The Hunger Games
Reality TV star and celebrity chef Robyn Almodovar moves beyond dishing the haters in her life by serving up a toasty batch of love
for her late Uncle John and explaining why giving back is the main ingredient in her recipe for living right
Text and Photos by Sean Black
He’s tall, has big hands and smells really, really good.” This is how the five-foot-four, Season 10 contestant describes foodie overlord Gordon Ramsay, the suave yet tyrannically foul (not fowl)-mouthed host of Fox’s hit TV cooking show Hell’s Kitchen.
When asked to describe herself, the petite gourmet, who was eliminated after beating out twelve other contestants for the top 6 spot pauses, then digs a little deeper. “I am Robyn, the outspoken lesbian from Hollywood, Florida, who doesn’t give a (beep) what people think about me, but I am really honest, compassionate, and loyal,” says the feisty thirty-two-year-old, who owns and operates a food truck called Palate Party.
These three pleasing traits aren’t necessarily the attributes her fellow contestants (nor the viewing audience) might initially pepper into their assessment of her. In the early episodes Robyn had to respond to several hate comments posted on her Facebook site, setting the record straight about her character. After Robyn left the show two of the remaining five chefs shamelessly celebrated her departure. Robyn Almodovar concedes that although she is easier to get along with in real life she is definitely an acquired taste.
Her semi-villainess character on the sumptuous show managed to eke out several challenge wins, garnering her a momentary reprieve and literally keeping her in the game. However short-lived in the top chef’s good graces, she was inevitably reduced to a “muppet”—a term that may fare well at daycare but not in Ramsay’s flaming kitchen.
In one of the episodes Robyn was tasked with selecting a mystery ingredient from a pot. When pulling out a beet, she went on a rant about the earthy root vegetable she clearly doesn’t like. “I hate beets. They taste like dirt. A lot of people hate them. I can’t pretend to love beets when I don’t.”
The smitten chef candidly admits to ulterior motives when leaving the show without a juicy fight. “I wanted to get home to my ‘ginger.’” Chef Robyn has beenlegally married since last November to her lovely wife Faiza Cherie LaRiviere, a striking redhead with a strong resemblance to the cultural icon, Rosie the Riveter. The couple who were married on the Brooklyn Bridge on 11/11/11 by Robyn’s older sister Vita, an ordained minister, aspire to be the next lesbian power couple. “We hope to be the next Ellen and Portia,” admits the cheeky couple during our spicy photo shoot.
Robyn admits, “Television is a lot of editing. Most people don’t realize that it’s a competition mostly based on drama. I was a great character for them because I am an individual who doesn’t hold anything back. I tell it like it is.”
No Longer Bitter About the Haters
Telling it like it is comes easy for Robyn despite the fact that growing up was anything but easy. “I was bullied a lot when I was a child. I was called ‘snaggletooth’ because my teeth were all messed up. Kids used to really pick on me for it.”
Born in Brooklyn to an Italian mother and a Puerto Rican father and raised in Staten Island, Robyn was only two when her loving parents separated. The couple however eventually got back together nearly seventeen years later.
“My parents love me and my sister very much. Last year they spent over $7,000 to fix my teeth. They were afraid that the TV viewers would make fun of me and they remembered how much it hurt me when I was a little girl.”
At sixteen, Robyn moved with her mother, Grace, who had not yet reunited with her father, to Atlanta. After graduating from high school, she admits to “partying her butt off” and briefly attending cosmetology school. “I had just turned twenty-four and realized through a string of late night Le Cordon Bleu infomercials that cosmetology wasn’t for me. So I became a beauty school dropout and started culinary school a week later.”
“I have always loved cooking. When my sister started working in a grocery store it became my turn to cook. My main chore was to have dinner ready for the three of us.” Typical meals that Robyn would prepare growing up were naturally Italian-based, inspired by her mother. “We would have chicken cutlets and mashed potatoes, baked ziti, meatballs, I don’t really know what else I was cooking back then, but we ate it.”
Dear Uncle John
John D’Adamo, who died of AIDS in 1988, was a notable hairdresser for local South Florida politicos. Robyn reflects, “I remember my family not speaking with Uncle John for a while over hard feelings when my grandmother lost her battle with cancer. My mom was doing all the caregiving and the stress broke the family apart. I remember when we were back in touch with him. We were driving to meet him at a diner in Brooklyn. My mom parked the car. When she got out she started running towards him to give him a hug. His face looked distorted and really skinny. He didn’t look like the man that I had remembered several years before.”
Robyn’s mother eventually started taking care of her ailing half-brother. “In the beginning she didn’t want us to see him because she did not want to have to answer all of those questions.” As her uncle eventually became too sick for her mother to properly care for they admitted him to Columbia Hospital, close to Central Park. “I remembered going up the elevator and stepping onto a specially designated floor. I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect—seeing people sick from AIDS. I envisioned it being like what I saw on television—walking through plastic and having to wear a special suit. I don’t remember it being anything like that however. I just remembered that I was going to visit someone I loved who was dying in the hospital.”
Noticeably uncomfortable and becoming physically choked up, Robyn recollects a touching moment. “I remember my uncle petting my head and telling me that he loved me.” Her voice begins to break. “I remember feeling really sad watching him suffer. He had lesions all over his body and had a fungus growing from his tongue to the roof of his mouth. That is something that I will never forget.”
In a bittersweet aside, Robyn recalls that it was a gorgeous day outside. “I remember there weren’t any clouds in the sky. It was sunny and hot. Seeing him in that bed just broke my heart and I remember wishing for more time.”
On one of her more memorable visits Robyn’s mother planned an intervention, which she purposely arranged with her dying sibling. My mom scooted me, my sister, and my sister’s best friend up to his bedside and said, ‘This is what happens when you have unprotected sex.’ It really scared the crap out of me. I was afraid to have sex after that. I was a virgin until I was nineteen because of that fear of getting HIV.”
The Ingredient of Love
This past July, in celebration of National HIV Awareness Month, Chef Robyn joined actor John Corbett and a host of other celebrity motorcycle riders for Kiehl’s
“Next year I want to go with the riders. They need to eat and I could supply the food. I think it is a great way of taking AIDS awareness out on the road and raising money towards finding a cure.”
Revving down from her momentary high, Chef Robyn puts the finishing garnish on our interview by topping it off with her positive experience on Hell’s Kitchen. Her Brooklyn-seasoned tone is grateful. “I took away confidence. I didn’t have the self-assuredness that I have now. I feel that I have grown not only as a culinarian but as an individual as well.
“Something that Chef Ramsey said to me really changed my thinking and I shared it recently. I was at a cooking competition at Whole Foods with one of my rival food truck vendors. We don’t get along,” Robyn shares with a grin. As time ran out, she sacrificed her own chances of winning to help her opponent plate his food. “He resisted at first but I repeated Chef Ramsay’s words, ‘It isn’t about the start it’s about the finish.’”
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.
CHEF ROBYN’S VERY HEALTHY, VERY VEGAN TACOS
“I have this recipe on my food truck because I feel that it is really important to give everyone a healthy option. Maybe we should put the word ‘yummy’ somewhere in the title.”—Chef Robyn
2 large sweet potatoes
1 medium red pepper
1 medium orange pepper
1 medium red onion
1 small jalapeño (optional)
1 big bunch of cilantro
1 cup of black beans (not canned—presoaked overnight)
1 unshucked ear of corn
1 bag of masa tortilla mix
olive oil or oil spray
HOW TO PREPARE
SWEET POTATO MIX: Boil 2 peeled, diced sweet potatoes for 15–20 minutes until fork-tender. Smash them up, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt. Set uncovered mixture aside.
BEAN/CORN SALSA: Take an ear of shucked corn, cut off the kernels and add to a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil or spray, and bring to a sauté. Add the pre-soaked beans and continue the sauté. Remove from heat. Add chopped red onion, peppers, and jalapeño, as desired. Add all ingredients to a bowl and add a teaspoon of salt, cumin, and garlic powder along with the fresh chopped cilantro. Mix together with freshly squeezed lime.
TORTILLAS: Buy masa corn flour from the local grocer and use the directions on the bag. Or add 1 1/4 cups of hot water to 2 cups of masa mix. I make ours a little different. I combine the masa and water and then add two tablespoons each of cumin and garlic powder and one tablespoon of salt. Knead together and roll into 16 equal golfball-sized balls (sticky: add masa, doughy: add water). Flatten out the tortillas with a rolling pin in between plastic freezer bags. Pre-heat a skillet or griddle and add some olive oil or pan spray. Cook flat tortillas for 2 minutes on each side or as indicated by the recipe on the bag. Important—make sure that the masa puffs up slightly and is fully cooked, otherwise it will give you a bellyache. And you don’t want that!