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Ingredients for success
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Ingredients for success

When Claire Robinson prepares a meal, she always adds a dash of Southern charm.

The former Memphian and University of Memphis alumna is host of the Food Network show 5 Ingredient Fix, which is in its second season and airs on Saturday mornings.

 Robinson’s cooking style is elegant but straightforward. Her dishes feature carefully selected fresh ingredients with distinct flavors that promote healthy and seasonal eating. All have five ingredients or fewer (salt, pepper and water don’t count).

 “You can put together an unbelievable meal. I can make pretty much anything out of five ingredients,” Robinson says. The goal is to be able to taste each distinct ingredient. “I have taste testings for friends where I’ll say, ‘Now tell me the five ingredients.’ If they can guess them all, I’ve done my job.”

 This season the half-hour show has episodes like “Concert in the Park,” a portable meal just right for an outdoor event: Flank Steak and Pepper Pinwheels, Indian Corn with Curry Yogurt, and Celery with Creamy White Beans.

 Robinson believes in keeping dishes simple. She uses ingredients that are readily available and recipes that are easily adaptable. “If you don’t have scallops, you can use shrimp. It’s the same principle.”

 It’s just as easy to make her Cheesy Penne for Two as macaroni and cheese from a box, she says. “I use aged white cheddar cheese. It takes the same amount of effort and tastes so much better.”

Claire Robinson
Claire Robinson
 Born in Jacksonville, Fla., the multiethnic Robinson and her family also spent time in St. Augustine, Fla., Houston and New Orleans before settling in Memphis.

 One of her first cooking instructors was her grandfather, Dr. Thomas Carpenter, president of then-Memphis State University from 1980-91. Claire and her family lived for a time with Carpenter and his wife, the late Oneida Pruette Carpenter. “I grew up with Tiger blue all around me,” she remembers. “He was a huge influence on my cooking as well. I would sit on the counter while he made tuna fish salad. It turned pink because he put so many spices in it. He would also go hunting and bring home quail, and we could make quail casserole.” Today “Papa Tom” is one of her biggest fans and holds watch parties during airings of the show.

 Her French-speaking grandmother, Oneida, was a major influence as well. “She was an amazing entertainer and social butterfly,” Robinson remembers. “I watched her in awe as she hosted unbelievable parties to raise money for the University. She showed attention to every detail – the centerpieces, the table. She would even adjust the lighting to make it look better. She wanted every person who came in to feel like they were the most special person in the world.”

 While many dishes reflect her Southern roots, there were other influences as well. “My mother was kind of a hippie who traveled a lot,” Robinson says. “She would bring home dishes that weren’t in the Southern culinary tradition, like lamb shish kabob with tahini.”

While a student at the U of M, she worked at Maggie’s Pharm in Midtown, where she was introduced to the exotic herbs she uses in her cooking today. Robinson earned a BA in communication in 1999. “I wanted to go to culinary school,” she says, “but I come from a family of educators and I couldn’t imagine not getting a degree and having that as a base for my life.”

After graduating, she had an internship with WREG-TV, later becoming an assignment editor, and at WMC-FM. She then worked at Tiger Sports properties, where she handled marketing for the U of M’s Athletics Department. One halftime promotion had her scrambling to catch Nerf balls dropped from the upper seats of The Pyramid during a Tiger basketball game. “We realized we couldn’t use a real shopping cart on the floor, so we had to buy these baby toy carts at Toys ‘R’ Us,” she recalls. At a Tiger football game she drove a Toyota Tundra pickup around the end zone. “It was the most fun job,” she remembers. “I would think, ‘I can’t believe I have this job.’”

Still, she couldn’t put aside her love of cooking. She moved to New York City to attend The French Culinary Institute, graduating in 2005. She has been a private chef and worked on the production teams for several cooking series, including Food Network’s Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello and PBS’ Everyday Baking with Everyday Food.

The five-ingredient concept seemed to fit today’s busy lifestyle, Robinson says. “It’s perfect for this day and age. What’s great is the chefs at the Food Network have inspired people to start cooking again.”

When she’s not in the kitchen, Robinson finds adventure in extreme sports, including skydiving, skiing and snow boarding. If those hobbies seem a little radical for a Southern-born chef, Robinson says cooking in New York can be rough, too. “You might have a chef yelling at you, and that can be a little extreme as well.” — by Gabrielle Maxey

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