Learning to cook changed my life—it didn't save it.  I've had it good.  But the tools I learned and the changes I made in order not to humiliate myself on a hotline, made me a better writer and a more effective, efficient creature outside the kitchen.  It also gave me entree into a whole new world, it gave me a new language.  It wasn’t easy, and I took some serious risks in order to do achieve what I did, but … relatively speaking, it was easy  because I’ve had every advantage.  Great parents who adored me but held me to their standards of honesty and hard work, a solid middle class home in my favorite city on earth to live, the best education, etc., and because of this good fortune, I had all the tools to make use of the cooking advantage when it came my way.  Nevertheless, learning to cook gave me yet another boost up, a huge boost up, from where I was.  What I'm trying to say here is that learning to cook helped in huge and unforeseen ways even one of the most privileged.
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                                                                                                Photo courtesy of The Food Network

Which is why I was thrilled to watch the first episode of “The Chef Jeff Project,” in which a convicted felon, Jeff Henderson, who learned to cook in prison and made a career for himself in the kitchen after his release throws six inner-city kids, most of them with prison or drugs in their own past, onto the line, into the fire. 

What was true for me in the kitchen is true for them in the kitchen, is true for everyone in exactly the same colorblind, socialblind way: you can’t lie in a kitchen.  To yourself, to your colleagues.  You are either on time or you are not there, you are either in the shit, or you are organized and on top of it, your food is cooked and ready to go or it is not.  It is plain and inarguable.  There aren’t many occupations where you can’t lie to yourself.   And the humiliation for one of these kids who gets booted off the line at a real restaurant in the second episode—the humiliation is just as deep for him as it is for any trained cook who gets their ass handed to them.  You’re not good enough.

Cooked
Chef Jeff
wrote an excellent memoir about his life, Cooked—it’s available on CD (and audio download) in which he gives a compelling, visceral reading.  What’s fascinating about his story is that he was successful as a drug dealer—very organized, didn’t do drugs himself, ambitious—in the same way that he would became successful as cook—organized, diligent, driven, ambitious.  The thing is, fresh out of prison, he was lucky to get a job as dishwasher.  From prison to dishwasher to this.  Great story.  He has a cookbook that’s just out.  He was ABC Nightly News’s person of the week last week.

I have to admit I approached his show  skeptically—is this going to be another ordinary chef looking for extraordinary celebrity because of his unusual story, cleverly devising a vehicle that will make him look altruistic when he’s really just promoting himself and his business?Cover

The show, on Food Network on Sunday nights, is everything that culinary
documentary and reality television ought to be (favorable NYTimes review here).  There is no quick fire
challenge, and no one gets kicked off after each show, yet it’s
dramatic, and more, genuinely moving.  It’s moving to me in that the
first episode reminded me how powerful learning to cook can be, what a
transformative force it is.  And it reminded me that the power of
learning to cook, the opportunities it can give to anyone, anyone at all willing to do the work, are relative to how much they need
that advantage.   Learning to cook moved me up another rung or two.
Learning to cook for one of these hoodlums could possibly be
other-worldy in terms of its impact on their lives  It’s fascinating to
watch.

Chef Jeff is smart, he’s good, an excellent leader (which is what chef really means), he’s clearly inspirational to these neophyte cooks.  A couple years ago I wrote an article exploring reasons for the dearth of black chefs in a chef obsessed culture.  I wish I’d interviewed him.   His inspiration is genuine and goes far beyond race.