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Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson

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The star of 5 Ingredient Fix found her passion early in life076i7146As a young girl who grew up in different parts of the South, including New Orleans, Claire Robinson possessed an innate and undeniable love for restaurants, cooking and eating. Though she was encouraged by her family to explore the culinary arts, Robinson instead pursued a “safer” career path and earned a bachelor’s in communications at the University of Memphis. Still, the idea of food warmed her heart. Inspired by the talents of well-respected chefs on television and the kitchen wizardry of her French-speaking grandmother, she followed her dreams and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

And after graduating in November 2005, Robinson went on to become an accomplished private chef while working in production for several cooking series, including Food Network’s Easy Entertaining With Michael Chiarello and PBS’s Everyday Baking for Everyday Food. Today, as the host of Food Network’s brilliant show 5 Ingredient Fix, Robinson’s lovely personality and lively passion for good food comes alive as she shares with viewers her philosophy that cooking should never be intimidating, flavors should never be hidden and five ingredients are all that’s necessary to prepare a five-star dish. New Orleans Living caught up with the rising television chef, who ramped up our enthusiasm to get in the kitchen and experiment with a few perfect ingredients–just in time for the holidays!

Hi, Claire! It’s so cool that you spent part of your childhood in New Orleans.

I just love New Orleans! I lived there at ages 6, 7 and 8 in a bed-andbreakfast on Prytania Street that my mother worked at. [After moving away] I started driving to New Orleans as soon as I got my driver’s license–the lamination was still hot! I’ve been going back to New Orleans my entire life to visit, and we have a lot of close family friends there. New Orleans is one of the main bases that I love to claim; it’s a secret love that holds a piece of my heart for sure. Whenever I visit, in a way I feel like I’m coming home.

As a foodie, New Orleans must be a dream destination for you to visit and chow down.

Are … you … kidding? I have to wear my stretchy jeans! Everything is so indulgent and yummy and fun in New Orleans, it’s like you have to moderate yourself. I go down and visit every once in a while, and I get a little piece of home and go eat at Clancy’s and at Pascal’s for barbecue shrimp and get my fix. And in between Pascal’s and Clancy’s, I’ll be filling up with as many po’boys as I can handle! And another great thing about New Orleans is that when I have lots of recipes I need to tackle, I’ll go there and wake up my taste buds and be reminded of all those wonderful flavors.

You can really tell when a chef has been influenced or inspired by New Orleans because of the incredible, distinct flavor combinations you taste in their food.

How much do you love having your own show, 5 Ingredient Fix, on Food Network?

Oh my goodness, I truly feel like the luckiest person in the world to get to do something I love every single day. I really love the fact that I’m actually able to get people cooking by keeping it approachable with just five ingredients, which is something I’m a firm believer in. In reality, we’re all really busy, so I’m excited to teach people ways that they can take a few ingredients, throw them together and really come out with some amazing dishes and surprise themselves about what you can actually put together with so few ingredients. I sometimes surprise myself!

Cooking with five ingredients or less must demand that you often use fresh, seasonal produce.

Absolutely. I’m a huge advocate of seasonal produce, not only because it’s more cost-efficient, but that’s when things taste the best, and when they taste that good, you don’t have to do much to them. That’s their moment to shine. Let a peach be a peach instead of covering up natural flavors.

Some of your dishes on the show are incredibly elegant for using such a limited amount of ingredients, like the duck breast with citrus port cherry sauce.

Absolutely! It’s amazing to me that the more recipes that I write and test, the more I realize how many ingredients are just not needed. I try to choose the five flavors that I want to taste the most out of each dish. I’m working on all the classics that you normally have, like boeuf bourguignon and dishes that are filled with ingredients, and pick the best flavors, the ones I recognize when I take a bite of it. If I feel I want a sixth ingredient, then I rework the five, because I think five ingredients are enough flavor for your mouth. I use my French culinary training and experiences to show what techniques and ingredients can really do. Ingredients are versatile; it’s fun to play with one ingredient and see it change shape, form and flavor with every different way you cut it and cook it, such as garlic.

I imagine if you’re only cooking with five ingredients, technique becomes just about as important as the ingredients themselves.

Exactly. The neat thing is, I’m teaching people so many culinary cooking techniques, but I don’t think that they’re seeing that as a focus, even though it’s so important in the recipes. I have people searing, reducing and making gastriques, and I could use all the actual culinary terms, but I think by just saying, “Brown this on all sides and throw it in the oven,” and making it sound easy, it makes it approachable and undaunting. Tricking people into really cooking with major French techniques is exciting for me.

Your recipes tend to be pretty “global” in a sense, but do you find that being a Southerner influences your cooking?

Oh my goodness, absolutely, in my head and in my heart. I think in every recipe, if you look hard, you’ll see that. I think the reason I choose certain ingredients is because of my Southern influence, maybe not the ingredients themselves, but for instance, with my duck with citrus port cherry sauce, the fact that I use ruby port because it’s a lot sweeter than a tawny, that’s the Southern you’ll see. We like things a little bit sweeter; we’re always balancing sweet and salty, and that’s very distinct to the South. That’s why I think so many fantastic, phenomenal chefs in this country have come out of the Southern United States, because we’ve got the best food. We’re all about our food!

I know, right? Life and celebration really are based around food, and you don’t really understand that concept fully and how important it is until you visit other parts of the country.

Exactly! And you’re like, well, what else is there to do? Seriously, we’re just basically counting hours in between meals! [Laughs]

You were in love with food from a young age, and food and restaurants were part of your “rewards system” as a child.

Oh my goodness, yes! If I made straight A’s in school, my parents would let me pick a restaurant to go eat at as a reward. And I said my whole life, “When I turn 21, I want to go to a really good restaurant,” so they surprised me and flew me to Chicago to go eat at Everest at the age of 21 and that was the first time for me to go to a city the size of Chicago and eat at a restaurant of that caliber. It’s funny, because now I look back and think, ‘Gosh, I know the chef there now!’

Your French-speaking grandmother mentored you in the kitchen?

Yes, oh my goodness! She would run around the kitchen, “Ooh la la! Ooh la la!” and oh, the smells that would come out of her kitchen. She was in her kitchen all day, every day, and every meal was huge and elaborate, and I mean, incredible. It was such an inspiration—she even made puff pastry from scratch. Like, are you kidding me? Amazing! It was her love. Like we said, in the South, food is our culture. It is how we gather with family and friends; it is the base of everything we do, and it is the way we show love to each other. I really think it’s beautiful and unique to our region.

What are or were some of your all-time favorite cooking shows?

Oh my goodness, I would watch James Beard, Julia Child and Jacques Pépin and Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. I was the world’s biggest nerd for PBS! I can still sing you the opening to Great Chefs: Great Cities! And Two Fat Ladies on the Food Network—was that not the best show? I loved that they cruised around in their motorcycle with the sidekick! I mean, how can you not love every day if your life is about food?

You always wanted to attend culinary school, but you went to college and earned a B.A. in communications, and this turned out to be a good thing for you because you wound up working in television production. But then you ended up graduating from culinary school as well.

Yes, it was funny, after high school I wanted to go to culinary school. I was going to go to Cordon Bleu in Paris and my mother, who is a surreal oil painter and an old hippie, was like, “Go, go, go! Go live! Go be free! Go do what you want to do!” And it was so weird, because it was like the roles were reversed. I thought I needed to be responsible. Cooking was so enjoyable for me, I couldn’t believe that you could really work in it. I just didn’t know you could be lucky enough to work around your passion. So I went to college first and graduated with a B.A. in communications. I worked in news and behindthe- scenes stuff. Then I had a turning point. I thought, I’m gonna go do what I intended to do years ago that I never stopped loving, and I went to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute in New York. And one of the greatest moments of my life is when Jacques Pépin helped me make my first omelet! [Laughs] I mean, I was shaking! I will never forget it, ’cause I couldn’t get the thing to roll, and he had to teach me how to do it and hold my hand and make me do the motion with him. I was happy every single day in culinary school, even if it was a 20-hour day. I went to bed every night with a smile on my face.

I understand your adorable dog, Newman, who sometimes appears on your show, is really a wellmannered man, even when he’s surrounded by delicious food. Is he named after Newman on Seinfeld?

Newman! Yes, he is! Doesn’t he look just like Newman on Seinfeld? Newman is so great! Newman is my little companion. I tote him around with me, and he goes to the set with me. He’s a French bulldog. He doesn’t bark at all, but he snores a lot. I don’t know how I lucked out with him being so well-behaved. I think it’s just because he’s lazy!

Your passion for cooking must get even more ramped up during the holidays. What is one of your favorite recipes to prepare during the holidays?

I’ve got the best chai-spiced dried stone fruit chutney, which can be used in place of a cranberry sauce, and it’s so good, and it’s only five ingredients: dried cherries, dried apricots, pomegranate juice, chai tea bags and toasted pecans—and the whole thing just cooks down incredibly. Jar it and take it to every holiday party; do not tell them what’s in it. Make it your secret, and I’m telling you, everyone will love you! It is one of my favorite things:

I put it on top of yogurt, I put it on top of ice cream when it’s hot, I just eat it with a spoon. It’s so simple, yet it’s one of the most flavorful dishes, and I’m so proud of it. I wanted to get a lot of flavor in it, and I didn’t have the room for things like fresh cinnamon sticks and star anise, because I wanted to keep it at five ingredients. I was drinking chai tea when I was writing it, and I was like, wait a minute! Why couldn’t I just use chai tea in this recipe? I think you’ll love it. It’s a standout!