Chef Jeff Henderson Shares His Thanksgiving Menu

Chef Jeff, who served 10 years in federal prison before finding success as a chef, talks to The Root about his family's Thanksgiving traditions and his mission to help others.

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UPDATED NOV. 22, 2011: There are a few must-have dishes on Chef Jeff Henderson's table for every holiday, and number one is Louisiana-style gumbo.

"Gumbo has always been the umbilical cord that has connected everyone in my family," Henderson told The Root. "No matter if it was Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter, there was always a pot of gumbo on the stove."

Chef Jeff, as he's known, has a noted interest in African American family food traditions -- and not just his own. In 2011, he released his collection of soul food recipes, America I AM: Pass It Down Cookbook. He told NPR that he wants "people to document and save the recipes that came from their family from generation to generation. This book stays in the kitchen. It should never leave the kitchen. It should be the kitchen for hundreds of years."

Henderson is reverent about cooking and the power of food for a reason. Formerly the executive chef at the renowned Café Bellagio and Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, he didn't go through the typical channels to build his culinary career. He served 10 years in a federal prison for drug dealing; while incarcerated, he found a love of cooking and became committed to making a change in his life. Since then he's been sharing that passion with others who are less fortunate, whether it's been through his 2008 Food Network show, The Chef Jeff Project, in which he introduced a group of disadvantaged young people to the culinary arts, or his planned Chef Jeff Foundation.

Henderson gave The Root a peek at his full holiday menu, offered a few tips on how to make your holiday meal "healthier than the norm," and discussed his drive to educate the masses about healthy eating and finding professional success.

The Root: What will be on Chef Jeff's menu this Thanksgiving?

Chef Jeff Henderson: We will have a honey-baked ham with a brown sugar rub. My children are vegan, and my wife is vegetarian. But in order to get my folks to come, I have to have a little [pork] on the menu. I'm also going to roast a sage-rubbed turkey, and I'm making seafood gumbo -- Louisiana-style gumbo with blue crab, shrimp and chicken, and all of the smoked sausages and whatnot. And I might have a pot roast.

The side dishes are really going to bring the meal together. I'm making some homemade candied yams and a macaroni and cheese using four cheeses. No Velveeta. Then last, I'm going to have the smoked-turkey collard greens, and I just bought 40 fresh corn on the cob with the husk, and I'm going to shave the corn off the cob and make creamed corn.

JH: Everything I do, I will duplicate for my children and wife. I will have the soy turkey and gravy. I will make them a corn bread stuffing minus the dairy. I will use olive oil and soy margarine. They will have a vegan gumbo. I will make a roux just like any gumbo, but with soy margarine. I will use vegetable broth, and I will have vegan shrimp and sausages -- all soy-based. You put okra in, and they will have it over a bowl of steamed rice as well. They will have vegan cheddar and Monterey jack macaroni and cheese on the side.

TR: How did you get your children to sign on to be vegan?