Culinary Q&A with Chef Ben Robinson

by Andrea McHugh from the 2020 Newport Harbor Guide

Chef Ben Robinson boasts an enviable resume across land and sea, cooking under master chefs around the world and perfecting his craft at a three Michelin star restaurant. But Robinson won hearts and minds as the charismatic executive chef on two hit reality television series on the Bravo network, “Below Deck” and “Below Deck Mediterranean,” which follow the lives of yacht crew working aboard charters sailing the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. With his unadulterated swagger, culinary bravado, spiky auburn coif and charming Cheshire grin, Robinson became a fan favorite, turning him into a sought-after celebrity chef for charitable events. Throughout his nearly 20 years in yachting as head chef, Newport is just one of the ports he’s called home, and he opened up to the Newport Harbor Guide about his favorite places in the City by the Sea, his worldly adventures, and what he’s got his sights set on next.

Tell us about your time in Newport …  

It’s an incredibly charming town! I had an apartment on Thames Street.… Some of my favorite places to go were One Pelham and the Cooke House. I loved The Black Pearl, and on a day off, I would love to go up to Castle Hill Inn and watch the boats. Other favorites were Asterisk and Obelisk – I know that’s gone now – and the Irish pub of course, Fastnet. I was in Newport last fall; I did a cooking demo at the Newport Concours event (The Gathering at Rough Point), and I also took over the kitchen at The Reef restaurant – that was a lot of fun.

What inspired you to pursue a culinary career?

I was cooking at a very young age; 5 or 6 years old, alongside my mum in the kitchen in the middle of nowhere in England. I just wanted to be with her … I was good at it and I had a very special palate; I could really taste things. To be honest, and I know this sounds snobby, at the time, in the 80s, I thought cooking was very blue collar and I associated it with fat, ugly, old men with an odor and I fought it for many years. Then I started cooking on these boats, first for the crew and then the owner. I worked at a Michelin star restaurant before cooking on these boats and [eventually], I surrendered to the galley.

Where did you hone your skills?

Every year or so, I would take a sabbatical and plop myself somewhere amazing and hire someone to teach me. I spent two months being trained one-on-one by an Italian master chef in Florence. We covered thousands of recipes and techniques. I think I was 24 or 25. I had the London kitchen experience and the country pub cooking experience, but I didn’t have that classic fortitude I was looking for … I went off to Turkey; to Istanbul, and was taught Middle Eastern cuisine and by 27, 28, I wanted to be very serious. I wanted to be the best. So I found The Fat Duck (in the U.K.) and it was the number one restaurant in the world and they showed me everything, how it was done, and it really opened that door. I was [there] more for the art and form, and flavor and texture; all these flavor profiles, and [my cooking] became a lot more formulaic – neater and cleaner. That was the best thing I ever did, and then I became the executive chef on Athena, the largest yacht in the world.

When on Charter, how do you capture the culinary culture of the places you sail for guests?

I love a themed dinner. If you’re in France, I’ll cook upscale French food with maybe a Moulin Rouge theme. In Naples, I’m doing spaghetti carbonara or a gourmet pizza – in Italian waters, charter guests want authentic Italian food, especially rich Russian guests. Fresh fish is always great, and produce, but fish doesn’t freeze well. Some fish have a lot more oil in them and the oil begins to decay. Salmon is a bloody nightmare in the freezer.

On the “Below Deck” series, how much “real” was in the reality?

Oh, it was real, but my EP (executive producer), Mark Cronin, he explained better than anyone will: He sat us down one day and said, ‘You have two jobs: one job is your job, and the other job is being a great cast member; being a little more vocal, talking about your feelings – the camera doesn’t read minds. You have to tell the story.’ But I do definitely think there were moments I was really proud of what I produced. I cooked for the captain, crew and charter guests and there were times I was flying by the seat of my pants and pulling rabbits out of hats. The one, slight, unrealistic aspect of this whole thing? If you’re busy on charter and you have the day or evening off, you’re not going to spend it with your crew. You’re going to spend it on a date with a girl from another boat or with a friend in harbor at a bar getting hammered! 

You’ve used your celebrity in many ways, including philanthropy, and you also have a business mind, merchandising branded Nakiri knives, aprons and more. What’s next?

I consider myself a food entrepreneur and pride myself on thinking outside the box. I’ve gotten into the pizza space with two partners and I’ve launched “Chef Ben’s Pizza Pandemonium” pizza kits delivered to your door which include all of the ingredients supported with a training video. I’ve been doing cooking videos, and a lot of pizza, on my social media [Robinson has more than half a million social media followers] and it’s been really well received. Everything is available at www.chefbenrobinson.com.