up of this show, the chef ad his mission.

    Earl, Yes, he’s everything you say. However, he’s also what we hope criminals become after being incarcerated: reformed, enlightened and determined to carry out a mission that will push their lives onto a higher level and ultimately, using it to help others.

  • Kate in the NW

    If forgiveness/redemption is impossible we’re all in some serious shit…(I’m not talking religion, I’m just talking life).

    I’d hate to be so cynical that it would be impossible for me to believe a drug dealer could turn things around; that his efforts to help others (even if it gets him on TV) is just another “hustle”.

    And what if it is? I’d rather see someone acting with bad/mixed motives and good results than good motives and bad results.

    Now, for the love of all that’s decent, will someone please start a similar program for CEO’s and politicians????!!!!
    No..forget that…I don’t want them touching my food….

  • Rex

    I am glad this show is on. And if I’m not mistaken, these kids just weren’t picked off the street per se – they were picked because they did demonstrate some cooking prowess. Some people here seem to think otherwise. I keep forgetting how snobby some of you foodies can be.

  • Sommar

    We have a great program in Boise called Life’s Kitchen:

    “Life’s Kitchen is an innovative, non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk young adults by building self-sufficiency and independent living through a comprehensive food-service job training program, life skills training, and job placement in the food service industry.”

    Check it out:


  • amused

    claudia ,leave it to somebody to bring politics to the board,rolls eyes,the food network would put OJ trying out new chefs knives or michael vick cooking puppies if it got ratings this channel has already jumped the shark

  • Carolyn Jung

    I was fortunate to hear Jeff speak a couple years ago at a seminar in Napa. To say he is a born-and-bred motivator is an understatement. If only we could get Jeff to speak to every child in every school, what a different world it might be. His new show will no doubt go a long way in spreading his inspirational culinary gospel.

  • jacqueline church

    Michael – thanks once again for opening a good conversation. I’ve read these comments and been fortunate to cook with kids in an at-risk after-school program. The kitchen does offer structure, discipline, a clear sense of beginning, middle, end. Positive results. Nothing beats seeing the sense of pride and accomplishment when they graduated and served their families food they prepared. Nourishment for soul and body.

    I’ve also interviewed folks at Baltmore’s Dogwood Kitchen, which takes ex-offenders and people in recovery and gives them a chance to learn a skill that can earn them self-respect, self-reliance, and a way out. It was such a moving experience. Sadly no one I pitched was interested in that sort of story! Maybe now is the time.

    I also wanted to say regarding Earl’s comment above, I don’t yet have an opinion on this guy in the show. The fact that he never used while he hustled and that he landed on the the embarassingly white-guilt heavy* Food Network gives Earl’s observations some crednence. I have worked with many hustlers. I don’t believe that redemption is not possible and Earl can be right as well as wrong here. This guy’s new hustle may not erase his prior sins, but he may be doing a lot of good. Doesn’t make it less of a hustle, per se.

    My two cents’ worth as a non professional cook and former defense attorney….

    *(remember the Jag fiasco? they were so afraid of his ethnic anger it was uncomfortable to watch. how sad he proved a disappointment.)

    PS thanks for recognizing the privilege you have enjoyed, it takes NOTHING away from your vast accomplishments and says everything about your character that you acknowledge it.


  • chadzilla

    SEATTLEMAN’s comments do ring some truth.
    I remember my first ‘cooking’ school and how the class was filled with students who were deemed not skilled or worthy enough to get into the other classes. It was the bottom catch-net. The last rung on the ladder. The last hope for the hopeless.
    Fortunately my aspirations were set a bit higher than the others in that class, but I remember the feeling that cooking was somehow not worthy of those with real talent, brains, or ambition. Thankfully, things are changing these days. Parents don’t faint, sigh, and moan when their children express their desire to become chefs as they once did.
    I finally watched an episode of the Jeff Project only because Michael Ruhlman deemed it worthy. The effort is good. The message is good. But, the food is horrible. Honestly, this is a good show but it belongs on Bravo or some other network that Food is not the number one focus (the focus is on social awareness).
    Well, actually I guess it is cut from the same stone that all the other horrible new food shows on FTV are cut from.
    The downward spiral spins faster.

  • chadzilla

    … also, Chef Jeff seems to be either holding back on these kids or he’s just a natural wuss as a chef. Where’s the fire and brimstone. He is hardly doing these kids justice for when they are released into the real kitchen world and have a real chef screaming at them.
    Chef Jeff seems to let his soft side dampen his hard message. When Alonzo and Shante had a spat, he started winding up like he was going to give it to the both of them… boy, was I dissappointed at the cissy smack on the wrist they both received. Not even a verbal threat… what’s up?

  • Lamar

    re: chadzilla

    He’s holding back on them very intentionally, and for very good reason. A lot of these kids have zero self-esteem, and have never had a person praise them OR hold them to a higher standard. So it’s a fine line he has to walk, and I think he is doing an absolutely brilliant job of it. Would a real kitchen eject most of them on the first day? Quite possibly. But that is not the point of what he’s doing.

    I was beat down repeatedly when I entered the restaurant industry, and it was terribly hard on me at age 17. But I had family members I looked up to, and who I knew cared about me…that is what carried me through. Most of these kids don’t have any of that. My mom was like them. And you know what got her through? The sprinkling of people here and there that gave her hints of approval and inspiration to better herself (and beleive me, they were few…but they made the difference).

    There are many people who cannot be helped. But for those who have that spark, that hunger…my god, can they go far. I praise Chef Jeff and others like him, regardless their profession. I run a very self-contained, low-drama family bakery, and my life is full of contentment. But watching this show has really made me question whether I am doing everything I could be. Because I have met people like these. I was raised by one. And I really feel we should not turn our backs on them.