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Claire Robinson Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

Claire Robinson

In her daytime cooking series, 5 Ingredient Fix, host Claire Robinson proves delicious dishes only need five ingredients or fewer making cooking easier, faster and down right irresistible. Claire shows viewers how to enhance the natural flavors of carefully-selected, fresh ingredients to illustrate her belief that each ingredient should truly stand out in a recipe. With eclectic and elegant menus perfect for every occasion, her straightforward cooking style promotes healthy, seasonal eating as well as stress-free shopping. Claire minimizes fuss and maximizes taste to achieve mouth-watering meals in no time! For more information, videos, and recipes from the show, visit Food Network. Read about or buy Claire Robinson's 5 Ingredient Fix: Easy, Elegant, And Irresistible Recipes cookbook.

As one of the biggest and boldest food competition series, Food Network Challenge provides viewers with a front-row seat to the most exciting action-packed food battles. In each episode, talented chefs, pastry artists pit masters, bartenders and other food professionals go head-to-head in a timed competition for a $10,000 cash prize and supreme culinary recognition. Claire joined Food Network's primetime lineup as the host of Food Network Challenge (as of April 2010) bringing her culinary knowledge and passion for the iconic show to its brand-new set and providing minute-by-minute details of the thrilling challenges. For more information, recipes, videos, and photos from the show, visit Food Network.

I had a chance to speak with Claire Robinson about food, cooking, and her television shows.

For each episode of 5 Ingredient Fix that airs, how long do you have to spend beforehand putting together the menu and testing the recipes?

Claire Robinson:
We start at least six weeks out of shooting the actual shows. So about six weeks out we all get together and I come in with themes. what I'll do is think of meals that I think of meals that I have had or parties that I have thrown and it's really taken kind of from my real life. I can tell you one of the themes that we're about ready to shoot is taken off of truck stops. You know, those great truck stop restaurants that you stop at and you always tend to get chicken fried steak with that white gravy all over it, and it's so good. They're kind of like a weird version of a Meat And Three. So I was thinking about one of those meals that I'd had on the road and then I thought "gosh, wouldn't it be kind of fun to play with that and make a five ingredient meal of that?" and king of make it a healthier, gourmet version of truck stop diner food. That's kind of the beginning of how it all starts. I come in with themes like that and we all brainstorm the classic menu that would be. I'll come in with what I think the menu should be and we all talk. I might say that truck stop diner food to me means jello, corn, green beans, and country fried steak. And then somebody else might say "I see it as mashed potatoes and biscuits." So we do that.

Then I go back and I'll write the recipes specifically for that show and then they go into testing. I'll test them quite a few times until I think they're perfect. Then I send them out for testing. I make sure they're tested in different kinds of kitchens by different levels of culinary expertise, because I'm a stickler about wanting to make sure every recipe works consistently for everyone. You get electric stoves and gas stoves and people that have cooked for twenty years and people that are putting a pot on the stove for the first time in their lives. I feel like that the recipes, when I send them out for testing at that level, it's heavy, heavy testing by all different levels of chefs, or cooks, or non-cooks and in different kinds of kitchens then I'll know if the recipes is written in such a way that everyone can understand it and that the result is the same every time. When I get everything back, I'll make any tweaks and then I'll cook it again sometimes before we go right into shooting. And then we shoot. Usually that whole process starts about six weeks out before actually shooting the shows.

What is your favorite guilty pleasure food and how could you find a way to incorporate it into a five ingredient meal?

Claire Robinson:
You know, I'm pretty bad on the show. I kind of do a lot of my guilty pleasures. My guilty pleasure I make often is grilled cheese. I actually made one of my favorite versions of it on the show, a show that's already aired. It was aged white cheddar, crispy pancetta that I baked in the oven, and heirloom tomatoes on brioche bread. I mean, it's really, really good.

The other thing is,I love anything with cheese. The Cheesy Penne on the web, that's also already aired - macaroni and cheese is one of my favorite indulgences. The funny thing is that I used to love that stuff from a box, I'm not going to lie. I totally did. My mom made it for me growing up. But the funny thing is as you grow up, and especially since my entire world and passion revolves around food, I kind of ventured away from liking the flavor of that boxed stuff. It ended up having a weird taste to me. So I tried to recreate that creamy flavor. Now my mom used to put a stick of butter in it, she didn't follow the directions so it was over creamy and awesome.

Trying to get macaroni and cheese down to five ingredients, including your pasta and everything, and really try and have it be as decadent and wonderful as what I would order in a restaurant or what I remembered that box tasting like - because I remember it tasting a lot better than it really does, believe me I've tried it again. I finally got that one down to five I was so excited, I was over the moon. It comes out creamy every time. It is like the gourmet, grown-up version of what that box tasted like and if I remember when I eat it I feel like that's what I remember it tasting like. It just does it.

I'll have to try that.

Claire Robinson:
Yeah, it's a good one, I'll tell you. Check that one out for sure.

The path from the French Culinary Institute where you began to "5 Ingredient Fix" seems an unusual one. What compelled someone with your background to take this route?

Claire Robinson:
It was interesting. As far as I know I was the first one to come from behind the scenes, actually from the production side of television, and go in front of the camera for Food Network and food TV. When I graduated college I started working in news. That was the first thing I did. I worked everything from intern to assignment editor to associate producer to producer. And it was the local CBS affiliate in Memphis. So I did have a lot of production experience but my passion was always food. I talked about it all the time. They were like "oh my goodness, you should just take off and go to culinary school." It took me a while, but I finally did one day.

In between that I even had a couple of other things I did. But cuisine has been my passion since I was a child. It was the one thing I always wanted to do, but because I felt like it was my passion - you know, who gets to really work in what they love? When I finally decided life's too short, you just have to go after your dreams and I want to do the one thing I love to do more than anything for the rest of my life as my job, I took off and went to culinary school. After that it was easy for me to get a job in television again because I had a lot of television experience behind the scenes. I loved private cheffing, that's what I was doing, but that's not enough. New York's an expensive city, you have to supplement. So I'd private chef, and get some jobs. I'd have my regular clients and I'd go in and cook for them here and there, whenever they were throwing a party or needing a dinner party put together or whatever they needed.

Then I got a job as a culinary producer and it was so much fun. It was this really creative, inventive way to work in food and I love it. I absolutely loved it. I still love it. If I'm not on my own set I'm in my back kitchen and bouncing around the back kitchen . Crews are just neat people, they're fun people. There was this whole secret world. I was such a huge fan of food television. I grew up watching Julia and Jacque and James Beard. Remember the show "Two Fat Ladies?" I loved that one. And "Great Chefs, Great Cities." I grew up watching the shows and to find out this whole world that exists behind the shows that I saw and be a part of it. There are people that cook the food that you see, there are people that... I'm giving away all the secrets now... There are people that are involved, there are teams of us that work together to pull off the shows. It's fascinating to me. That's why they're good, that's why there's a lot. There's my voice all through it, but then there's a team of culinary people with me that are saying "my idea of truck stop diner food is this" and "my idea is this" and we all come together to come up with what is the perfect truck stop diner meal across the board, across the country, what would people see as a great truck stop diner meal. It's nice to have a big group of minds to put this together. I feel like it was really fun to work on that side of it.

The reason I got in front of the camera is because I was always bouncing around in front of it. It got to the point where as a culinary producer you come in and speak with what is called "the talent" and you tell them "Here's how this segment is going to roll." You tell them what spoon they're going to grab and they're going to stir this pot and it's really trying to make their recipes TV friendly - where it's very clear and the audience at home can understand. I would give them little tips as I would do it like "Did you know that mustard is actually mustard flowers, a seed that comes from mustard flowers? And they're planted in Napa after the harvest when the vines are pruned back and the soil needs to have something planted in it so there's not always one thing being grown in the soil. So mustard flowers are planted and it's really beautiful when all the flowers are around." Just random little tips like that. I am full of useless information. Those little things are interesting trivia, interesting facts and food is filled with them. Enough people saw me doing that through that lens that they said "hey, why don't you do it?" I thought "well gosh, I got enough to say. Okay."

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