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|
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.
"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.
|Photo By Marvin Joseph|
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|
|Photo by Marvin Joseph|
|Photo by Marvin Joseph|
"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|
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|
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|
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, www.chefjasonroberts.com 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,