Monday, May 7, 2012

Celebrity Chef Fires up Youth in Juvenile Detention Center

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."

Matthew Murphy, courtesy St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center
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 seemingly 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.

Matthew Murphy, courtesy St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center
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.

Courtesy of the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center
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."

For the first time that day, I noticed the girl's brilliant smile.

Pugh Jaunell, the young, muscled counselor who oversees the boys, noticed something different about the kids. He hadn't had to check any of their behavior that day, "which is unusual."

"They're actually paying attention, which is again, unusual," Jaunell added.

Nikeisha Fortenbery, assistant program coordinator, was equally impressed with the performance of Henderson's six helpers. She commented on the smiles most of the kids displayed as they hustled around the kitchen:

"This was great for them," Fortenbery told me. "They're smiling because, today, they can see themselves differently. They were allowed to actually use their talents and create something they can share with their friends."

Two hours after the cooking session started, the food was ready and placed in huge metal trays. The six kids lined up behind the chow line to begin serving. The other youth, also dressed in red and green (Flo was the only girl that day), filed in. Each of the boys entered with their hands behind their backs as if handcuffed. Apparently, they've been told to walk this way in groups.

The young detainees were called to the chow line table by table and, along with the staff, consumed the food with obvious gusto.

Henderson stood before the entire group after dinner. He called his six workers to the front of the room and demanded that all in attendance thank them for their hard work. The young workers smile sheepishly among the modest applause.

"I'm so proud of my babies," Ms. Gerry, the center's cook, said. "They're really enjoying this. They're getting the attention they need. This will be a lasting experience for them."

After the acknowledgements, Henderson began to address the group. Earlier, he had noticed a tiny, skinny, 10-year-old boy among the detainees. He had the child sit close to him as he shared his story of crime, redemption and unprecedented success with the group.

The other hardened boys didn't seem particularly impressed with Henderson's story. This was the point where the chef confronted the boy he had accused of "mugging" him.

Instead of berating the teen further, Henderson asked Nathan Graves, the detention center's program coordinator, to play the DVD he'd brought along. It opened with Oprah Winfrey praising Chef Jeff for overcoming obstacles and turning his life around. Images on the DVD showed Henderson as a drug dealer, a convict and, later, as a chef with some the finest restaurants in the country, including the Marriot, Ritz Carlton, Hotel Bel-Air, L'Ermitage, Caesar's Palace and the Bellagio Hotel where he became the first African-American executive chef at the prestigious establishment.

Somehow the video made Henderson's story more real for the youth. All of a sudden, they paid rapt attention to every word. After the DVD ended, the chef segued into raw and real dialogue about prison as the destination for poor choices. He urged the kids to examine their weaknesses and mistakes, build on their unique gifts and abandon "homies" and activities that caused them to wind up in the facility.

"A smart man listens to wise advice. An ignorant fool doesn't," he lectured.

One could only marvel at the transformation of the six kitchen helpers and most of the boys in just four hours.

"These kids are looking for discipline and an adult who'll be straight with them," Henderson told me earlier. "They're just like you and me, they have dreams and ambitions. They want opportunities but, sadly, they come from neighborhoods were dreams are dashed and opportunities are few."

As the presentation ended and the boys were leaving the dining hall, Henderson pulled the smart-alecky teen aside for personal consul. Attitude gone, the boy asked the chef how he could contact him. Henderson gave him his card and promised he'd visit the juvenile center again.

It was obvious that a light bulb of possibilities had clicked on in the minds of the youthful attendees. Unfortunately, Chef Jeff can't stay with kids he motivates around the country. More than likely, that bulb will be quickly dimmed by the overwhelming negative influences in their lives, neighborhoods and environments. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if, as Ms. Gerry mentioned, the youth constantly received "the attention they need?"

One of the counselors brought Flo to me after the presentation. Henderson had told a few staff members that I was working with a local group and we planned to start a summer program for at-risk youth in North St. Louis.

"This young lady has so much potential," the counselor told me.

Flo jotted down her mother's name and phone number on my yellow pad. This young lady, whom I first considered hard and tough, exhibited a shy smile as she plead for an opportunity:

"Call me. I really need to do something, please."

VIDEO: Renowned chef and author Jeff Henderson uses the kitchen to teach important life lessons at the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center.


Dan Reus said...

What a great story - honest work and mutual respect can do so much to lift us up and show us hope!

Stories of men and women like Chef Henderson and those who are able to turn themselves around need to be the first and last things we read each day.

Jo Ann Brown said...

Nice article. I also did a presentation on "Personal Finance" at the juvenile center. It was a rewarding experience.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. said...

Thanks Dan, I agree. Jo Ann, I'd like to talk to you more about your presentation on personal finance at the JD center. We're looking for volunteers to teach a class perhaps one out of the nine weeks we're planning for the Sweet Potato Project.