BROOKSVILLE — Once a Pinellas County problem kid, now a chef with reality show fame, Robert Hesse returned on Monday to the place where that transformation began.
Out here in the Hernando County woods, in the kitchen at the Eckerd Academy program for at-risk adolescents, he cooked a lunch of honey herb chicken, baked mac and cheese, and strawberry shortcake for kids with whom he feels a kinship.
It has been 15 years. His memories of his time here are mostly good. His memories of how he got here are mostly not.
His mother wondered before the trip: Are you sure? Is this the best idea?
On Monday in the kitchen, his face started to shine with sweat, he shuffled from one side of the kitchen to the other in his quadruple-XL Chef Revival chef coat, and he peered into a tall pot of collard greens.
"You can't rush these," he said, "or they'll come out bitter."
• • •
Hesse, 31, grew up in Largo, Seminole and Pinellas Park. Now he's a chef who lives in the Hamptons in New York, and was a contestant on the most recent season of Hell's Kitchen, the show on Fox hosted by renowned Gordon Ramsay. Hesse was a fan favorite, even though he didn't win, and this weekend he's opening a restaurant in East Hampton.
On Saturday morning, at his hotel in Clearwater, he had a reunion with his counselors from Eckerd.
"You guys want to see some of the food I do now?" he said.
They sat at a table and he scrolled through the pictures on his iPhone.
"Roasted elk," he said.
On Saturday night, at a home in Palm Harbor at a small gathering of some of Eckerd's donors and staff, Hesse cooked scallops before telling them his story.
His dad wasn't around a lot. And when he was? Wasn't good. His parents split. He was getting into trouble. Little trouble led to big trouble. Drugs. Guns. Stolen cars.
The courts sent him to Eckerd when he was 15.
In his six months in the program, he learned to chop wood, skin trees, tie rafters, drill holes and build tents with hand tools. That's not all he learned.
"Know what this is?" one of his counselors asked him early on.
"It's a potato peeler."
He started to cook.
After he got out, though, he started getting into trouble again — a dropped larceny charge when he was 18 is the only thing on his adult record — and his mother told him to leave. She gave him $1,000 and helped him find an apartment. "Tough love," she said Monday on the phone.
He was cooking at a Beef O'Brady's when he heard a radio ad for a culinary school in Lakeland. He signed up, got financial aid and took a bus.
After Lakeland, he resort-hopped to gain experience, a seasonal chef at fancy hotels from New Hampshire to Wyoming.
He ended up back in New York, on Long Island, where he's married and lives with his wife in a house next to his mother's.
"No longer just a flunkie," he said Saturday.
He told the people something Ramsay had told him after his time on Hell's Kitchen. The show gives you your 15 minutes. What you do with it is up to you.
• • •
Hesse was good on TV. He sparred with the combative Ramsay. He dropped his pants and told him to kiss it. He weighs about 400 pounds and has a body that makes him look like a fridge on twigs.
He also has a tale that he typically tells in a palatable way that leaves out the ugly specifics. It fits into a simple rags-to-riches archetype and comes with an uncomplicated moral: "I want the world to know it doesn't matter where you came from."
In real life, rather than on reality TV, he's plainspoken and sometimes foul-mouthed. He's not the greatest public speaker but he seems earnest. He's half-street, half-sweet, a teddy bear who's still rough at the edges.
He has some opportunities now because of the exposure on TV. He models chef coats. He signs autographs with sports stars. He gets paid to do that.
For this trip, though, he called Eckerd.
The pay was nothing.
• • •
Monday at lunch. Everybody ate, then Hesse stood up in front of two dozen kids. He told his story, again, more detail this time.
Then: Angry at his dad. Took it out on his mom. Selling drugs, using drugs, having guns, stealing cars. Saw a friend get shot dead.
Now: A couple of books in the works, a pair of pilots being pitched, the new restaurant to cater to A-listers. Opening night is a private party for singer Mariah Carey and friends.
But his style of cooking? Kind of like him. Everyday dishes, regular food, reimagined with a little polish and some extra care.
It can be done.
"I am," he told the kids out here in the woods, "one of you guys."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.