After Wednesday night’s season premiere of “Hell’s Kitchen,” the Fox cooking competition starring celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s temper, the audience learned a few fun factoids about local chef James “J.R.” Robinson.
The 30-year-old isn’t a fan of bed-making, doesn’t like being nagged about scallops, and knows how to keep his head off the chopping block.
But with one episode down and (possibly) many more to go, Robinson managed to keep one serious fact about himself hidden from those prying reality show producers: The founder of D.C.’s KitchenCray, a popular private chef and events company, has been homeless off and on throughout his life, starting at age 12.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” said Robinson when asked why he’d never revealed his early struggles until now. Just one day after his small screen debut on season 13 of “Hell’s Kitchen,” Robinson opened up about his life before the cameras.
At 5, his mother gave him to his grandmother to raise. Years later Robinson’s mother returned, but stability didn’t. All told, he would spend nearly six years in a homeless family shelter. After graduating high school, he moved in with his mother, who’d finally secured her own apartment. But that didn’t last.
“She kicked me out, so then I was on the street,” said Robinson, whose easy smile seems like a non sequitur. “Every night I was just bouncing around, basically staying with friends and family. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I could cook.”
After wandering onto the Monroe College campus one day, the Harlem, N.Y., native decided he would like to attend, and he eventually earned a full scholarship. Still without a permanent address, Robinson slept in the school’s hallways at night.
In 2006, armed with a degree in culinary arts, he landed a job as a line cook at The Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City, in Arlington. Four years later, Robinson would end up homeless again when he tried to start a catering business in pricey Manhattan.
“I was living out of my car,” recalled Robinson. “Every night I would just find a dark place to park and grab my blanket.” After two years he returned to Washington.
In rapid succession he shot through top kitchen posts at the St. Gregory Luxury Hotel, the Department of Energy and the Marriott International. “This is where my life changed,” added Robinson.
“When people looked at me they never knew I was homeless or had lived on the streets,” said Robinson. Since founding KitchenCray in 2013, several big names have sampled Robinson’s food, including White House favorite Janelle Monae, New York Knicks’s Amar’e Stoudemire, former talk show host Bethenny Frankel, and comedian D.L. Hughley. Now it’s the terrifyingly picky Gordon Ramsay’s turn, and Robinson (who wouldn’t reveal any spoiler alert details from the show) wants his story to be a part of the competition.
“I want people to know that I went from being homeless to owning my own company. It’s like Ramsay taught us, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” he said.
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