It’s a tale told by many a chef — how they learned their craft at the knee of a family elder. Not Roblé Ali.
Though his grandfather was, indeed, a caterer who once cooked for JFK, Roblé — consulting chef at New York City’s celebrity hotspot Avenue and star of Bravo’s new docuseries Chef Roblé & Co. — says what he learned from his family is that he likes to eat. And eat well.
“A light bulb went off in my head one day that, ‘Hey, if I want to eat the way that I want to eat all the time, then I need to figure out how to cook!’” Roblé laughs. “So in fourth or fifth grade I picked up a book at a book fair about making classic American sweets like brownies, chocolate chip cookies. I was like, ‘If I can buy this book and figure out how to make my own chocolate chip cookies, I am set.’”
He never did master the cookies.
But Roblé did discover a natural talent for savory cooking, and after briefly considering a career in psychology, he took his mom’s advice and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America campus that was right around the corner from their Poughkeepsie home. In short order, Roblé’s sister Jasmine, who worked in media, helped her little brother score catering gigs with R&B diva Faith Evans, music magnate Russell Simmons and hip-hop magazine mogul Datwon Thomas, to name a few.
“I cooked for Michael Jackson once, for an event that he was doing,” Roblé recalls. “I cooked for him and his team and his kids for, like, three days in a row. He just wanted basic stuff like curried chicken sandwiches — he didn’t want anything fancy. But the cool thing was, in between each meal, I actually got to sneak off and watch them rehearse. I got to watch the entire Jackson 5 rehearse! I got to watch Michael Jackson yelling at Tito! That was awesome.”
As he made a name for himself catering to entertainment’s elite both at Avenue (where he says the most popular things glitterati like Kanye West, Bono and Johnny Depp order are sliders and waffle fries) and at their private events, Roblé wondered if a new business venture might make for good TV. Chef Roblé & Co. follows the chef, strong-willed older sib Jasmine and their crew as they iron out the bumps in their business and feed a quirky A-list clientele. “You’ll see musicians, you’ll see the fashion crowd, very successful entrepreneurs,” Roblé says. “Financiers, socialites. A lot of familiar faces.”
And some not-so-familiar food, if you’re used to the usual company-party fare. “I might be cooking Thai food one day, vegan Russian food the next,” he says.
Asked what he thinks is the biggest difference between working in a busy restaurant kitchen and catering a celeb event, Roblé rifles off a list of the reasons that catering is more predictable — if not necessarily easier.
“When I’m catering an event, I know who is coming; I know when they’re coming; I know what they’re eating; I know when they’re eating what they’re eating; and, I know when they’re leaving.” he says. “So you have a good amount of information ahead of time that you don’t have at restaurants. But at a restaurant, at least you can get into a rhythm. You know what a Wednesday night is like. You know what a Thursday night is like. You know when you’re going to get hit. You know where the sautee pans are, where the oven is, the temperature it’s at.
“I might be setting up a kitchen one day in a stairwell — I might be in some amazing penthouse kitchen the next day,” he continues. “I might be in an elevator shaft the next day. I might be in a backyard in the Hamptons the following day. I have to build a kitchen everywhere I go.”
Because Roblé also decided that if he was going to put his name to his company, he wanted to be in charge of everything from the food and table settings, to the decor and the dance music, he and the Co. quickly discovered that finding the best place to stash the kitchen was only the start of their challenges.
Tasked with producing everything from a doggie wedding in the tony Hamptons to a carnival-themed birthday blowout for a socialite who wants a live monkey on the guest list and only red, white and black food on the table, Roblé and his outspoken employees push themselves to the brink in their quest to provide unconventional, unforgettable soirees.
“People ask me what my specialty is,” Roblé says. “My specialty is catering to the needs of my client. I don’t have standing menus. I go in and meet with my client and create something around what we’ve discussed.”
What Roblé prefers not to see on a client’s request list? Nah, not live monkeys … think more porcine. Or in the 37th hour of its 15 minutes of frosting-laden fame.
“Boring stuff like pigs in a blanket,” he sighs. “And I don’t think the red velvet cupcake will ever die.”
Chef Roblé & Co. premieres Sunday, Dec. 4 on Bravo.
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