Summertime means backyard barbecues and parties on the patio, and chef Roblé Ali knows all about good times and good food. The 29-year-old New Yorker has prepared meals for big names, including President Obama and entertainers Michael Jackson and Vanessa Williams.
Ali got his start in a professional kitchen at the age of 15 and honed his skills at the Culinary Institute of America. After climbing the ranks of the restaurant world, he started his own catering business, Chef Roblé & Co. He's received some unusual requests from clients: a live monkey to entertain at dinner, an authentic medieval-era feast with trolls running around, and even catering a wedding for Chihuahuas.
Chef Roblé Ali's catering adventures are the focus of his reality TV show on Bravo, Chef Roblé & Co. The second season started this week.
The chef joined guest host Celeste Headlee to talk about his cooking, catering and staying skinny.
On being inspired by his grandfather Jesse Harris, a professional chef
"I definitely observed him cooking a lot, and he put the idea in my mind of, 'Hey, a guy cooking professionally is cool.' My grandfather was like, the coolest dude you've ever met. Like, he was just so fly ... the way he dressed, the car he drove ... and he also cooks. So I'm like, 'Hey, I wanna be like him.' But I never thought I would be — I didn't grow up thinking I'd be a chef. I didn't figure that out until I graduated high school."
On serving clients with unique tastes, like Jewish musician Matisyahu, who wanted kosher Thai vegan food for a party and required a rabbi to monitor the kitchen
"I've worked with kosher caterers before, and I know that there are a lot of rules. And when I'm doing my own thing, I don't like to have those kinds of ... rules. I was very much trepidatious about doing it, but I was like, 'You know what? At the same time, let me see what I could do here.' Not many nonkosher caterers get a chance to do a kosher, catered event.
"So I did it. I learned a lot. And Rabbi Marrus, he was awesome. That's my boy. We got along very well. And we still have a great relationship to this day. Matisyahu and I are very cool, and I got to do something special and new. As long as I can learn from it and it ends well, I'm happy about it."
On whether the pickiest, most high-maintenance clients are those trying to prove they have money
"I never really thought about it that way, but yeah. Some people are just egomaniacs, and they need to feel like people are walking on eggshells around them. ... They get off on making people do ridiculous things.
"[Starting out] I would take that kind of stuff, but now I'm like, 'You know what? Go find another caterer because I'm not gonna do anything that sacrifices the quality of anything else."
On a fail-safe summer recipe
"If I'm ever cooking out, I like to make sure that there's plenty of drinks. I'm not talking about alcoholic drinks. I'm talking about other types of drinks to keep people hydrated and for the kids, things like that. And one thing that I do that's always a winner, is cucumber lemonade. It's four ingredients: It's water, lemon juice, cucumber, sugar. It's amazing [and] super easy to make."
On staging big parties
"You wanna make the most of your space. You wanna spread things out. ... Let's say you have a buffet set up. ... Don't set up your alcohol within like, 10 feet of there. If you're gonna set up a little bar, have it far away. You don't want people to congregate too much in certain areas. You don't want to create roadblocks or traffic jams."
On how he stays skinny
"Two reasons. One of them is my genes. My father's from Somalia, and a lot of us can do whatever we want. We stay thin. The other thing is that I work on my feet a lot. I'm always moving around. If I'm not standing up cooking, I'm walking around New York City.
"I think the walking is a big part of it. Like, if I'm on 34th Street, and I have to go to 14th Street and if there's enough time, I will walk all day instead of catching a cab or hopping on the train, if the weather permits. I really like walking around."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
It's summertime, that means, for many people, backyard barbecues, parties on the patio. And the reigning expert, of course, on barbecues and parties and outdoor cooking and entertaining, right now is Chef Roble Ali. The New Yorker has cooked for big names like, Michael Jackson, Vanessa Williams, President Obama even. And he's running a party catering business of his own now, accommodating, well, shall we say unique, at times bizarre, requests from his clients. Here's Chef Roble and his sister Jasmine working for some clients in the Hamptons.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEF ROBLE & CO.")
ROBLE ALI: So we come in the Hamptons to do a doggie wedding and a medieval feast. I'm expecting, like, garden parties and guys in, like, tight white pants and stuff, but whatever. It's cool, I'm with it.
R. ALI: (Speaking with client) Let's talk food.
UNIDENTIFIED CLIENT: Authentic medieval feast, platters of vegetables, wild boar, to venison, to hare, to rabbit, to pheasant. Medieval, we don't want anything modern. Nothing modern. Okay?
JASMINE ALI: Got you. And, thematically, like, how do you want this to look?
UNIDENTIFIED CLIENT: We're going to have trolls.
HEADLEE: That is an excerpt from the first season of Bravo TV's reality show "Chef Roble & Co." The second season just kicked off this week. Chef Roble Ali joins us now to talk about food and parties and unique requests. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Chef Roble, welcome to the program.
R. ALI: Hi. Hi. Hi. Thank you. I think that was the most grand introduction I've ever received in my life.
HEADLEE: Well, get ready, I think you're probably going to get more before your career is over. But before we get to some of the crazy requests that you get, let's talk about just cooking 'cause it's a family tradition, your grandfather Jessie Harris was a professional chef. So what kind of things did you take from him and what kind of things did you sort of leave in your past?
R. ALI: I definitely observed him cooking a lot, and he put the idea in my mind of hey, a guy cooking professionally is cool. My grandfather was like the coolest dude you ever met. Like, he was just so fly, like, the way he dressed, the car he drove, he was just, like, a really cool guy. And he also cooked, so I'm like, hey, I want to be like him. But, I never thought that I would be - I didn't grow up thinking that I would be a chef. I didn't figure that out until I graduated high school.
HEADLEE: And you grew up - I think it's fair to say that you grew up from pretty humble beginnings, right?
R. ALI: Yeah.
HEADLEE: And yet, now you're catering to some very un-humbled tastes. I wonder what that experience is like. How do you, you know, I watch your face when you're listening to these people describing wedding ceremonies for their chihuahuas, or the very first episode of the 25-year-old socialite wanting a K, for her name, on every single item of food. What's going through your head when you imagine your own life experience and where these people are coming from?
R. ALI: When you see that look on my face, sometimes it's like, I'm thinking to myself what a waste of money, you know. Some people just have too much and don't know what to do with it. But, you know, it's their money and they can do whatever they want to do with it. We are in a free country so, you know, and they're also hiring me to do their work, so I will follow their lead, take some direction as long as it's not, you know, too much.
HEADLEE: Is that why you brought in your sister Jasmine, who's the manager? Is she supposed to be the one that smiles and gets enthusiastic and says, yay, that's great?
R. ALI: Yes. Yes. Yes. I mean, hopefully, it'll get to the point to where I don't even really have to go to these meetings, she can ask the appropriate questions about the food. I don't necessarily need to be there at those meeting. So hopefully, I won't have to do that.
HEADLEE: Because you're a catering service that means you don't get to just worry about the food, you offer the whole thing, the...
R. ALI: Soup to nuts.
HEADLEE: Right. Okay. So let's talk about some of these requests you get because, well, I think I can, in a politically correct - say that they seem high maintenance.
R. ALI: Yes.
HEADLEE: We heard about, in the introduction, the man who wanted a medieval feast with trolls. You catered for the young socialite, I mentioned, who wanted a monkey at her birthday party. And then...
R. ALI: And that's - I don't mind the monkey thing so much, as long as it's healthy, and it's taken care of, and it's happy, I don't mind that.
HEADLEE: But then, there was Matisyahu, he is a - at the time, he was a very kosher-strict, religious, hip-hop artist. He's not kosher and strictly religious anymore, but at the time he was. He wanted kosher Thai vegan food for his going away party, and there was a rabbi pretty much watching everything you did, instructing every mint leaf to make sure.
R. ALI: Yeah. I was not at all excited about doing that because I've worked with kosher caterers before, and I know that there are a lot of rules, and when I'm doing my own thing, I don't like to have those kinds of rules. I was very much trepidatious about doing it, but I was like, you know what, at the same time, let me see what I can do here. You know, not many non-kosher caterers get a chance to do a kosher catered event. So I did it, I learned a lot. And Rabbi Marris (ph), he was awesome, like, that's my boy. We got along very well. And, you know, we still have a great relationship to this day. Matisyahu and I are very cool, and I got to do something special and new. And, you know, as long as I can learn from it and it ends well, I'm happy about it.
HEADLEE: Although, I mean, I have to say as a chef, you are absolutely fearless. So many chefs are pretty particular about what they will cook and what they won't. And yet, you, basically, are willing to try almost anything and seem successful about it. How do you train yourself to be that kind of versatile chef?
R. ALI: You have to be that way in catering. People ask me all the time, hey, what's your specialty? What do you - like, I'm going to say Italian food or, you know, Pan Asian food. I'm not allowed to have a specialty, if I want to be successful as a caterer. I need to be light on my feet. I need to be able to adjust to different situations and be versatile.
HEADLEE: All right, so we mentioned before that your business manager is your sister Jasmine and...
R. ALI: Well, she's not so much my business - she's not my business manager at all.
HEADLEE: When her title comes up, it says manager. So what is a better title for her?
R. ALI: Right now, what she does is she does design for my company. She picks out all the table settings, flowers, furniture. She does all the rentals, decor. She makes sure that things look good, and she also handles a lot of the staffing.
HEADLEE: Okay. Has she accepted her role as employee of her younger brother yet?
R. ALI: Yeah. She's cool.
HEADLEE: All right.
R. ALI: And she only works for me seasonally. She only works for me when I get busy, and then in-between that, she's doing her own thing. She has several projects going on.
HEADLEE: Well, the relationship with her, at least as far as one can see from the TV show, is it has sometimes had its bumps. Let's play a little excerpt here from the show, again. And this is when you were catering for a client named Karen Rose, who designs eyewear for very high-profile clients.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "CHEF ROBLE & CO.)
R. ALI: All Karen's going to remember is the fact that you were not there, that you walked out. She's not going to remember the amazing dessert bar that Kiku put together.
J. ALI: I helped - I helped put Kiku's dessert bar together.
R. ALI: (yelling) I know - I [bleep] know that.
J. ALI: You have to understand that, professionally, I've never had a failure.
R. ALI: This is a company, it's not a personal thing. I want you to understand that you let everyone down tonight.
HEADLEE: What are the advantages of working with a family member as opposed to the disadvantages?
R. ALI: Well, in my particular case, my sister is an amazing, highly trustworthy individual, and she always has my back - she always has, she always will. So that's the definite good part about working with my sister. The bad part is when I have to yell at her or put her - or reprimand her, or discipline her. It feels strange because she's my big sister, she's been doing that to me my whole life. So, you know, it's kind of awkward.
HEADLEE: Can I ask you a personal question?
R. ALI: Yes.
HEADLEE: It seemed, and maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the people who are most - the pickiest and the highest maintenance are the people who are trying to prove that they have money, as opposed to, like, see Vanessa Williams seemed pretty easy going to me.
R. ALI: Super easy going.
HEADLEE: Is that kind of a rule of thumb that you find?
R. ALI: Yeah. Actually, I never really thought about it that way, but yeah. Some people are just egomaniacs and they need to feel like people are walking on egg shells around them, and people are doing ridiculous - they get off on making people do ridiculous things.
HEADLEE: Have you ever turned down someone who...?
R. ALI: Yeah, I don't do that anymore. Like, the girl that asked me for the red, white, and black food.
R. ALI: Or - back then, I would take that kind of stuff, but now I'm, like, you know what, go find another caterer because I'm not going to anything that sacrifices the quality of anything else.
HEADLEE: Well, not to mention the fact that after all of that heartbreak and actually delivering to her that beautiful cake...
R. ALI: Yeah, she smashes it.
HEADLEE: ...and she threw it on the ground. That just broke my heart.
R. ALI: Yeah. Yeah.
HEADLEE: So now you've gotten to the point where you don't have to take them anymore?
R. ALI: I do not have to do that anymore. Thank God.
HEADLEE: Well, there you go. There's the definition of success. You know, you're pretty young. Can I ask how old you are?
R. ALI: Twenty-nine.
HEADLEE: Amazing. That is amazing to me. I mean, that means you have years and years ahead of you of cooking things.
R. ALI: Well, I want to retire early, too.
HEADLEE: I'm sure that you're on your way to doing that. But I wonder if there's a particular, maybe not a kind of cooking, but maybe there's a recipe that you still have dreams of perfecting.
R. ALI: I would say, I really like cooking-out. My barbecue sauce is something that I'm still tweaking, and once I get it to where it is, where I feel like it needs to be, hopefully, you'll be finding it on the shelves of your local grocery store.
HEADLEE: Oh, with your smiling face on the label.
R. ALI: With my goofy mug right on the label.
HEADLEE: So tell me about some of your favorite recipes. I mean, we're going into the summer season, that means a lot of people are going to be cooking-out, like you like to do. What's, maybe, some of the failsafes, things that are hard to get wrong?
R. ALI: I always do my mom's potato salad, that's several ingredients. Like me tell you - here's something simple. If I'm ever cooking-out, I like to make sure that there's plenty of drinks. I'm not talking about alcoholic drinks, I'm talking about other types of drinks to keep people hydrated, and, you know, for the kids and things like that. And one thing that I do that's always a winner is cucumber lemonade. It's four ingredients. It's water, lemon juice, cucumber, sugar. It's amazing. It's super easy to make. If you go online and you Google, like, Roble cucumber lemonade, it'll pop-up, and you can try it yourself. It's super simple.
HEADLEE: Ok, so let's say, I'm going to be hosting a party of people at my house. And let's say, I'm going to be inviting at least 30 or 40 people, what are the most common pitfalls? What are the most common things people get wrong when they're preparing food for a large group of people?
R. ALI: I would say, just the way that people situate their events. You know, depending on how big of a space you have, you want to make the most of your space, you want to spread things out. Like, let's say you have, like, a buffet set up, like, around the kitchen - you have, like, an island in your kitchen and you set up a buffet there. Don't set up your alcohol within like 10 feet of there. If you're going to set up a little bar, have it far away. You don't want people to congregate too much in certain areas. You don't want to create roadblocks or traffic jams, if you will, things like that.
HEADLEE: All right. So one last question for you, 'cause I'm going to spare you the typical question they ask chefs of, who would you most like to cook for, right? So I'm...
R. ALI: Yeah. I've gotten asked that question, probably, 10 times in the last 48 hours.
HEADLEE: I'm not going to ask you that question. What's more interesting to me is how you stay skinny.
R. ALI: Well, there's two reasons. One of them is my genes. My father's from Somalia and a lot of us can just do whatever we want and we stay thin. The other thing is that I work on my feet a lot. I'm always moving around. If I'm not standing up cooking, I'm walking around New York City. I think the walking is a big part of it. Like, if I'm on 34th Street, and I have to go to 14th Street, and if there's enough time, I will walk all day instead of catching a cab or hopping on the train, if the weather permits. I really like walking around.
HEADLEE: Roble Ali is a New York-based chef. He has his own catering business and TV show called "Chef Roble & Co." The second season just kicked off this week on Bravo. Chef Roble, thank you so much for joining us.
R. ALI: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: Coming up, jazz bassist Christian McBride is taking his latest album straight to the people.
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE: The thinking of the general population is that jazz is an exclusive club, you got to know something about it, and that's about as far from the truth as one could be.
HEADLEE: Christian McBride is with us to talk about his new album "People Music." That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.