Hey, Asheville food scene — why so serious? Even the fanciest Foodtopia fare is better served with a generous side of humor, says chef Clarence Robinson.
With his business, Cooking with Comedy Catering, as well as at his day job as Western Carolina Rescue Ministries kitchen manager, Robinson meshes his A-B Tech culinary training and a decade of back-of-house restaurant experience with a natural propensity for clowning around to craft a dining concept with a unique comedic flavor.
“I’ve worked everywhere, all the familiar spots,” he says, listing stints at Biscuit Head, Sunny Point Café, Another Broken Egg, Mayfel’s and the Red Stag Grill. “But I wanted to do my own thing.”
That approach seems to work for Robinson: In 2014, he was named Asheville’s Minority Enterprise Development Week Minority Restaurateur of the Year for his entrepreneurial work with Cooking with Comedy.
When he does a catering gig, he cooks and sets up the meal, then performs a comedy set. Sometimes he enters the venue and sets up in character as one of several wacky personalities he’s created, such as ComTom, a Jheri-curled Compton street thug turned chef. He also works his humor seamlessly into his job at WCRM, where clients and staff know him as Chef Clarence.
“Anytime I do it, anytime I’m setting up [a meal], there’s going to be personality involved,” he says. “That’s just who I am; that’s me as a person.”
But it hasn’t always been smiles and small plates for Robinson. The ComTom character is somewhat autobiographical. “I made a lot of wrong decisions in my life,” he says. “I was a troubled teen; I had a problem with authority figures — anybody who was telling me something that I thought I could challenge. That’s what I was: a challenging child.”
Originally from Asheville, Robinson’s mother married a military man, and the family moved around a bit — to places like Hawaii, California and Washington state. He ultimately landed back in Asheville, where he says, “I caused a lot of my ruckus.”
In the ninth grade he was expelled from Asheville High School — for hitting the principal with a snowball, he says. From there, he enrolled at A-B Tech to get his GED. “But it took me a while, because I was still wanting to run the streets and stuff,” he says.
Running the streets led to a criminal record and some time served in a couple of area detention facilities before a family tragedy ushered him into a period of his life he refers to as his “transformation.” In 2007, his 14-year-old cousin, Keith Holloway, a student at Erwin High School, was shot to death by another teenager. He also lost his best friend around this time.
“I was just tired of taking losses, and I was running into a brick wall in my mind as far as what to do different: How could I be different from everybody else? Because I was always a leader, but I wanted to take it to that next step,” he says.
Although Robinson’s criminal record made employment challenging, he landed a job as a banquet steward at the Grove Park Inn, where he stayed for four years, eventually working his way into the kitchens of the inn’s restaurants and enrolling in culinary school. “That was my first opportunity,” he says. “That was a good job — that trained me; that built me.”
Working at the Grove Park Inn also allowed Robinson to put his gift of comedy to good use. One year he won the top prize of $1,000 in the hotel’s employee talent show doing impersonations of his boss and other important staff members. “I blew it out of the water; it was amazing,” he says.
These days, Robinson says he’s content with his work at the ministry, where he uses comedy to lift spirits and alleviate tension while employing what he calls his “freestyle” cooking techniques to crank out three meals a day for hundreds of people. “I like to give them a restaurant experience,” he says, noting how he savors the challenge of working with random donated ingredients and leftovers to create elevated dishes.
For now, he doesn’t miss working in restaurant kitchens. “As part of my breakthrough, a lot of things had to change, a lot of things had to slow down,” he says. “And this is part of me slowing down and looking at life and appreciating what I’m going through and also trying to help other people with what they’re going through and putting my own problems aside.”
But for a guy who’s trying to decelerate, he’s got a lot of balls in the air. Besides his catering business, he’s auditioned for Food Network shows, including “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.” He’s also partnering with Ingles Markets to do a series of Ingles Table cooking videos, where he demonstrates how to make dishes like curried chicken salad, vegan casserole and sweet potato salad.
Robinson does comedy performances as well — either food-focused or not — at schools, churches and businesses. And he regularly does a soul food Sunday brunch pop-up at Habitat Brewing Co. Tavern and Commons.
He has plans to work with Ingles to shoot a pilot for a cooking show that he hopes to shop around to television networks. He also envisions doing a television project with his children, who he says also have the comedy gene. And someday he’d like to open a brick-and-mortar soul food restaurant where he can offer employment to felons and others who have difficulty finding work.
For Robinson, Cooking with Comedy is more than just a catering enterprise — it’s a multifaceted brand. “I’m changing the game,” he says. “Cooking with Comedy’s going to be a household name. I’m going to build; I’m going to work on this and take it to the next level. … What I’ve been working on, what I want to bring to the world, it’s going to be amazing.”
Look for Cooking with Comedy Catering on Facebook. To view Robinson’s Ingles Table videos, find “Ingles Table with Chef Clarence Robinson” on YouTube.