You said you knew you’d have to be the best in order to get where you wanted to go. How in the world did you instill that level of drive in yourself or did you have help?
I knew I was different. I was always driven in whatever I did; number one newspaper boy, the number one candy seller. I was living in poverty but I knew I didn’t want tobe poor. Anything I’ve ever done, I strive to be the best.
That’s true. I read that you were one of the most successful drug dealers in LA. At 19, you were pulling in close to $35,000 a month?
I am not proud of some of the things I’ve done in the past, but even at the darkest part of my life, I was still striving to be the best. And, once I turned my life around, the same principles that brought me success in that have helped me to be successful.
You started off at the Bellagio – in fact, you were the first African American on staff there, right?
Yes, I was the first African-American executive chef to work as a head chef at a kitchen in the Bellagio. I had no experience in a culinary school and I was a convicted felon, but I was the first.
That’s simply amazing! I promise you, I don’t know of anyone with a more incredible story than yours! And it just doesn’t stop; you are now the executive chef for your own catering company, working on turning your book, Cooked, into a major motion picture and you have a full public speaking schedule…
Yes, it’s been amazing. Four and a half years ago, I went to the Oprah Winfrey show and she had my book and you know what happens once Oprah has your book.
Uh, yeah, a schedule like yours happens!
Exactly. Once I left the Bellagio, I started The Chef Jeff Project which was a show where I took at risk youth and brought them into my catering company, teaching them not only cooking strategy but life strategies as well. I’m currently working on a competitive cooking show with Chef Beau Mack and Antonia Lofaso called Beat the Chefs. It is an incredible show and we’re all having the best time. We are competing with “home chefs” and are judged by a celebrity each week. Furthermore, there is a $25,000 grand prize for the “home chefs.” It has been an absolutely hilarious experience!
It sounds like it!
Yes, it was an absolute blast because we were cooking things like macaroni and cheese, pot roast you know, home cooking. and there were plenty of occasions when the home cooks won.
You are such an incredible person. What happened to you? Plenty of people enter prison and when they get out, they certainly do not have such a testimony. What’s your story?
Part of what helped was the fact that, during that period, I accepted responsibility for the wrong things I did in my past. My time of incarceration also required me to really find my potential. This was the first time in my life I was told I was smart. When I worked in the kitchen that was the first time I’d received compliments, and it felt good. And I never give up; I’m very tenacious. I don’t ever let anything stop me. It’s been a long journey and my faith has been a huge part, too. I am a very spiritual person; I don’t really get into the religion aspect – I believe whatever makes you a better person should be your path and it doesn’t have to match what is “the norm.” My rise in this career has been very unique. I have never been to culinary school and I just realized if I wanted to be the best, I’d have to surround myself with the best. And that’s exactly what I did.
And what are you doing now? What’s next in this incredible life of yours?
We are preparing to launch the Chef Jeff Foundation. I am working on my fourth book, which is a self-help book. And of course, I’m cooking. I also travel to do work with socially challenged youth in prisons and in public schools. I also work with corporations and share my story: the power of potential. And of course, make sure to tun in to Beat the Chef. It premiers Thursday august 23 on GSN.
Well, this discussion has been quite entertaining and informative. I really thank you for your attention and your time and for sharing your story. I really don’t think I’ve heard anything like this before in my life and I’m thrilled to have been given this chance!