A Flavor All His Own
For Chef Ben Robinson, food is a passion—one that started on the Cape in the kitchen with his mother and has since taken him around the world
“I was 5 years old when I first realized I was interested in cooking,” says Chef Ben Robinson. “I had an amazing relationship with my mother, and she taught me to cook. I knew all of my mother’s sauces—gravy, béchamel and vinaigrette—by the time I was five and a half.”
Cooking has taken Chef Ben all over the world—by plane, boat, and television screens as the executive chef on Bravo’s hit series “Below Deck.” But beyond his career, food is also what connects him to his family, to his friends and colleagues, and to Cape Cod.
“Growing up on Cape Cod gave me an amazing set of arrows for my quiver,” says Chef Ben. “We would dig for clams on the beach, catch striped bass and eels off the dock in North Bay, and find bluefish in The Cut. It was just an amazing experience.” Chef Ben spent his years at boarding school in England, but he never missed a summer on the Cape growing up.
Chef Ben describes his father, the famed author of “Lone Survivor,” as a somewhat larger-than-life figure—“like growing up with Winston Churchill at the head of the family,” he jokes. With four children in the home, and 5-year-old Ben taking charge of the oven, his father provided some necessary structure, and of course instilled in his family a love for the Cape. “My dad’s property on Point Isabella is just a gem. I don’t think I could have my own Cape home while that house is still in the family—I’m too competitive,” says Chef Ben with his distinct, contagious laugh, something fans of “Below Deck” would recognize.
Chef Ben credits his time in England with giving him an appreciation for a whole other side to cuisine, introducing him to unique vegetation, fowl and river fish to round out his more Cape-based knowledge of shellfish and seafood. “My experiences on the Cape were very opposing to my incredibly rural upbringing in England, where we had orchards and vegetable gardens and a river,” he explains. “It’s just so different from the Cape. It was quite a privilege from a culinary standpoint to have these two opposing forces, and it’s interesting now that this is my profession, when in my formative years it was really such a privilege.”
In his late 20s, Ben was the head chef on Athena, a gaff-rigged schooner owned by James Clark—the largest sailing yacht in the world. With 28 crew members to cook for and only one sous-chef, he quickly grew accustomed to the fast-paced life of yachting. “When 2008 hit, I was actually trying to get out of yachting, but I decided to get back on a boat. I found this advertisement for ‘Below Deck,’ so I applied—I’m not going to lie, I’d had a couple of drinks,” Chef Ben says with a laugh. “I wrote them this rather funny email, and the rest is history.”
Chef Ben’s now completed five seasons of “Below Deck” to date. “It’s different cooking for television cameras. When I first had the camera on me, I was bloody nervous. I actually cut my finger—just a little nick on my index,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was like having an AK47 pointed at me, and all these surrounding cameras as well.” He quickly realized, though, that having such an active, demanding job on the boat kept him distracted from the nerve-wracking challenges of reality television. “I liken myself to a housewife,” he jokes.
“With any artist, I think the goal is to become stylized,” says Ben about how he’s evolved as a chef. “You have to have your own signature and develop that. Mine leans toward classic with a modern fusion.” He fondly remembers growing up in the English countryside, developing that signature style of his with an Aga oil-drip stove. “It was just a top-notch burner, and probably about a ton of steel. No one was strong enough to remove the Aga,” he says. “It would probably be too warm for my Florida apartment anyways.”
With his catering company, Chef Ben flies all over America to cook for clients, but when he’s home on the Cape, he enjoys cooking for his parents, two brothers and sister. “It’s a full-time job—they should really pay me,” he jokes. “But really, it’s therapeutic. There are no deadlines.”
Aside from afternoons spent in the kitchen with his mum, Ben has treasured memories of time spent at the Wianno Club, going to Cape League baseball games, and taking out their 15-foot whaler with his brothers. “We traveled everywhere by whaler,” he says, “and we wouldn’t stop bombing around until well after dark.” His memories are ones of classic Cape Cod summers—running down the docks with sand-laden feet, riding bikes around the town with his friends, and trying to wash off the day with a salty dip in Oyster Harbor. “It was just so enchanting,” he says. “We were in our own secret little bubble.”
“I love the food on the Cape,” says Chef Ben. “I love to dig for clams on the beach and make some down-home, Cape Cod food. I still just love the food aspect, and I hope I never lose that. As a chef, it’s important for me to keep it fresh and keep learning.” Some of Chef Ben’s favorite local spots include the Chart Room at Crosby’s—though he still calls it “Keeper’s”—Gina’s by the Sea, and the Wianno Yacht Club. “When I was younger, I’d go to restaurants and think about how I would do things differently, but now I’m just so happy that the cooking is being done for me—and the cleaning,” he says with a chuckle.
“I like people to think about my process,” says Chef Ben about what he wants people to take away from his meals. “I like to coin cooking at my level as simplicity within complexity. We take all of these complicated elements that we need to demonstrate with a meal, and simplify them into certain forms that are simple on the eye and also simple on the palette. It’s about deconstructing everything into something that exemplifies the traditional dish, but it’s done in a very neat, thoughtful manner.”
What’s next for Chef Ben? “It’s exciting,” says Ben, whose adventurous life is always taking him to new places. “So stay tuned.” One thing’s for sure, no matter where he is, what exotic places he travels to, food will always be the one common element in his life that keeps him grounded, passionate and inventive.