The Hustlepreneur, Information Jacker, American Dream Catcher
On Oct. 7, Old Dominion University welcomed renowned chef and author, Jeff Henderson, to the North Café as one of the speakers in the President’s Lecture Series for the 37th Annual Literary Festival.
Henderson’s presentation was titled ‘If you can see it, you can be it: The 12 street-smart recipes for success’, and he talked about his life story and the lessons he learned along his journey. “Henderson’s book, Cooked, reads like a dark American fairytale. His story sounds like the American dream itself- it sounds preposterous, until someone succeeds at it,” Philip Raisor, author and professor emeritus of English at ODU, said at the introduction.
Henderson’s goal is teach kids how to achieve success and stay on the right track by sharing his personal life- an unfortunately relatable life for so many children in America.
The message he wants to get across is that it’s imperative to teach kids about different cultures. “Culture intelligence is important. It’s understanding the diversity in this country. I believe that exposure [to different cultures] is the foundation of the American dream. The more you see, the more you hear, the more you experience,” Henderson said.
Growing up, Henderson was the little boy who always had a vision and a dream to catch. His aspiration developed from watching his mother’s struggles. “She couldn’t get a taste of the American dream, but she was a strong-willed woman. My dream was to one day buy a house on a hill with a white picket fence for my mother,” Henderson said.
When he was still very young, Henderson’s mother told him he had to be the man of the house. This obligation stirred in him a call to action to carry his mother’s dream of a better life for him and his sister.
His number one influence as a child was his grandfather, who worked in janitorial services for laundromats. His grandfather demonstrated how to negotiate and build business relationships. “He also taught me how to steal. My grandfather’s teachings gave me the foundation of work, and of hustle,” Henderson said.
He views hustle from a positive angle. “Everyone successful in America is a hustler. What defines the hustler is the product, and how one conducts the business,” Henderson said. People defined him by his poor choice of product, which made him a millionaire at the age of 19.
This bad product, cocaine, which Henderson both mixed and dealt, got him incarcerated in 1988. “My world came crashing down. Imagine having to sit in this room all night, all day, all week, all month, all year, five years, and so on,” Henderson said.
He blamed everyone but himself, from society as a whole, to the police and informants, to his own mother and father. But he recognized that he had to regain a focus in life. He was given a job opportunity as head chef for the prison. This previously undiscovered passion fueled his desire to change his current circumstances to provide for a better future.
He was especially moved by mail he received while incarcerated. “When I was in federal prison, I received several letters from young boys who wanted to be just like I was on the streets,” Henderson said. These letters caused him to begin redefining his life.
As his cooking skills gradually improved and his passion for it transpired, Henderson reflected back on what he learned both in school and on the streets, siphoning out the abilities that would spur on his success.
Henderson uncovered his three gifts while in prison- cooking, writing, and speaking. He defines gifts as “something you excel at, at a very high level with the least amount of effort. That’s the gift.”
Back when he was in school, he was an over talkative boy in class. However, no one saw the value in sculpting this trait of his. Without the time and investment from teachers in school, Henderson saw no purpose in taking it seriously.
On the streets, he became a self-taught businessman. Through his drug dealing days, he figured out how to use his talkativeness to his advantage. “Communications on the street is called the gift of gab. It’s key for survival. What I learned on the streets was marketing and sales. I had a bad product, but I understood the art of the sale,” Henderson said.
In the end, street smarts proved more beneficial for Henderson than book smarts. He believes that no matter how much you excel at school, you can’t be truly successful without the abilities to communicate, sell, and market.
Although his cocaine business landed him in prison, Henderson retained the sales skills he acquired from drug dealing and combined them with the lessons he learned in prison to formulate his future plans. “Never reject criminal wisdom. I have criminal wisdom. I have a PhD in ‘criminal streetology’,” Henderson said.
Henderson refers to federal prison as Federal University. “I refined myself there. Prison worked for me. It gave me discipline and structure,” Henderson said. After eight years, Henderson was released on Oct. 2, 1996.
Immediately, he recognized the need of reform in order to achieve his dream of becoming a chef. “When I came out of prison, I had felony stamped on my forehead. I had to learn to smile. I had to learn the culture of wealth,” Henderson said.
Thus, the self-dubbed descriptions ‘information jacker’ and ‘hustlepreneur’ were born, the latter being a combination of hustler and entrepreneur. In addition to his internal gifts, Henderson turned to external resources, such as books and chefs as mentors, to nourish his abilities.
He used his newfound freedom to jump right into making his dream a reality. “I’m like a machine. Hustlepreneurs, successful people like me, we don’t sleep, we nap, and sometimes we rest,” Henderson said.
His perseverance and hard work paid off. Today, Henderson is an award-winning executive chef of Café Bellagio in Las Vegas, bestselling author, motivational speaker, and Food Network personality.
These achievements allow Henderson to spread the message about exposing kids from all walks of life to multiple cultures. “I believe that God gave me this gift. He gave me the fight and the resilience. I work every day to be a better father, a better husband, a better role model,” Henderson said.
Henderson wants everyone to know that “at the end of the day, we all put our pants on the same way- one leg at a time.” Seven years ago, when Henderson made a guest appearance on Oprah, she gave him a piece of advice that he remembers and shares with his audiences. “It’s never too late. I don’t care who you are or where you come from. It’s never too late until you take your last breath,” Oprah said.
Today, Henderson feels deeply rooted happiness at accomplishing the dream for his family that his mother always wanted for hers. “I survived the streets. I survived prison. I survived corporate America. I wanted the people I love to be proud of me. And I did it,” Henderson said.