Food Network Star, At Your Service
By Tom Flynn
Photography by Erin Wiese
Vegas’ bad boy of cuisine, Chef Jeff Henderson, flies into Bush Intercontinental Airport, where I await in passenger pickup. “I’m at door C-101,” he texts. “Black guy with a bald head.” Many black gentlemen with bald heads exit C-101 and wonder why I’m waving at them before one recognizes my white SUV and red shirt, and heads my way. After quick introductions, I ask, “Can you be a little more descriptive next time? Like, I’m a tall black guy with a black chef’s shirt and designer luggage.” This is the beginning of Shop, Chop, Cook and Eat, the Chef Jeff Experience.
The 6’2” Henderson has a history. His first career in sales earned him $35,000 a week, and a 19-year sentence in a federal institution. Henderson was never a user, just a seller from the Los Angeles projects. During his extended vacation from mainstream American life, Henderson did a lot of soul searching, realized he was not a victim, took responsibility for his actions and then decided to learn how to cook. Before he finished his parole, Chef Jeff had cooked his way through L.A.’s best restaurants and landed a job in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace, where he was voted Las Vegas’ Buffet Chef of the Year. He moved on to head chef at the prestigious Café Bellagio, the first African American to hold that position. Then he wrote a New York Times best-selling book about his life, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and with Steve Harvey, starred in his own Food Network TV show and became a prolific public speaker.
Now he’s riding shotgun in my SUV as we head to Central Market. This is my Christmas present from my wife, the Chef Jeff Experience. We’ll be working side by side to cook a four-course gourmet meal for six. It turns out we have a lot in common. We’re both in our 50s, have three-year olds (him, one girl; me, two identical boys), extended careers in sales (mine, legal) and public speaking, and both love cooking and our wives. Whatever earned his bad-boy reputation is long gone, and we’re looking forward to having some fun.
I love grocery stores. Between 1977 and 1984, I worked every position from sacker to store manager—it was my first career. I still study how shelves and displays are set as I walk the Montrose area H-E-B and Disco Kroger. Part of the Chef Jeff Experience is learning to navigate a store and select the best ingredients. Ten minutes into our trip, he confesses a little frustration; I know this Central Market better than he does. “No worries, Chef. I know the store in your neighborhood better than you do, and I’ve never been there,” I reply. But the big guy has a presence, and a lot of heads turn as my famous new friend selects fresh fruits and veggies, along with jumbo lump crab meat, sea bass and a rack of lamb.
He is a little distant on the ride from the store to the house, and I realize he’s thinking of the magnitude of his task. He’s walking into a kitchen he has never seen, with a guy he just met, to produce a meaningful culinary experience for six people who are showing up in a few hours with high expectations. Wow! He has little clues of the appliances, utensils or pantry goods available. I ask him why he stresses himself out like this. “I left the Café Bellagio 28 days after appearing on Oprah and became a public speaker. This project keeps me in the kitchen and keeps me cooking,” he says.
And he’s in luck. We have a large, gorgeous kitchen with every gadget and pantry item a chef could need. He becomes the general of our two-man army, requesting stations for each dish on the menu and setting up a restaurant-style assembly line in my home kitchen. My first prep task is cutting corn off the cobs. “What’s next, Chef?” “You’ve got to do every ear,” he replies. “I did.” It goes the same way with the potatoes. He looks at my work, and lets out a chuckle and a little sigh of relief. “I didn’t know you had good hands. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Chef Jeff’s photographer shows up before mine (again, we have a lot in common) and starts documenting our progress. They sneak out to the store and come back with flowers; I get a vase. “We don’t need a vase, these are for us. We’re going to add some class to these pictures,” says Chef. We break the flowers down and put a little Mason jar filled with tulips at each workstation. I’m in the middle of chopping sausage for our crab chowder, when Chef asks me to join him at the stove. “You ready, Bobby?” he asks his photographer, now turned videographer. Without warning, Chef puts his arm around my shoulders and turns from being a contemplative chef into the Food Network star. “Hey, all right y’all, Chef Jeff here with my friend Tom in his mac daddy kitchen in Houston, Texas, cooking up some amazing…” Next thing I know, I’m being interviewed about travels and culinary experiences in front of a live camera!
The chef and Food Network star becomes host, server and entertainer as our guests arrive and sit for dinner, sharing his life lessons between courses. The food is phenomenal, the experience one of a kind. And it never really ends.
You can learn more about Shop, Chop, Cook and Eat, the Chef Jeff Experience by visiting www.chefjefflive.com. But for now, check out the recipes here.
STARTER: Watermelon Cube with Minted Citrus Salad
1 cup water
1 cup white sugar
12 mint leaves
½ kiwi, peeled and diced
½ peach, peeled and diced
½ Meyer lemon, peeled and segmented
8 strawberries, cored and diced
½ cup fig-infused balsamic vinegar
6–8 (1-inch) cubes chilled seedless watermelon
1. Make a simple syrup: Combine the water and sugar in a small pot and bring to a simmer while stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 8–10 minutes. Poor the syrup into an 8-ounce jar and let cool; reserve the remaining syrup for the dessert.
2. Roughly chop the mint leaves, wrap in cheesecloth and tie with butcher’s twine. Add the mint bundle to the syrup, secure with a lid and refrigerate overnight.
3. Add the diced kiwi, peaches, lemon and strawberries to a small bowl and let stand so the flavors blend.
4. Add the vinegar to a 10-inch sauté pan over low-medium and reduce by half or until the desired thickness is achieved. Remove from the heat and let cool.
5. Cut small cavities in the watermelon cubes, about ¼-inch deep, using a sharp knife or small melon-ball scoop. Add a little dollop of the fruit mixture atop each watermelon cube. Drizzle with ½ teaspoon minted simple syrup.
Plate it Perfectly: Dip a small pastry brush into the reduced balsamic and paint a stripe on each plate. Place a watermelon cube in the center of each stripe. Top with a sliver or 2 of julienned mint leaves.
Appetizer: Louisiana Lump Crab–Sausage Chowder
1 stick unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
1 pound smoked turkey or hot pork sausage, cut into ¼-inch cubes
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ yellow onion, diced
3 celery ribs, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
½ jalapeño, seeded and minced
3 tablespoons minced garlic
Salt and black pepper to taste
¼ cup Riesling wine
2 (8-ounce) bottles clam juice
2 (32-ounce) containers low-sodium chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1½ cups heavy whipping cream
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, cleaned
Cajun seasoning to taste
½ cup oyster crackers for garnish
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives for garnish
2 tablespoons grated Manchego or Parmesan cheese for garnish
1. Melt 1 stick butter in a stockpot over medium. Add the sausage and continue stirring until caramelized. Add the flour and stir constantly until the flour begins to turn brown. Add the vegetables and garlic, cooking until softened. Season with a nice pinch of salt and pepper.
2. Slowly stream in the wine, clam juice and chicken stock and add the bay leaves, stirring constantly to dissolve the flour mixture. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 35–45 minutes, or until slightly thickened.
3. Add the heavy whipping cream and simmer for 12–15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
4. Meanwhile, brown the remaining butter in a sauté pan over medium. Gently fold in the crabmeat and sauté until warm. Add Cajun seasoning to taste.
Plate it Perfectly: Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with oyster crackers and chives; top with big lumps of crap and freshly grated cheese.
Main Course: Herb-Encrusted Rack of Lamb
1 (6-bone) rack of lamb, trimmed and Frenched
Kosher salt and black pepper for rubbing
Cajun Seasoning for rubbing
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon freshly minced rosemary
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
1. Liberally season the lamb with salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning.
2. Heat the olive oil in large cast-iron skillet over medium-high and sear the lamb until all sides are golden. Remove from the heat and set aside for 1 hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
4. Combine the breadcrumbs and rosemary in a small bowl and set aside.
5. Rub the fat cap of the lamb with the mustard and garlic, then pack with the breadcrumb mixture.
6. Bake until the internal temperature reaches 118°F–120°F, slightly past medium-rare. Let rest for 15 minutes and cut into individual chops.
Main Course: Barbecue Chip–Encrusted Chilean Sea Bass
1 (3-pound) Chilean sea bass fillet
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
8 ounces barbecue kettle chips
2–3 tablespoons olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the fillet into 6 pieces and remove the skin and lingering bones.
2. Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Working in batches, sear the fillets, until the bottom sides are brown and crispy. Meanwhile, season the top sides with salt and pepper.
3. Remove from the heat and let rest on a paper towel–lined plate, crispy side up.
4. Place the chips in a food processor and grind to a breadcrumb texture. Using a pastry brush, paint the seared sides of the fillets with olive oil and top with the chip crumbs.
5. Transfer the fillets to a baking pan and bake for 12–15 minutes, or until desired doneness. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Pair it Perfectly: Cote du Rhone Blanc
Main Course: Corn and Bacon Maque Choux
½ pound thick-cut smoked bacon, diced
10 fingerling potatoes, quartered
1 large carrot, peeled and small diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more if needed
1½ tablespoons freshly minced garlic
½ yellow onion, diced
3 celery ribs, diced
½ green bell pepper, diced
½ yellow bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
6 baby portabella mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
5 ears corn on the cob, kernels removed
1 bunch Swiss chard or collard greens, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup chicken stock
Salt and black pepper to taste
Parsley sprigs for garnish
1. In large sauté pan, cook the bacon over medium-high until caramelized. Add the potatoes and carrots and cook until they begin to brown.
2. Add the butter, garlic and remaining vegetables and cook for 8–10 minutes, stirring often until desired doneness is achieved. Add the chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper.
Plate it Perfectly: Neatly place 1⁄3 cup maque choux in the center of each plate. Top with sea bass, then prop the lamb chop against the fish, bone pointing up. Garnish with parsley sprigs.
Dessert: Citrus Berry Parfait
½ quart heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 pint strawberries, hulled and diced
½ pint blueberries
1 orange, zested
¾ cup simple syrup (see watermelon starter recipe)
¼ Angel food cake, medium diced
8 ounces candied pecans or walnuts, roughly chopped
Mint leaves for garnish
1. Place a glass or stainless-steel bowl and the carton of whipping cream in the freezer for 30 minutes.
2. Pour the cream into the chilled bowl and add the honey, sugar and cinnamon. Whip with a wire whisk, until soft peaks form.
3. Combine the fruit and zest in a medium bowl and add the simple syrup; toss gently.
Plate it Perfectly: Make parfaits by layering the fruit mixture, angel food cake, chopped nuts and whipped cream in 8-ounce mason jars. Top with whipped cream and mint leaves. Serve with long spoons.