Chef Jeff on Overcoming Adversity

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

I’ll be honest…when I saw a keynote speaker at the 2019 AAMFT Leadership Symposium in Virginia this past weekend was some dude named “Chef Jeff”…I was skeptical. What could a chef have to tell therapists about leadership (and who booked this guy)??


Chef Jeff Henderson

Well. I was in for a surprise.

A full ballroom gave Chef Jeff two standing ovations. I have never been to a conference where a speaker got a full-on STANDING OVATION, let alone TWO. And we were enthusiastic about it!! We wanted the guy to NEVER STOP SPEAKING.

So, what does a chef have to teach therapists about leadership?


His talk was topically appropriate, for sure—he talked about how his family dynamics growing up influenced his life choices, and how he was able to recognize and break those intergenerational patterns that ended him up in prison. He spoke with great love and respect about his wife and family, and how critical their support was and continues to be for his success.

He also spoke at length about how he “decriminalized his gifts” after prison, directing the considerable business acumen he’d developed to turn himself into a millionaire drug dealer towards his new goal of becoming a chef. There were some interesting stories about how he had to change his appearance and demeanor to get access to the promotions he wanted; it was simultaneously inspiring, because the guy is a genius at figuring out how to get what he wants, but it was also unsettling how he had to “code-switch” in order to get there.

But the part that really got me going was all his talk about hustle. If you read my previous post about Sarah Epstein’s talk at the same conference, you’ll know that I have a real problem with how hustle seems to be stigmatized in the field of marriage and family therapy. At one point, he declared, “There’s no success without hustling! Who in here’s a hustler???” I was overjoyed that he was normalizing hustle, ambition, and drive for achievement in a room full of therapists. Granted, this particular room full of therapists had all signed up for a Leadership Symposium, so perhaps this group was more open to the idea of hustling as mental health professionals? But I was just so glad he said that!

My absolute favorite quote came during a story about hustling, in fact. He was talking about how he never went to culinary school—he learned how to cook by deliberately (obsessively?) watching other chefs cook in kitchens. He would get a job as a dishwasher, knock out his dishes as fast as possible, then just observe everyone around him, learning how they did their different cooking jobs. Then, when someone called in sick, he’d volunteer to jump on the station, and people would be impressed with how he already knew how to do everything! He said, “people would go on vacation and I would take over while they were gone. Then when they got back…they wouldn’t have a job no more!”

Here he paused for the laugh, which of course came—loud and uproarious. A sly grin spread over his face, and he bellowed with a lilting street cadence, “don’t go on vacation next to me!

I laughed so hard. But I also knew I wanted to have that printed on a mug or something, to remind myself that hustling isn’t something to be ashamed of, even if I am a therapist.

(This is not the exact talk Chef Jeff gave at the Symposium, but it’s similar and worth a listen! Nothing quite like hearing him live, thought!)

If you are planning an event, you should absolutely consider hiring Chef Jeff as a speaker! The man is electrifying, brilliant, engaging, funny, sharp as a tack and quick as a whip. And if you’re lucky, like we were, his wife will show up, also. She gamely took a question from our audience, and you can imagine how an entire room full of marriage and family therapists swooned hearing her talk about her husband.

Also, several therapists in the room mentioned that they had clients with whom Chef Jeff’s story would resonate, so they were really happy to have his books to recommend to those clients. If you have clients struggling with overcoming systemic oppression, the school-to-prison pipeline, or other social injustice, you may want to check out any of Chef Jeff’s books I’ve linked to on this page. Enjoy!


Points of Interest:

Sarah Epstein on Starting Now

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

I love seminars. Nerdy, I know. But I love focused lectures on very specific topics I don’t usually get the opportunity to learn about in school. That’s why I was excited to attend Sarah Epstein’s breakout session titled “Start Now: Harness Your Talents and Hustle to Expand Your Career" at the 2019 AAMFT Leadership Symposium in Virginia this past weekend. Career-planning seems to be neglected in most graduate programs, so I’m always eager to collect more insights on the different opportunities available to MFTs.


Sarah Epstein, MFT

Sarah’s talk was packed with actionable information on how to expand your reach as an MFT beyond the therapy room. There were two different “paths” she explored throughout the talk—the path of the seasoned clinician who’s found their specialty but is looking for other ways to contribute to the field, and the path of the newer clinician who isn’t sure yet what they want to focus on but wants to get started now anyway (hey that’s me!).

She provided valuable advice on how to blog, write for others, and become a media contributor, including some really solid tips on how to find paying writing gigs and how to use Google to find your audience. She also gave us (for FREE, I might add) scripts she has successfully used to pitch herself as a writer to different outlets and an overview of how to build credibility based on her insights as a former resumé consultant. Seriously, if that’s all she’d covered in the talk, it STILL would have been one of the most valuable seminars of the conference!

But Sarah went a step further—and I think, for many, this was the most inspirational and impactful part of her talk. Sarah gave the MFTs present permission to be ambitious.

Here’s why I think this is important. There is this…thing I’ve noticed in the field. It might be a generational thing. Or a cultural thing? Or a marriage-and-family-therapist-specific thing?? But I have noticed that there is some serious shade directed at those who want to build a name for themselves in the field. I can’t think of another field where members are expected to WANT to labor anonymously. Many doctors, lawyers, certainly politicians, authors, even real estate agents are all constantly trying to stand out among their colleagues—whether by getting their name on a paper, getting quoted in a news article, hosting a television show, etc. But I’ve noticed most therapists think there is no daylight between anonymity and becoming Dr. Phil, and in fact one attendee announced during the session with vehemence, “I don’t want to be Dr. Phil!!!” (Dr. Phil, in case you don’t know, is regarded with significant derision by most therapists).

This has all been baffling to me. In my mind, the more name-recognition you have, the more power you have to help more people! Maybe it’s because I had a few different careers before coming to the mental health field, or maybe it’s because I’m technically a millennial (the oldest millennial, but still a millennial!), or maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles (which is powered by publicity and klieg lights). But I don’t think I’m a bad person because I want my websites to rank higher in Google, and I don’t look down on Brené Brown because she has one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. Higher Google rankings and more hits on YouTube mean you’re reaching more of the very people you want to help. So why the shade?!

That’s why it was incredibly refreshing to see Sarah’s slide that declared the following:

“Ambition is not incongruent with being a therapist. It is the amplification and manifestation of your talents, your passion, your hustle, and your courage.”

WHAT. A. STATEMENT. I almost stood on my feet and cheered! And I could actually feel the therapists sitting around me getting excited. These attendees were excited to hear another therapist say it was OK to want to blog, or start a podcast, or whatever.

Above all, perhaps the most helpful point Sarah drove home was related to imposter syndrome and the voices in our heads that say, “who are YOU to talk about _______?? People have PhD’s in _________!!! You don’t have a right to talk about _______!!!” Countering that attitude, Sarah argued that, “you’re not UNqualified just because someone else is MORE qualified!”

Boom. RIGHT? I loved it.

If you are lucky enough to be able to attend one of Sarah’s lectures somewhere, I highly recommend you do so. Also, if you happen to be in a relationship where either of you are in the medical field (Sarah’s clinical specialty), you should check out her book on the subject! Finally, if you want to get in touch with Sarah, you can email her here.

I hope you’ve been encouraged to pursue your ambitions in this field without feeling bad about it, and I hope you don’t mind if I continue to share with you the things I’m up to as I explore what I can personally contribute!


Points of Interest: