On Roblé Ali’s glamorous, sometimes over-the-top, yet gritty and emotional reality show, each episode is packed with pop stars, confetti and candid conversations. (“There’s no crying in catering!”) The vigorous and purposeful chef keeps it all—barely—under control. But when Roblé wants comfort food for himself, he leans toward a good Reuben sandwich.
“It’s hard,” says the chef de cuisine sporting a modified-faux ’hawk, “to find a good Reuben.” Thinly sliced corned beef, tangy sauerkraut, piquant Russian dressing. “The secret is to make it without [it being] soggy.”
Sandwiches, however, didn’t put the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-born, Houston-raised Roblé on the road to being one of the most exciting young chefs in the country. He’s created culinary experiences for Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Jackson.
It may have been jelly donuts that started him on his way.
Those yeasty sugared treats fascinated young Roblé. His grandfather, Jesse Harris, who died in 1999, created them by hand in his own Texas home. Grandpa didn’t let him near the hot grease, but Roblé tried his hand in the kitchen soon after, when he was about 13. “I picked up a pastry cookbook at a book fair because there were cookies on the cover,” he says. Inside, there was a recipe for brownies. “I thought I could handle it, but pastry is not for the cavalier.”
Neither is being a reality-television star. Chef Roblé & Co. features his sister and business partner, Jasmine Ali, as well as clients such as Vanessa Williams and Kandi Burruss, as he navigates the tribulations of launching, from his loft apartment, his very chic Brooklyn-based catering and event-planning company. The show garnered enthusiastic responses from the Twitterverse, on the Today show and in USA Today, because the food looks luscious, yes, but also because the company’s catering adventures are funny, sometimes profane and often wrenching. His frank talks with his sister put the “real” in reality.
At age 15, Roblé returned to Poughkeepsie and worked as a sous chef in professional kitchens throughout high school. “We were in the ’hood,” he says. “Had nice food at home, but there weren’t a lot of nice restaurants. It wasn’t a foodie kind of town.” He studied at the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park campus and was soon working with some of the most prestigious chefs and restaurateurs in NYC’s intensely competitive cuisine scene. Roblé is working it. The sweat is real.
“You can do anything you want to do, but the world of pro cooking is not easy. It’s blue-collar hard work,” he says. “Be ready to have burns, cuts, long hours, no health insurance.”
Why do it, then?
“I knew this is what I was supposed to do.”
Danyel Smith is editor of Billboard magazine.
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