September 28, 2012

Up Close & Personal with Chef Jason Roberts

I first met Jason Roberts at a Key Private Bank event in Bonita Springs, Florida seven years ago. He was quiet, shy and polite. That is, of course until he burst onto the stage and rocked the house. Suddenly he brought the room alive, dancing, cooking and entertaining an audience who hung on his every word. Australian word that is, mate! Little did I know that delving into this amazingly talented chef's life and cooking, I would come to know a pure soul, with a huge heart, who was a truly unique and gifted individual, let alone that I would come to call him friend. With a wonderful smile and a glint in his eye that reveals a bit of mischief, a bit of wonder, a bit of all the places and things he has experienced, he can be a captivating presence, especially when there is an audience to be cajoled, entertained, or made laugh.

Since the very first, we clicked. As such, I have spent a good deal of time with him. I am always amazed to watch his transformation from the reserved, somewhat shy and polite New Zealand native I know, into the raucous and rowdy Jason Roberts live that you all see when the curtain goes up, the camera starts rolling, or a fan stops to have a chat with him. Revealed in those moments is an energy, humor, culinary excellence and ability to reach out to his audience, no matter how big or small. When you speak with him personally, you come to understand that he is genuinely interested in nothing else but your story, or conversation at that moment. On the stage, or in front of a camera, without warning, the visage before you explodes as if a super nova and you are at once captivated. With a stage presence that fills any venue or stage, Jason has the ability to draw an audience in and make them feel as if he is speaking to each and every one of them individually. And all with an awesome Australian accent and sense of humor. "G'Day, I'm  Jason Roberts!"

We recently sat down for lunch in a small French bistro on the Jersey City, NJ waterfront for a quiet lunch and to catch up, away from the hustle and bustle of our extremely busy schedules and to do this long awaited interview. As my friend, I see him regularly, but we have a somewhat unique relationship. You see, we also have a professional relationship. With his hectic schedule, flying all over America as a correspondent and co-host for ABC's The Chew, and me with my own busy schedule, we talk about business more often than not, rarely really getting the time to relax and talk. Our informal lunch, (scheduled and rescheduled at least 3 times) was the first chance in some time that we really sat down to spend some time just talking; about life, career and about two subjects we both love best: food, and hospitality. I wanted to delve into his thoughts on his moving to America, his new found popularity and growing notoriety in the American Food-TV market and the changes and challenges of adapting to being away from family and friends back in Australia.
Jason & Nana

Jason grew up a New Zealand native, finding inspiration in his Nana's kitchen as a child. At age four he boldly declared, “Nana, I want to be a cook!” Nana and his grandfather made their living as caterers, while his other grandmother ran a restaurant, so culinary role models were in no short supply. “I have wanted to cook for as long as I can remember,” claims Jason, “It's something I do to indulge my imagination, be creative and feed my artistic passion. To me, cooking is the most consistent of life's joys and is immeasurably rewarding, both instantly and constantly.” He expounded on his child hood, "I was born in the southern part of New Zealand, the island in a very small place called Oamaru. When I was 3, my mum and I left there and went to Queensland. When we got to Australia, we jumped ship and up until the age of 12, I grew up on a dairy farm. When you grow up in that environment, you learn to become resourceful. Growing up on a farm is a totally different situation than growing up in the city as these days, kids think milk comes from a carton and chicken from a package. I love living off the land." I asked him about his grandparents and how it developed his relationship to food.

He answered, "First and foremost I guess one of the biggest reasons I got into cooking, were my grandparents, who were both cooks and secondly, growing up in that resourceful situation on a farm. Always, since I was four years old, I can remember being around food and my mum being a good cook. But sometimes when I talk about it, or I get asked that question I cringe, thinking, 'I don't want to be that guy.' It  almost sounds like a made up story. People think 'How could you know at 4?' I just did. I did not want to be famous, I just wanted to cook. Mum, she was a housewife; my step-dad worked on the council. So I had 2 choices, I could be a housewife or work on the council," he laughed. 'I didn’t become a housewife, but I did get into cooking. I’ve always loved it. My grandmother certainly was one of my biggest inspirations." He recalled, "I look back and I remember some of the times walking through the kitchen that she ran. I remember these big burly chefs in white coats and, they were happy. There were these big blooming woman, saying, 'Oi, look at these cheeks,' always pinching me. They all loved me. There was just this energy in that kitchen and I think I’ve held onto that. Nan has passed now but I still feel her presence I think about her daily. If anything I feel enriched that she was such an important part of my life and to an extent still is." I understand and firmly believe that those who impact us make an impression on our hearts, if we let them,  and we are better people for that impact. Clearly this is the embodiment of Jason's and his Nan's relationship. 

I asked him to talk a bit about his culinary schooling. "When I was 12, I moved back to Auckland, New Zealand. I did my primary school when I was in Australia, high school and college in New Zealand. It was a school with 30 kids, very, very small," he laughs, "we were lucky if we got to cook. If you did all your homework, then you got to do the cooking the next day. It was a small town, so there wasn’t much opportunity. I got to make pancakes, maybe biscuits. It wasn’t anything big, but I just remember feeling that this was somewhat shaping my career path. In high school, I chose home economics which was sewing, cooking, etc. I was the only guy in a room full of girls. It was good," he laughed and winked, "I would get picked on by the other guys saying 'You’re doing cooking? I’d say 'Who’s the fool here, I’m in a room full of girls!' I got an opportunity to do the food for a staff meeting and I was passionate about it. I got a letter from the principle thanking me. Being 15-16, that was a big thing for me."

Young Chef Jason
"What was your first culinary job? " I asked. 'When I was 18, I got into an apprenticeship." Chuckling, he replied, "I looked like I was 11 years old. I was pint sized. No one wanted to give me a job back in New Zealand. It was hard to get a job in any kitchen. I couldn’t even get a job in bloody McDonald's! I went back to Australia to live with my Dad. He was a house painter. My first job actually was in Kentucky Fried Chicken. For a month. I stayed there, I enjoyed it, great people. It was my first opportunity in the kitchen, though I never found out what the 11 herbs and spices were," he laughed.

A love of surfing and cooking then led Jason to Australia’s famed Bondi Beach, where he apprenticed at some of the top Sydney restaurants, winning him the title of Apprentice of the Year from the East Sydney Technical Institute in 1993. "My dad got me my first real kitchen job on Bondi Beach, at a restaurant called Ravesis," he explained. "Southwestern food. This woman, Megan Brown, was eccentric. She was about 35-36 and was the head chef there. Big bright pink eyebrows. Her nickname was "Pink Eyes." She was a great, great chef. Very stern. She wouldn’t differ from the menu at all. For breakfast for instance, the only way she would serve eggs was scrambled. No poached eggs, no fried eggs. And if you ordered it another way, she would just agree, then send em out scrambled. You asked for it, but you never got it." he laughed.

Though surfing is his most well known activity, cycling has also become a big part of his life, with the chef sometimes riding 60-70 miles a day. I asked Jason to expand a bit on his lifestyle choices and his love of the outdoors, "You seem to live your life with gusto. Where does that come from?" He responded, "I started surfing when I was about 15. I can’t think of anything like it. There is nothing like when you are really relying on the elements. Nothing beats that adrenaline rush." When did you start?" I asked. He explained, "15/16, I was living back in New Zealand for 3 years. I had a group of friends that surfed. It took me a little while to get into it. But I was hooked. Besides cooking, I guess I’m all things outdoors. Whether it’s running outdoors, cycling or swimming, surfing, that's when I get to download. When I don’t get it, (the physical activity) I get pent up with frustration."

His achievements and acumen in the kitchen gained him the post of Executive Chef at the renowned Sydney restaurant, Bistro Moncur, where Jason and the restaurant earned 2 Hats of 3, Australia’s equivalent to America’s 3 Star*** system. While there, his accolades caught the attention of Australia's Channel 9, where he became the host of a new cooking program, Fresh, which aired 5 days a week in Australia and New Zealand. In January 2003, he was introduced to America on the ABC TV program Good Morning America. He also appeared The Wayne Brady Show, The Sharon Osbourne Show, E!, The Style Network’s You’re Invited, NYC's morning show Ali & Jack, Talk Soap with Lisa Rinna and he was the special Australian guest entertainment at the 2004 TV Soap Awards. In February 2004 Jason joined forces with the world-renowned US production company Mandalay Pictures to film a series of lifestyle programs titled ‘Jason Roberts Taste,' which eventually aired on the PAX network in the U.S., in October 2005, earning him 2 American Accolade Awards for Best Host and Best Health & Lifestyle program. Jason has authored 2 cookbooks; Graze: Lots of Little Meals Fast (MacMillan, 2003), which tapped into the growing trend towards eating smaller, more frequent meals, offering healthy small-portion recipes and alternative cooking methods to save time and effort, and 2006’s Elements. I asked him about his opportunity with TV.

"It  was in the last two years I was at Moncur was when I hosted the TV show. It had become a little tougher, I was working 70-80 hours a week between the two. Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef) had just hit the scene and Channel 9 was looking for the next Jamie Oliver. There was a show called 'What’s Cooking' and it got canned because the TV Station and host of the show didn’t get on. There was a piece in the paper called "Young Guns Celebrity Chefs Cook-Off Australia." It was myself, Darren Simpson, Ashly Hughes. The 3 of us did a piece at our own restaurants in front of the camera and I did salt crusted chicken. I was camping it up a little bit too! I loved the opportunity. I was still very green, but they offered me an opportunity. Some people said, 'Oh you look a bit like Jamie.' If anything, it was just my being young," He continued with a wink, "but I’m much fitter than him. It was being young, someone who can cook and speak in front of the camera. I was on my way to Fashion Week and I received a phone call from Channel 9. They said we really like you, we need you now. Are you available to come in now?" I jumped in a cab and went straight to Channel 9. I was 24-25. It was awesome. It was timing. I continued to do that show for 4 years.

As we waited for our first course, I asked him, "Now you come to America, you're on National TV with ABC's The Chew. Why is it that you cook? What drives you to entertain? What's your focus?" He replied, "I started this because I wanted to be loved. Not so much the recognition for the cooking, but the recognition for making people happy." He thought for a second before continuing, "Now I realize that I have come full circle and I do this now, not for the need to be loved, but to make the people I'm entertaining feel loved and important. And," he winked, "I love to make them laugh. That’s why I do what I do. I want to hear people laugh, get excited. People watch cooking shows, I think, not so much because they decide 'Oh, I think I can be a great chef.' I believe there is some Gene. You’ve either got it (the cooking Gene) or you don’t. I think people watch Food TV because there is something warming about it. I take my cooking seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. That’s what makes it easy for me. That interaction between me and whoever is in front of me. It really comes alive when you hear them laugh. The biggest thing for me is to make sure I've got everyone’s attention."

He continued with an example of something I have seen him do time and time again as I have watched his live performances. "I was doing a show in Greensboro, North Carolina," he remembered, "I was in front of 30,000 people and we were throwing out tee-shirts. You can always attract people in the front rows with tee-shirts, but, with 30,000 people, you want to make sure you get those people way in the back. So I jumped off the stage, ran to the back and climbed this scaffolding and gave one to the farthest person in the room. I knew by doing that I would catch the whole back of the house. The camera was on me the whole time, watching me climb up and everything. I’m conscious of that, trying to bring everyone into my space."

I don’t take myself so seriously when I’m on stage. I like to get people to laugh. I think as a chef, once you’ve reached that point in your career, you can get over your ego. It’s about things I know people can go home and cook, things they can cook on a budget. Things that are accessible. I feel fulfilled as a person in front of these people, personally. This is my biggest thing, it’s exciting, I’m giving back. When it’s not so much about you, but what the customer wants, I think that’s when you reach the pinnacle of your career. When you drop your ego, when it’s not about you, when it’s about what the customer wants.

Video By Marvin Joseph. All rights reserved.

Damian Pignolet
Jason once told me a story a few years ago, while we were having dinner in Atlanta. It was about a special meal that was prepared especially for him by one of his mentors, Damian Pignolet, in Australia. While speaking about this he became somewhat emotional and the affection he feels for Damian was quite evident in his eyes. "Sitting in that space with Damian, sharing this meal as simple as it was, I could remember every mouthful of that meal and how important it was. It was moving," he admitted. "What a weird situation to sit there. You know it tasted incredible, but it wasn’t just the meal. If you think about every element that went into that dish, it was a sensual dish. It was the thought that he put into it for me and what it meant for him. It was an incredible experience. That time in my life was a turning point." I added, "He didn’t necessarily teach you how to cook, he taught you how to live." "For sure," he agreed, continuing, "I can remember, whenever he would come into the restaurant to eat, we had these paper sheets that we'd place on the tables. I would wait for it. I always could hear it, over all the din of the restaurant. The ripping of the paper." He smiled, 'I could hear it all the way in the kitchen. I guess I was attuned to it and waiting for it," he laughs. "As he ate, Damian would write down notes on the paper then tear off the corner, come back into the kitchen and say, 'Ok, we have to work on this and this and this.' I've been very fortunate to have a mentor on  my case and such a perfectionist as well."

Photo By Marvin Joseph
I found his last statement interesting, especially because this is a subject we speak about frequently; apprenticeship and how important it is to a young chef. Jason is currently mentoring someone entering the hospitality industry, and I remarked about his coming  full circle, in life as well as cheffing, he now being the mentor. He replied, "You know you really have to feel sorry sometimes for first year apprentices. They really get the shaft a little bit, until someone really embraces them. When I take on an apprentice, a first year, I really take them on, getting to know them, their family, encouraging sports and things outside of the work. I don't want them to burn out, or get involved with drugs." I interjected "This industry, hospitality can be a hard industry unless you are really called to it. With long hours, a physical toll, the stress of constant customer expectations and satisfaction, it can take it's toll on those new to the industry unless they have the guidance to manage it." He agreed, adding, "I think it can be a hard industry for those that take it half-assed."

I asked him what he thought a good mentor offered a so called protege, now that he found himself in that position. He thought for a moment as our Duck Confit was delivered to the table. We both tasted and savored the deep flavor pausing for a moment to enjoy our wine and the moment.

After we both devoured a few bites, he answered, " Damien was a mentor to me in not just food but music, life, lots of different stuff. To be a mentor to young individuals, there are two different levels. In the industry it's about food and getting them through those first couple of years. Giving them 100% of myself when they need it. In life it's about personal development. A good mentor gives you the why of life not just the how of life."

Photo by Marvin Joseph
We changed up our discussion to that of our recent hectic schedules and of a talk we had had about his missing the kitchen a bit due to traveling and TV demands. I asked him to expand a bit on that for this interview, as this is Up Close & Personal after all. We talked about his love of cooking and the rigors of his schedule and how he really rarely gets time to cook just for the sake of cooking. Now understand, friends, when talking with a chef about cooking, it's not the cooking you and I are thinking of, making our family meal or even, dinner for friends. When a true chef talks about missing the kitchen, it's about being on the line with his mates and fellow chefs putting out 250-300 covers (entrees) on a Friday night. Chefs are a unique breed. Quality classically trained TV Chefs without the ego, are also a unique breed. In a previous conversation, he had expressed to me that he hoped and he believed that he is part of a new breed of chefs; producing fun, affordable, accessible food, without the ego. I asked him to expound on that statement. "It's because I think cut my teeth young in the industry. I've done this. I stopped twisting food. Brought it back to simple basics. I get nothing out of having an ego. For me it truly is about the food"

Photo by Marvin Joseph
"As I have progressed and grown, as you get older you definitely hope you get wiser, my attitude has evolved. It's transcended. I have realized it's no longer about being loved, it's more about loving what I do. His eyes sparked a bit as he continued, "I think as we get through life, with all it's pressures, we are happy just being happy. Cooking is something that keeps me consistently happy. I find there are moments when I'm not in the kitchen and I'm not happy. There are times when I delve into a kitchen and it's like," he sighs, "it's like a pair of warm slippers, it's comfort, it's comfortable for me. That's my space. The clanging of the dishware. Those are my sounds, that's my kitchen jargon. There is a certain amount satisfaction to walking through the back end of a kitchen, even when it's not yours. At least there is for me." I asked him how that satisfaction it differs from being a "TV Chef," making the "quotes" sign with my fingers. He answered, "The impact you can make with a hundred million people. You can't do that from just one little kitchen. But with TV you can. I think that's what drives me on TV. Having a broad impact. But, you're public domain, so it's a bit overwhelming at times; travel, lawyers, PR, engagements, etc. In the kitchen, I just worry about what the patron wants. No pressures. It's more personal."

Photo by Marvin Joseph
As his friend, I have been a part of his current relocation to New Jersey here in the US, where he now makes his home. While I am thrilled to have him in my own backyard, where I get to spend time with him, I have also witnessed the effects of his transition to America and the difficulty of being away from the his family and friends back in Sydney. I asked him, "It must have been hard leaving all you knew and were comfortable with in Australia to start traveling and move to the U. S. What was the transition like and talk a bit about how you have balanced living in a completely different culture?"

"The transition of coming here and obviously re-establishing yourself is more about building credit, finding a place to live, getting a phone put in, stuff like that. Everything else is exactly the same. The reason people love my being here is because I'm Australian. So I embrace that for what it is. The Chew calls me 'The Wonder From Down Under.' If you look at my background, when I was 3, I moved to Queensland. When I was 12, I moved back to New Zealand. I’ve been nomadic my entire life. I don’t know if you’re into that spiritual stuff or not, but as an Aquarian, we have a tendency to be nomadic and like that," he snapped his fingers, "we can move straight away. That's not to say that I don't miss my family and friends back home. It's hard, but I have so many new friends here in the States that it's getting a bit easier. Plus, I try to get back to Sydney at least every couple of months, even if just for a few days."

Photo by Marvin Joseph
Changing direction a bit, I asked, "I know we've tossed this about a bit, but on the record, any thoughts of doing something food-restaurant wise now that you're here?" "The more I think about it, absolutely," He responded. "I think there are certain lengths of downtime where I can physically be teaching, training, making charcuterie. I would love to have a stable restaurant, Classical French Bistro cooking. Terrines, sausages, pates. Seasonal food. I prefer winter. Anything in winter is better. All the slow braised meats. It's the technique that I love I guess. The way the French have adopted a lot of Chinese cookery. If you take a firm grasp of French technique, you can cook anything."

As dessert and espresso was being served, I asked him "What's the biggest challenge of cooking on television, especially live. It all looks so easy from our 'viewers' perspective? He laughed, "Cooking a three course meal in 5 minutes." The he added more seriously, "Things have changed in the way I present cooking on TV. I make it less about the food and more about the moment because, the more memorable the moment, especially if you make them laugh, the more likely they are to rewind or Tivo it, etc." Sound, sage advice from a man who's enthusiasm and youthful appearance belie a wealth of experience  first, a classically trained chef for the last 22 years, and second, in his home of Sydney, Australia, a mainstay on Australian Food TV.

We then discussed what is a very common theme to our friendship, the fact that we both feel the act of people eating together is not about the food, it is about the moment. With friends or family. Food is just the vehicle. Jason cooks it, I sometimes cook it, (not nearly as well), sometimes eat it and most times, write about it. Though different mediums, we both seek the same end result. A need to offer a special moment or capture a special moment using food and shared meals and interaction to evoke a positive emotion. "I think the food is just the vehicle for good conversation," he offered, 'I know folks who can remember every meal, what they ate. Not me. I remember the meals that had great conversation. Where the meal has transcended the conversation."

With Chef Jonathan Sawyer's Kids
He works closely with the OPAL program, a Federal, State, Local initiative in Australia that is about obesity prevention, with everyone in the community working together to support Marion Families, to learn basic cooking skills and cook delicious healthy fresh food. Throughout our relationship, I have watched Jason always drawn to the kids. They love him. He brings them out of their shell, engaging them directly, talking to them, not at them. I have watched him transform shy, insecure children into giggling bundles of joy. He is at once engaging, funny and I guess, a big kid himself, which is why children just seem to be drawn to his enthusiasm for life. I asked him about this and his work with charities. "Kids are so enigmatic and I'm drawn to them because, you know, we're all big kids at heart." He smiled, "They are so easily guided. Adults for the most part are set in their ways. Take cooking shows live, or on TV, for instance. Most people are what I'd call 'fire gazers.' They are never really going to cook what they watch, but they enjoy the show. When I have a young kid in front of me and I have an opportunity to mentor, or to excite a child about an opportunity or being in the kitchen, they lap it up and I think that I'm just drawn to that energy. And, as you have heard me say before, 'You get the kids, you get the parents for free.'"

Jason’s philosophy when it comes to food and cooking is healthy, quick and uncomplicated, believing that “the family that cooks together stays together,” and that cooking together and sharing of a meal is the perfect vehicle to foster connections and deeper relationships between family and friends. "Friends, family and good nutrition, those 3 things. One of the biggest things I talk about when I get on stage is good nutrition. I believe that prevention is better than a cure. So we eat well, we exercise. We maintain it. We can live a long healthy life, because I believe in quality not quantity."

I asked him if he's content with himself, comfortable in his own skin. He answered. "Are we ever really content? I am happy, but not complacent. I've got a lot of opportunity on the horizon, an eventual new cookbook, etc. I have a great team working with me. Everyone is invested in my success and that's a good thing. It's very important to have great people to work with that I can trust with my well being." As we wrapped up, over dessert I asked him, "So what's on the horizon for Jason Roberts?" He replied instantly,
Photo by Marvin Joseph
"More time with my family. Sometimes you can never really tell which way your sail is going to blow. I'm happy to go along with this wind for now. I've worked very hard to get these opportunities, first in the restaurants to become a head chef, then this TV thing. They are very much separate. You know, it's funny here in America as people are starting to discover me, they use the term overnight sensation. I have been a classically trained French chef for 22 years and on TV in some form or another for the last 15 or so. I'm happy with where I am and the path that I'm on. Am I satisfied? No." he answered his own question, "I'm always striving to be better, achieve that next goal and of course, looking for my next audience to make happy and laugh."

Jason recently got engaged and has a son Hunter. He shares his time between Sydney and New York City, where he is a Co-Host/Correspondent on ABC’s new hit, food related, daily talk show, The Chew. He is currently working on a new cookbook, tentatively scheduled for release sometime in early 2013.
To find out more about Jason visit his website, and follow him on twitter and facebook

It has been my distinct pleasure to bring you UP Close & Personal with Chef Jason Roberts. I am confident as his star rises and he becomes more and more known here in America, you'll all come to love and respect him as much as I do.

As Always Bon Appetit,