After working as an executive chef at restaurants at resorts like the Bellagio, The Ritz-Carlton and Caesars Palace, celebrity chef Jeff Henderson wanted a dramatic change: He wanted to instill “middle-class values” in at-risk youth.
He started The Chef Jeff Project, a leadership academy to help marginalized children born in Henderson’s neighborhoods, typically rife with family instability, trauma and crime.
He started the program in 2020 with his wife, Stacey Henderson, using his professional background: culinary arts, a skill he learned during a decade in prison. His training, he said, is based on professionalism, entrepreneurship and “simple life skills,” which hinge on Henderson’s desire to help young people “escape the massive school-to-prison pipeline.”
“It’s important to create these opportunities and pathways out of poverty, gang culture and into the workforce,” Henderson said Saturday at an event in North Las Vegas where five young chefs showcased their cooking skills for Vice President Kamala Harris. “So it affects violence and it affects crime and workforce training.”
Attendees showed off the dish of the day: News Orleans-style jambalaya, “corrective fried chicken,” chocolate brownies and cinnamon rolls.
Harris was joined by Small Business Administration (SBA) Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman, who said the federal agency plans to ban loan program restrictions against people with criminal backgrounds if applicants complete a sentence. The two were joined by Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Stephen Horsford (D-NV) in their district.
Historically, applications for federal SBA loans have asked would-be entrepreneurs to share whether or not they have a criminal record — a barrier that has prevented millions of people from getting economic support for their businesses.
Henderson, who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison on drug-trafficking charges and was released 27 years ago after serving 10 years, started a catering company and leadership academy to train underprivileged youth who face obstacles to success in the culinary arts.
He said his team prefers to work on participants’ mindsets and see themselves as strong and responsible so that young people can “one day be productive away from those communities.”
The six-week program consists of cohorts of four or five people and is inspired by Henderson’s 2008 Food Network television show, The Chef Jeff Project, which “took six at-risk young adults and made them decide to change their lives by working.” [Henderson’s] catering company, Posh Urban Cuisine.” Henderson also wrote three books New York Times bestselling author for his memoirBaked: From the Streets to the Oven” and has appeared on shows such as “Oprah’s Life Lessons,” “Good Morning America” and “Today.”
“What makes today an important day … they’re going to remove the ‘check the box,'” Henderson said of the SBA’s plan. “It will give people coming out of prison the opportunity to become entrepreneurs, get loans and continue to build their own version of the American dream.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about 450,000 people were released from state and federal prisons nationwide in 2022. In Nevada, about 4,500 people will join the “re-entry population” in 2022.
Even after completing their sentences, formerly incarcerated people face inequality and discrimination in housing and employment amid demands to share their criminal history.
A study of 51,500 people released from federal prisons in 2010 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that one-third were unemployed within the first four years after release, and that the group’s employment rate did not exceed 40 percent at any time.
Through fiscal year 2023, the SBA has allocated $52 billion in “capital, disaster relief, and outreach to small businesses and disaster-affected communities.” Leaders announced that 16 million new small business applications have been filed since President Joe Biden took office, including 185,000 in Nevada.
The SBA loan reforms are pending, and the agency has not provided a clear timeline for when they will be rolled out.
Young people are calling for more engagement
Young chefs said The Nevada Independent local leaders said they hope to expand their support and outreach to programs like The Chef Jeff Project, which recently received a $250,000 grant from America’s Rescue Plan to operate a mobile culinary arts academy.
The mobile academy will stop at central locations to serve different cohorts, including one inside a kitchen in North Las Vegas and another at Lorenzi Park in West Las Vegas to add weekly programs. The mobile school already educates youth incarcerated at Summit View Youth Center, a 48-bed maximum security facility in Las Vegas.
“Even if you’re not interested in cooking [arts], it’s good leadership experience,” said Anya, 19, who graduated from the Chef Jeff Project and was hired as a culinary assistant. “It definitely helps build character.”
After he graduated from continuing school, he learned about the program through the Employ NV Youth Hub. Anya, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons, said young people need more access to resources like The Chef Jeff Project.
“I feel like they need to get more support behind the programs that are already here because there’s a lot that nobody knows about,” he said.
Kam Winslow, a 25-year-old culinary assistant who graduated from the Chef Jeff Project and was recruited to the team, said many young people need more knowledge and education about the resources in their communities so they can take advantage of them. He said the leadership aspect of the program is important for children who are growing up without guidance.
“They don’t choose the environment they grow up in,” Winslow said of at-risk children. “So we need to improve the environment in which children grow up in the best possible way.”