For most rising stars of the quickly expanding food TV industry, getting fired by Martha Stewart would be a low point in their careers.
For Claire Robinson, it marked the beginning of her meteoric rise, one that resulted in her own Food Network series, "5 Ingredient Fix."
"Martha Stewart asked me where the peaches were from when we were filming a segment on how to make a peach-nectarine tart," Robinson said, recalling her days as a producer for Stewart's television show, "Everyday Baking for Everyday Food." "I said they were from an orchard."
With that one smart aleck reply, Robinson's relationship with America's best-known domestic diva came to an abrupt end. But not before she had to duck a whisk full of whipped cream that Stewart had thrown at her head.
"That was my last day," Robinson said. "But I left there knowing both sides of food and kitchen shows: How to cook on camera and how to produce a TV show."
Robinson recalled her rise to food television stardom in hilarious detail during "A Literary Luncheon featuring Claire Robinson," an event hosted by the Richard T. Barker Friends of the Library at the Meadowbrook Inn and Conference Center in Blowing Rock last Friday.
Robinson is the granddaughter of Dr. Tom Carpenter of Blowing Rock, a former member of Appalachian State University's Belk Library advisory board. She was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and her family eventually moved to Memphis, Tenn., where she graduated from the University of Memphis in 1999.
In 2004, Robinson moved to New York City and graduated from the French Culinary Institute in 2005. Since then, she has cooked as a private chef and has worked on culinary production teams for a number of cooking series, including the Food Network's "Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello."
In addition to hosting "5 Ingredient Fix," she has also authored a cookbook of the same name and will publish her second book of recipes this year.
"In my mind, Julia Child was the original reality TV star," Robinson said. "She was the first person to cook on live television in a regular series and nothing has been the same since."
Robinson stated that she first came up with the concept for creating dishes that featured a small number of ingredients when she was working as a cook on a tour boat in southern France.
"I wanted to do a farm-to-table TV show, but they said, 'No, that will never work,'" she said. "One of the proposed concepts was a show called 'Everyday Gourmet,' which I hated. I just think the word 'gourmet' would be off-putting or intimidating to some people.
"I learned about 'few ingredient' cooking working on a barge in southern France. There was the captain named Julia, her dog and me on the barge. And we were paid to take people up and down the river. But here's the thing about southern France: There are no grocery stores. Things like butter are really hard to find and expensive. So I learned to use duck fat, even when I was making desserts."
Robinson described how part of her barge cooking job entailed her riding a bike to the nearest farms to purchase whatever was in season at the time.
"My French is horrible, so sometimes I would draw on a pad the types of food and vegetables I was looking for," she said. "But I learned to love to cook with just a few ingredients."
In her show, Robinson emphasizes fresh ingredients, preferably those that are produced locally.
"I always try to use fresh ingredients, but I'm not a fanatic about it," she said. "For instance, I really don't like shucking peas, so I don't have a problem using those frozen guys. They are fine. And if you've ever made puff pastry from scratch, you'll probably never want to do it again."
She also emphasized that cooks should be flexible and understand that a recipe is a guideline rather than a rule book.
"I had a guy in my audience one time who said he really didn't like one of my recipes, which called for a lot of basil," Robinson said. "I asked him what he didn't like about it, and he said he just didn't like the taste of basil. Well, duh. If there are only five ingredients in a recipe, you better believe that they will all show up at the final party. I told him to try the same recipe with mint instead."
Robinson said that she is very excited with the way cable television shows about cooking and food have changed the very culture of how we eat.
"Food binds us all," she said. "We all have to eat. People love talking about food, and it is such an incredible icebreaker. It's become part of our lifestyle and culture.
"I remember in the days of Julia Child, you really had to look for an ingredient, such as shitake mushrooms. Now, I see dried shitakes in the 7-11. The more we demand fresh food, the more it will be there."
During the question and answer portion of Robinson's presentation, she described her best and worst experiences as a private chef in New York.
"One of the best experiences I had was working for a couple, the actor who portrayed the original Marlboro Man and his partner, a Broadway producer," Robinson said. "They loved to host theme parties and I would suggest things to them like, 'Let's do an Asian party,' and I would go to the market and get all of the food and make the party's menu from scratch. It was one of my first jobs as a chef, and it really gave me a lot of confidence that I could do this sort of thing. It was a life-changing experience.
"The worst experience was cooking for a party hosted by a celebrity couple. The menu included white salmon with prosciutto and a yogurt spice drizzle. Everything was going splendidly until the last two dishes caught fire. Needless to say, I was not asked to return."
Robinson said that if she had to pick three tools that she could not do without in her kitchen, they would be a really great sharp knife, a top-of-the-line blender, and a large Dutch oven or skillet.
"Black steel is great," she said. "I try to avoid those non-stick pans at all cost. They get scratched and get bacteria in the scratches."
Needless to say, Robinson's learned a lot since her experience with Stewart, and she's more than happy to pass it down.
"I don't see myself as a celebrity, I see myself as a teacher," she said. "If I hadn't ended up on the Food Network, I would've become a teacher."
For more on Claire Robinson, visit claire-robinson.com.