by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
"Why you mugging me?"
"I ain't mugging you, man," the sullen youth dressed in red sweats mumbled.
For a moment it seemed as if Chef Jeff Henderson was about to deliver a bit of tough love on the insolent teen inside the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center.
"I don't have to be here," Henderson said, stepping closer to the boy, "I'm here on my own dime and all I'm asking is 30 minutes to talk to you."
While visiting the city of St. Louis for a speaking engagement in late April, Henderson, author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, " Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras (William Morrow) offered to conduct a 4-hour cooking presentation with some of the youth at the juvenile center. Henderson, a former drug dealer who spent 10 years in jail for his crimes, makes it a point to visit juvenile detention centers to uplift and inspire youth with his turn-around story.
The encounter with the angry boy occurred about two hours after the cooking session started. Earlier, six young people-five boys and one girl-were chosen to help prepare the evening meal for all the juvenile detainees. The menu for the evening consisted of Henderson's famous fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. The small group dressed in color-specific sweat suits (red for boys ages 16-17), (green for boys ages 12-15) and (yellow for girls) were asked to circle around the chef.
"OK, who's the boss?" Henderson asked.
Although a couple of hands inched up, as the day progressed, it became clear that Flo (not her real name), a girl with a no-nonsense frown and attitude to match was the alpha dog of the group. Henderson seemed to pick up on this early and focused extra attention on the girl, putting her in charge of the kitchen crew.
"You let them know what you need," he said, placing his hand on the girl's shoulder: "You guys are a team, you need to communicate."
The exercise was a mini demonstration of the mantra Henderson shares with Fortune 500 companies, financial and learning institutions, culinary and technical schools, state and federal corrections and social service agencies around the country. The former convict turned celebrity chef believes that everyone, including people from troubled backgrounds, have the potential to be productive and successful. The skills that allowed him to run a million dollar illegal drug empire in the late 1980s, he says, are the same skills that helped him succeed in the culinary and corporate environments. The key, Henderson preaches, is "changing the product."
Within a half hour, the kids were humming along like a seasoned kitchen crew--cutting, boiling and mashing potatoes, shucking corn and dropping floured drum sticks into bubbling hot grease. As they worked, Henderson shared his story of finding his love for cooking in the federal penitentiary.
The chef wasn't hesitant to correct the youth as they performed their tasks:
"Stand up straight." "Quit talking." "You can't slouch and run your mouths on a real job."
"Remember, smile. No one wants a frowning worker," Henderson said while adding heavy doses of compliments as well: "That'll work, thank you." "Good job crew," he repeats often.
"Who wants to be the taster?" the chef asked after the first batch of hot chicken was taken out of the fryer. All the kids shouted "me!" Henderson again placed his hand on Flo's shoulder. "My assistant manager here, she'll be the taster."