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?
JH: All of my children — who range from 9 months to 13 years old — have never, ever had anything animal-based. Their mother and I have raised them like that.
TR: As you know, many of our young people live in food deserts, where healthy and fresh foods are in short supply. How do you get them to be interested in cooking with fresh ingredients and just thinking about cooking healthy foods?
JH: What happens is we are always trying to reach out to children by saying, "Eat healthy and exercise." But my mission is twofold. Not only do I have to educate and empower young people to be healthy to live longer and lead a better and more productive life, but I also have to educate the parents.
The kids aren't buying their own food. The parents are buying it for them. So if we don't campaign to the parents and get them to buy in and understand that they are inadvertently poisoning [their kids] and making their kids obese and teaching them bad eating habits, it won't change.
TR: What are some tips that you can offer to help people keep their Thanksgiving healthy?
JH: You can't make a good Thanksgiving dinner healthy. You can make it healthier. There's a difference between straight-up healthy and healthier than the norm. Healthier than the norm is cutting back on the dairy; using naturally raised, organic vegetables; getting a turkey that is free range; substituting raw sugar for white, granulated sugar. [Instead of regular table salt,] we use sea salt or kosher salt, and we freshly grind our own pepper.
JH: I'm in the process of launching the Chef Jeff Foundation, which will consist of several things. It will be tied into healthy cooking and eating. Not only do I talk about being healthy, but I talk about cooking healthy. There's a difference. You can tell people all day long to be healthy, but if they can't go home and make it, that defeats the purpose.
The foundation is also going to consist of seminars and tours that I want to do around the country to work and speak with people who come from poverty or are formerly incarcerated or going from welfare to work. I continue to go into prisons and juvenile facilities and try to uplift our young brothers and sisters, and let them know that you can find your purpose and help close that gap between the haves and the have-nots. I'm a walking and living example of that. I have no formal education. I spent 10 years in prison. I just had a vision to become a chef.
TR: What's a Henderson-family tradition that has lived on to today?
JH: When we had gumbo, my grandfather was the only one who served it. No one ever went into the pot of gumbo and served [himself or herself]. The reason why? My granddaddy didn't like everyone going over and picking out all of the shrimp and sausage. So when he served you, he made sure you get a little bit of everything — a little bit of okra, a little bit of shrimp, sausage — everything. And he better not catch anybody sticking a spoon up in his pot. So I continue that tradition today. I already told my sisters that when you all come over, don't touch that pot. When you want it, just say, "Jeff, I want a little more of that gumbo."
Monée Fields-White is a Chicago-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.