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When celebs like Torrey Smith, T.I., and Wale want to wow their friends, they call Chef James “JR” Robinson. “My cuisine is a Cajun fusion with soul food,” he says. “The people’s favorites are the shrimp and grits, lobster mac and cheese, and the chicken and waffles. People go crazy for them.”
Soon everyone will be able to try his food regularly when he opens his first restaurant KitchenCray Cafe in Lanham, Maryland. The opening is currently slated for July 7.
KitchenCray started out as a catering and events company. Robinson founded it after working in kitchens at Blue Duck Tavern, Indulj, a couple of high-end hotels, and the U.S. Department of Energy, where he once cooked a meal for 300 people including President Barack Obama. Robinson has twice been voted “best chef” by City Paper readers.
When KitchenCray launched in 2013, Robinson explains he took a unique approach to cooking in clients’ houses. “We came to your home and took whatever was in your fridge or cabinets and turned it into a five-star dining experience,” he says. “When we started, people didn’t have much for us to work with. By the fifth house, they had lobster and lamb chops.”
Robinson’s style remains relaxed and playful. Once KitchenCray Cafe opens, for example, he’s planning to host “Dinner Detour” events that keep customers guessing. “You come in and think you’re getting a regular menu, but you might get dessert first or breakfast for dinner,” he explains.
If you’re able to stomach reality T.V., you might have seen Robinson on Hell’s Kitchen four years ago when he was 29. The high-pressure cooking competition is best known for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay‘swrath. “It’s like hell. They named it right,” Robinson says. “Gordon Ramsay is real cool off camera, but once the camera comes on, he has a job to do and he does it well.”
Life for Robinson hasn’t been all small screen appearances and cooking for celebs. Growing up in Harlem, New York, he spent time in foster care, in homeless shelters, and on the streets. “When I was growing up my mother gave us up to our grandmother,” he says. “We were in foster care for a while.” As a teen his mother stepped back into the picture but she was still on drugs and drinking, according to Robinson. “For four years we were sleeping outside, sleeping on floors, and eating whatever we could eat.”
Today Robinson devotes time to visiting homeless shelters. He also hires people who have faced similar struggles and who share Robinson’s passion for cooking. “Going through that made me appreciate everything I’m having now,” he says. “My passion for cooking saved my life. If I wasn’t cooking, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
In seeking out locations for his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, he was attracted to Prince George’s County because it’s largely considered a food desert. When KitchenCray opens this summer, Robinson will start by serving breakfast and lunch with frequent dinner pop-up and cooking classes. The menu includes everything from oxtail stew and seafood pasta with jerk shrimp to a Cuban sandwich and ramen.
KitchenCray Cafe, 4601 Presidents Drive, Lanham, Maryland; kitchencraycafe.com