( ENSPIRE Feature ) Celebrity Chef, Cordell Robinson Slays in the Kitchen
ENSPIRE Contributor: Rosemary Gonzalez
The kitchen has always been Cordell Robinson’s favorite playground. The celebrity chef, commonly known as “The Culinary Diva,” loves food and has cooked meals for notable people, such as Aston Martin Bentley, Dolce & Gabbana, Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown, Pleasure P, Jermain Dupree, Debra Antney, and many others. However, before he became known as “The Culinary Diva,” Robinson was just a seven-year-old boy curious about food. As a young child, Robinson would help in the kitchen, doing anything from washing dishes, mopping floors, cleaning fridges, cutting vegetables, or cleaning meat, but he would observe his aunt’s cooking, paying attention to every detail.
Robinson’s mother would often work two to three jobs to maintain a roof over her six children. So, young Robinson took the responsibility of chief to embark on his passion. Robinson would go into the kitchen and mimic what he observed from his aunt’s cooking, hoping his siblings would eat it. Robinson’s passion grew in cooking meals for his family and learning from others, and the rest was history. Robinson became known as “The Culinary Diva” as he continued to soak in the culinary orchestra happening in the kitchen. In addition, Robinson learned about dishes from different cultures, aside from the home-cooked Jamaican meals he is used to, which earned him the name “The Culinary Diva” along with his personality.
Robinson’s story is about progress and fulfilling a dream. ENSPIRE was able to talk to Cordell, “The Culinary Diva” and learn more about his journey and talent.
Tell me about yourself?
I have been cooking since I was seven years old. I grew up in a household of six kids, and my mom worked two, sometimes three jobs. She did not have time to cook all the time, so that we would have peanut butter & Jelly, Spam, or some other quick meal. I watched my aunts and great aunt cook, and I mimicked what they were doing in the kitchen. I asked questions out of curiosity, and I knew I loved food. I started with fundamental dishes like baked chicken wings and seasoned some canned vegetables. As I got older, I started doing more complex cooking. I made fried rice, egg rolls, meatloaf, spaghetti, and many other things. We did not have the internet to depend on for recipes, so I went by taste. My brothers and sister seemed very pleased with my cooking.
When I got stationed in Spain, it was an excellent opportunity to taste unique foods and try their style of food. The first dish I made was a Paella. It was very difficult as I did not know what I was doing, but once I did it twice because it was super easy, and I enjoyed the process and what I call the labor of love. When I left the Navy, I would find every opportunity I could to cook for people. I would get creative with dishes, go out to restaurants and explore different cuisines to expand my palate more. In my last home, my kitchen was tiny, but I would have dinner parties for 50+ people and would have to cook in stages to get it all done in time. I enjoyed that time creating dishes and my guests enjoying my food. I like to take people on a food journey to experience cuisines from worldwide.
What was the biggest challenge at the beginning of your cooking journey? How has your experience with cooking changed?
At the beginning of my cooking journey, the biggest challenge was finding my voice. What I mean by that is, I was pretty quiet and did not display my culinary skills like I should have because I did not know what defined me when it comes to aspects of cooking. I cooked for my siblings, but I never told anyone that I was doing the cooking at such an early age by myself. Once I talked about it more, focused, and produced masterpiece after masterpiece, I realized that my voice is whatever I am feeling at the moment that defines my style and that I was closer to my roots. The type of food I enjoy most through cooking and eating is innate. My experience with cuisine changed in that I cook every chance I get. I keep educating myself by reading and talking to other chefs, exchanging tips and tricks for creating dishes. When I shop for ingredients, it is a time to come up with delicious new things. When I dream about a word, I sometimes wake up and write down a few ingredients or the dish’s name to make it that week.
At what point (or age) did you feel completely confident in your culinary skills? When did you cook unsupervised or with no help?
This is going to be two different answers, honestly. When I say that I have been cooking since I was seven, that means unsupervised. It sounds crazy in today’s world and how parenting is vastly different today than back then. My mom had to work 2 -3 jobs to keep a roof over our head and food to eat, so I went into the kitchen and mimicked what I observed of my aunts. I am sure my knife skills were atrocious at first, and my skill set was not great, and what I remember so clearly is that I felt extremely comfortable creating dishes hoping my siblings would eat them. Now at what point did I feel entirely confident in my culinary skills was when I was 15. I was not cooking much, but my palate had expanded, and I wanted to try many foods. I would create dishes in my head and think about different ways to make a dish. It was my escape from the real world.
When you cook and prepare plates to eat, how does it make you feel?
When I cook and prepare plates to eat, I have a very calm excitement about myself. I am anticipating the reaction that people have when they taste my food. I anticipate how I exceed their expectations because some people go in with low expectations because of eating mediocre food for so long and accepting it for what it is. I am pouring my heart and soul into each plate because each bite should be an experience for my guests.
As a chef, are you constantly analyzing food and its quality, such as taste?
Oh my God, yes, everything I eat. I examine the presentation, taste, temperature, texture, smells, the emotion it gives me, and so on. I literally sit there while eating, thinking of all the layers in a dish. I am also thinking of ways to remake the dish if it is good or fix it if I dislike it. I sometimes ask the Chef to come out, good, bad, or indifferent, to talk about the meal. When I give constructive feedback, I am not nasty about it because that does nothing positively. When I eat something incredible that hits so many notes in one bite, I slap the shit out of the person sitting next to me…. Just kidding, but I close my eyes and take a moment to savor the experience. I then talk about it to my husband and friends as they look at me like, you got all of that out of a bite. That is the foundation of how well a dish will turn out when it comes to quality. Quality ingredients can make or break a meal.
For your cooking, how do you deal with positive and negative feedback?
I am incredibly comfortable with positive and negative feedback. I have thick skin, and I know there will always be someone that will not like my food or have a negative critique for one reason or another. I would hope that it comes from a place of honesty and not just being an asshole if it is negative. I can clock the difference. I do welcome constructive negative feedback because it just makes me better. As for positive feedback, I feed off of it like any human, but I do not let it stir me into complacency. I take it as a challenge to make sure that the next time they eat my food, it is an experience all over again. I call them “moments.” To answer the question, I deal with negative feedback by asking what the person did not like, and then I take information and go back to edit or leave it as is if I feel it is just a one-off opinion. Suppose the negative feedback is a shade or hater-aide. In that case, I usually ignore it and respond in kind because there is no need to add fuel to something or get upset because it is not that serious what someone else says with malicious intent; those are called non-factors. I respond to positive feedback by being very gracious and thankful for the compliments because it is a blessing to have the talent to feed people excellent, delicious food.
What has been your biggest accomplishment as a chef? What are you most proud of?
The expected answer would be me name-dropping heads of state and celebrities I have cooked for, but that is not an accomplishment that is hard work, drive, focus, determination, and ambition to get to those levels. My biggest accomplishment as a Chef is that I have had the honor to cook for Orphans overseas and immerse myself in a culture foreign to me, so I thought, but so many similarities surfaced. It was life-changing.
Is there anything you have found similar or different from food from other cultures from your food exploration?
There are so many similarities with food and different cultures and some distinct differences. Every culture has a meat pie of some sort. Every culture has BBQ of some sort. Then when you break it down, there are clear similarities in spices and cooking techniques when it comes to Caribbean food and African food. There is a lovely juxtaposition between Afro-Centric food and Anglo-Saxon food that, if done right, is a historical journey of why there is such a difference due to regions. Still, there is harmony if you pair the right ingredients together or curate a meal containing both types of cooking styles. Some curries span from the West Indies all the way to East Asia. In reality, food culture is based on what grows best in that region for people to create dishes that become a part of the different cultures.
What is your favorite thing about Jamaican food/cooking?
My favorite thing about Jamaican food/cooking is for such a small island compared to the rest of the world, Jamaica has some of the most influential food globally. The Jamaican techniques like cooking Ox Tails over a Pimento wood fire and the result is a masterpiece. You can always taste the pride put into Jamaican food, and we Jamaicans are proud people. My favorite thing about cooking Jamaican food is creating Jerk Marinades and the smell of the spices that fill a room or your backyard as soon as the ingredients hit the fire. Jamaican food is very distinct and exact. The base notes of seasoning are in every dish.
It is said that food unifies people. Do you find that to be true?
Of course, it is true that food unifies people. From family reunions to wakes, food is the centerpiece. When people break bread together, it means something. So many negotiations, peace treaties, celebrations, and relationships use food as the nucleus that closes the deal, keeps the peace, makes the celebration even better, and saves a relationship. Just about every major celebration, no matter your race, creed, socio-economic status, religious affiliation, or culture, food plays one of the most critical roles. When done right, everyone has a fantastic time. In the corporate world, I would cook for my teams, and it created strong camaraderie, and many tough discussions were able to be hashed out. Pre- COVID-19 I had huge parties and BBQs at my home, and friends would always reconnect at my events. The food compelled them to RSVP, and I know that hence why I love having events to bring people together. The atmosphere is always fabulous, paired with a spread of mind-blowing food is always a success. I have had friends say how they love my events because they get to catch up with each other, which otherwise may not happen as everyone is super busy. My Great Aunt cooks all the time, and when she has a family event, just about everyone shows up because they know the food will be slamming and they will get to catch up with relatives and many times have created new lines of communication between relatives. When heads of state have events, the food is one of the most crucial aspects because choosing a disrespectful menu can cause chaos, but the right menu that is delicious, peace treaties get started.
Aside from your cooking, can you tell me who Cordell Robinson is when he is not in the kitchen?
Cordell Robinson is many things when not in the kitchen. I am a husband, father to my nephew and niece, loyal friend, and shopaholic. I am a Diva. I am so particular about many things because I prefer order, not chaos, beauty, not ugliness, and fabulousness over tragedy. I am a pretty reserved person. Some think that I am bougie because when I first meet people, I am not that talkative, and in reality, I am just observing until I feel comfortable. I can be perceived as an introvert, and the truth is, I do not deal with everybody. I am actually pretty private, and exposing parts of my life on this journey is new to me, but so many are finding out things about me they did not know or details that complete the puzzle about certain things. I also have a foundation called Shaping Futures Foundation, which is my heart and soul. Philanthropy is essential to me because giving back is vital in my life, period. I do not just want to be remembered as a well-dressed chef but as a person with a vision and compassion for the future of the next generations still in school to help build opportunity and teach opportunity.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
As always, I am ever so grateful for the experiences and opportunities I am being blessed with. I come from very unfortunate beginnings and not just financially but also emotionally and psychologically. However, I am highly excited for what the future holds, and I am working my ass off every day to accomplish the many goals I set out to accomplish. My support system has been exceptional, which is vital because there are some challenging moments and situations to deal with. I am working on a few projects to come soon. There was a slight delay, but I shifted gears, rebuilt my team, and now I am back on track for my cookbook in 2022, cooking show(s), and completion of the first of many schools I will build (I am currently building a school in Zanzibar Tanzania) to create brighter futures.
Cordell Robinson is the epitome of transforming dreams into reality. His love for food and ambition led him to today, a celebrity chef, among many other things. Follow his journey and stay updated with Robinson’s delicious dishes. Find him on Instagram @cordelltheculinarydiva
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