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."