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!


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