LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Inside the Chef Jeff Project, Isaiah Williams and Ezekiel Younz are busy making beignets. And while the donuts may be light and fluffy, the goal of the program is big and bold.
"The mission of the Chef Jeff Project is to help disrupt the school to prison or neighborhood to prison to the pipeline," said Chef Jeff Henderson, of the pipeline he was once in."I have the lived experience from a broken home, dysfunctional, single-parent home who struggled in public school who didn't have a dream when I was young."
Without a dream, he instead found himself in prison, for ten years, on drug charges. But he said it was in that dark place that food found him.
"I was able to cook and bake in prison, became the head baker, head prison cook. And then one day a case manager gave me an article in the USA Today about the top African American chefs in the country and here I am in prison, reading about men who looked like me who are renowned chefs and pastry chefs. I said, 'wow if these guys can do it, I can do it.'"
That defining moment changed the course of Chef Jeff's life. He went on to be a top chef on the Strip, had four TV shows (one of which was called the Chef Jeff Project, based in LA), wrote best-selling books and is a motivational speaker.
When travel halted during the pandemic, Chef Jeff turned his focus to his Las Vegas passion project - the one he planned to take on after retiring. He is now changing the course for young adults whose lives have begun with many of the same ingredients as his own.
"He's helped me appreciate being out, being free, doing what you want to do, not always being on another man's schedule," said Isaiah Williams, who has been in the program for several months.
Williams came to the program from a group home. This week, he landed a job at iHop. And while that is a great opportunity, both he and Younz are focused on their big dreams, their purpose too.
"I really want to open up my own business for donuts called Southside Donuts," said Younz. "After that, I want to open up my own food truck so people can taste my own food."
"To help youth, how he's doing," said Williams, of Chef Jeff. "To be close in the community with people."
In Chef Jeff, these young men see themselves. And that sends a powerful message - you decide who you are in this world.
"What I try to be to these young men of color here is an example and a role model that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, the color of your skin, you can achieve the American dream," said Chef Jeff.
The Chef Jeff Project hosts fundraisers every Saturday where people can buy fresh beignets, chicory coffee and jambalaya. For more information about how you can support the organization or get involved, head to TheChefJeffProject.org.