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September 21, 2014

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Former crack dealer-turned-chef an unlikely success story

The Chef Jeff Project” participant now studying cooking at Green Valley’s International Culinary School

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Home News

Student chef Alonzo Adams jokes around with classmates while dicing onions to be used in a baked chicken recipe during class at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Las Vegas. Adams was recently featured in the Food Network reality TV show “The Chef Jeff Project.”

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Student chef Alonzo Adams chops up a chicken while learning how to creatively bake chicken during a Meat Week class at The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Las Vegas. Adams was recently featured on the Food Network reality TV show "The Chef Jeff Project."

'The Chef Jeff Project' - Food Network

Alonzo Adams' story is distinctly South Central. He was a crack dealer. He made a lot of money and had a lot of bling. He was tangled in a cycle of money, power and pride. He spent a month in the Los Angeles County Jail. He sought a straight life.

Then comes the Hollywood plot twist. Adams was chosen to participate in a Food Network reality TV show — a sort of "culinary boot camp" for troubled youth, hosted by a celebrity chef with a Horatio Alger story.

After completing the show, the 23-year-old earned a scholarship to the International Culinary School. This is where it becomes a Green Valley tale.

Adams lives in housing with other Art Institute of Las Vegas students. He takes the shuttle to classes at the Green Valley school. He walks through the hallways in baggy embellished jeans and a carefully cocked ballcap.

He chooses not to play up his 15 minutes of TV fame to the ladies. He's not too big on the Strip. He doesn't gamble.

He is ebullient in his admiration of Chef Jeff Henderson, a former executive chef at Cafe Bellagio who spent 10 years in a federal prison in Terminal Island for drug offenses.

The Food Network show "The Chef Jeff Project" chronicled Henderson's attempts to transform the lives of six struggling young adults at his Los Angeles-based catering company. The show completed its first season this month. Henderson's story — which he tells in his New York Times' bestselling book "Cooked" and a future film starring Will Smith — is similar to his young protege's.

Adams started selling drugs at 19. He had a new Mustang, a motorcycle and all the electronic gadgets. After about a year he got caught in a sting operation aimed at another dealer. Since it was his first offense, Adams was sentenced to only a month.

Although he likes his hometown of Pasadena, a lot went down there. Adams was put in foster care when he was 7, because his parents were involved in drugs and going in and out of jail. He lived in a South Central L.A. foster home until he was 15, before settling back in with family in Pasadena. When Adams was 14, his mother was murdered in a drug deal gone bad.

"I never cried about it," he said. "Reality hasn't set in on that situation."

There's been no resolution in her case, as far as he knows. Adams misses his father, who is expected to be released from prison soon.

"We both were coming up in an inner city," said Henderson, who lives in Las Vegas. "We pretty much didn't have fathers in our lives. I was never in foster care, but I was shuttled between my mother and father.

"Alonzo was a good kid. I was too. He made some bad choices. I made some bad choices. We both wanted that quick bump, that instant success."

When Adams got out of Los Angeles County Jail, all the toys, cash and drugs were gone. He could've gone back to it all, but Adams decided it was time to start over. He went to an African Methodist Episcopal Church with his godmother. His church mentors gave him Henderson's book.

Adams had always been interested in cooking, and the book encouraged him. He entered a trade school. On a whim, he filled out an application for the new Food Network show. Out of 2,500 applicants, he was selected for the month-long, 12-hour-a-day project.

At the end, all of the aspiring cooks received a $40,000 scholarship for a two-year culinary school program.

"One of his biggest problems is cutting the umbilical cord to his community," Henderson said. "That was one of the reasons I brought him to Las Vegas, so he could become more independent. So, when he goes back, he is strong enough to survive in that environment."

So far, Adams is enjoying culinary school and the other students. He hopes to own his own restaurant some day.

If picked up for another season, "The Chef Jeff Project" will start shooting in the summer. By then, Adams hopes to be working at one of the hip new restaurants at City Center on the Strip.

Becky Bosshart can be reached at 990-7748 or [email protected].

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