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Off the Streets, Into the Kitchen

By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Food can nourish body and soul, help us celebrate successes and milestones, and enrich our lives even as it delivers the nutrients we need.

It can also, as Jeff Henderson will attest, reach out, grab you by the collar and redeem you before it's too late.

Henderson learned that the hardest way: It's been just about 11 years since he was released from a 10-year prison sentence for dealing cocaine (and bringing in a profit of some $35,000 a week).

He went into jail a 24-year-old criminal. He emerged a chef. Now executive chef at Las Vegas's Cafe Bellagio and author of a best-selling memoir ("Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras") and a new cookbook ("Chef Jeff Cooks," Scribner, $30), Henderson attributes his conversion to his jail-time discovery of cooking. His failure to show up for litter pickup duty one day had him banished to the kitchen, where he learned to cook within the confines of the prison's limited menu and established himself as a reliable, even standout, member of the kitchen team.

He recently shared his story of discovery, purpose and self-discipline with a handful of at-risk young people whom he invited to help with his Los Angeles-based catering business, Posh Urban Cuisine. His work with them is the subject of a Food Network series, "The Chef Jeff Project," which debuted Sunday night; the episode repeats Thursday at 11 p.m.

Henderson spoke last week at Howard University and at the public library in Rockville; I got him on the phone last week, too. We talked not only about his experience introducing healthful foods to young people who'd rarely seen fresh vegetables -- and certainly nothing exotic like the purple carrots he now savors -- but also about his own family: He eats meat, but he's married to a vegetarian, and their three children (ages 6, 9, and 10) are strict vegans, eating no animal products at all. That's a situation I'm hearing a lot about from readers of this column and the Lean & Fit newsletter: Preparing meals for people with such varied dietary preferences is one of the big cooking challenges facing families these days.

On his new show, Henderson works with six young people whose lives -- some marked by abusive home situations, one marred by drug addiction -- aren't too different from his own early adulthood. He laughs as he talks about introducing them to raw oysters; his requirement that they each swallow one whole met mostly with revulsion, though later the group rallied around tuna tartare made with raw fish sliced thin and served with hot sauce, extra-virgin olive oil, kosher salt, ground black pepper and scallions.

"I challenge the kids to taste, taste, taste," Henderson says, nudging them toward healthful foods. "A lot of them had never seen yellow squash, heirloom tomatoes, yellow cauliflower" -- those nutrient-dense, richly colored vegetables that brighten the food pyramid. "It's all about education and exposure," he adds. "Exposure is the foundation of change. You have to experiment, try different things that are outside your traditional ethnic or childhood palette."

"Chef Jeff Cooks" is not a cookbook I can tout as uniformly promoting healthy cooking, as there's a lot of butter and heavy cream in its recipes. But it's about developing a healthy lifestyle as well as eating, and it has its nutritional high points. Take, for instance, the recipe for Big Easy Red Beans and Rice, which substitutes smoked turkey legs or wings for the traditional ham hock, providing lots of flavor with far less fat. Or the section on sauces and condiments, which advocates pureeing blanched corn, broccoli or asparagus to create bases for sauces.

The disappointing thing about the book, given Henderson's home life, is that he doesn't adapt his recipes for vegans and vegetarians -- a task that our conversation revealed to be pretty simple. The book features some vegetarian options, such as a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich, which can be made vegan simply by omitting the provolone cheese slice. Henderson says that soymilk can be substituted for dairy milk in any of his recipes; soy butter and canola oil can stand in for butter in baking and sauteing, and powdered egg replacement products can fill in for real eggs, though baked goods won't have the same texture or appearance that eggs give them.

While all the soups in the book have animal-based broths, Henderson says, vegetable broths can easily take their place. Swap a garnish of crumbled blue cheese for crumbled hard tofu and you're good to go. That red beans and rice recipe goes vegan by subbing meat-substitute flavoring for the smoked turkey parts.

Like the young people on his TV show, he didn't convert overnight to healthful eating. "You have to be open-minded," he says, "because so many things that taste good aren't good for you, and many things that don't taste good at first are full of nutrients, vitamins and protein." He likes to eat simple foods: pasta tossed with olive oil and seasonal vegetables, organic roasted chicken and, "every now and then, a steak with a baked potato."

Henderson points out that while dark, leafy vegetables such as arugula, spinach and field greens would be best for us "if we could learn to like them without salad dressing," he's not yet reached the point where he likes them on their own. "Only the real health fanatics do," he insists.

In the meantime, the guy who grew up eating Friendly Fried Chicken, Macaroni and Smoked Cheddar Cheese, Cakelike Cornbread with Maple Butter, and Chocolate S'more Bread Pudding -- recipes for which appear in his book -- is determined to improve his diet these days. "I'm working on it," he says. "I want to do better. My wife's pushing me."

And he's pushing kids to think about their purpose in life, to build strong relationships with others, to pursue goals with passion and focus, and to make sound choices; he hopes they'll carry the lessons learned in the kitchen into the other areas of their lives.

But because he doesn't want to spoil any surprises for viewers, he won't say much about what happens in the new series, except that most of the kids rise to the occasion. "You can't measure success in a month or two," he notes. "We have yet to see the full effect of 'The Chef Jeff Project.' "

But a message we can all absorb right away is the importance of enjoying food -- and its preparation -- in fostering general good health.

Check out today's online Checkup blog, in which Jennifer reports on her chat with Michael Pollan (author of "In Defense of Food") about nutrition data in restaurants. Sign up for our weekly Lean & Fit newsletter by going to www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.

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