Food is Love
Story and photos by Meda Kessler
Whether he’s manning a smoker or working with kids at his community farm, Reggie Robinson is all about feeding the soul
Writing is a lot like cooking or even gardening. Some dishes need just a few ingredients and not a lot of time. Others demand that you begin with a just-so mise en place and require your full attention. Likewise, growing herbs is easier than nurturing tomato plants. You toss out a few seeds or stick one basil plant in the ground and pretty soon you’re making pesto.
With tomatoes, you’re pinching, pruning and protecting them from birds and bugs. You’re coaxing them through a heat wave and keeping them hydrated — but only with rainwater.
In the same way, some stories are simple, basically writing themselves.
Others are complicated, with different angles and threads taking you in various directions. Such is the tale of Reginald Robinson, who also happens to be a cook and a gardener. At first glance, his story — and mission — are simple. But get to know him and you realize that his passion for cooking and community has him experimenting with all kinds of ingredients and sowing seeds of change wherever he can.
It was a Fort Worth chef who told us about Robinson (he goes by Reggie whether you’ve known him for 30 seconds or are a lifelong friend). And when Katrina Rischer-Carpenter, who owns Carpenter’s Cafe & Catering in Fort Worth, recommends that you check someone out, you pay attention.
And so, we find ourselves standing third in line on a hot parking lot behind Tulips, a music venue/bar in Fort Worth with an inviting back patio. Reggie, his brother Cedric and friends are setting up a portable flat top for a Thursday “residency,” a July series of pop-ups by lil’Boy Blue BBQ, Reggie’s catering and personal chef business. This week, the menu featured fried rice made with add-ons including burnt brisket ends, shrimp, chicken or veggies. We got a combo plate, happy that the scoop of rice had a nice, crispy bottom and that the garnish included a thin sheet of nori. To those who got there late, we’re sorry you missed it.
The following Thursday, Reggie and his crew sold out of breakfast tacos in about 30 minutes.
But it’s not just about the cooking. Reggie also makes time to greet old friends, make new ones and pass out thank-yous along with the paper boats of food and cups of his homemade queso made with ancho chiles.
The next day, we get up early to beat the heat and have breakfast with Reggie at Conundrum Farms in Crowley, home of FunkyTown Food Project. When Reggie’s not wearing his chef’s hat at these Friday morning events or Thursday pop-ups, he dons a broad-brimmed straw chapeau as executive director of this new nonprofit. (This cooking gig is full time now, as Reggie left his position of assistant principal in the Crowley school district in July.) Reggie and Cedric are making steak and eggs with fresh salsa; hot tortillas and coffee also are on the menu. After our al fresco breakfast, Reggie slows down long enough for conversation.
He immediately credits his grandfather for not only the name of lil’Boy Blue BBQ but for inspiring him to be a better human being and to find his passion. And then there are his granddad’s pancakes. “He was in the Navy and head chef on his ship. Making breakfast for the crew was important to him, because he felt like it set the tone for the day and boosted morale,” says Reggie. “It was his way of being a leader. His stories stayed with me: how to not only feed people but touch hearts and change lives. I’m at my happiest, too, when I’m serving food, serving love and serving people.”
Reggie, a military brat born in Anchorage, Alaska, grew up cooking for his family, something he embraced. “In the summer of 2017, my rich cousin asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a cook. He told me not to be ‘safe’ and to make my dream come true in seven years. I decided then I never wanted to be thought of as the safe one ever again.”
Reggie, 37, credits Leadership ISD for helping him make connections in all walks of life. This nonprofit group works with community leaders in areas of racial equity and educational excellence in public schools. “I catered one of Leadership ISD’s events this year, and things started to take off from there.”
Reggie also has catered for the staff at Schaefer Advertising Co. in Fort Worth after meeting company founder Ken Schaefer through LISD. His repertoire includes barbecued and grilled meats, of course, but also dishes such as white truffle and spinach deconstructed manicotti, burnt ends cauliflower and caramelized brown sugar smoked salmon. A scroll through the Instagram page for lil’Boy Blue makes your stomach rumble.
We almost asked for a second helping of steak and eggs, but we wanted a tour of the farm and to meet some of the principals of FunkyTown Food Project.
Founder and land owner Cort DeHart and Kent Bradshaw, the chief operating officer, also are key players and co-hosts of the Friday breakfasts. The idea is to spread the word about the project’s mission: provide leadership for high school kids, teach them how to grow food, work together and build community.
“It’s not just about growing food, it’s about growing good human beings,” says Bradshaw, who left a corporate job to work full time for the project two years ago.
DeHart has turned his 3-acre property, edged by native prairie, into a farm inspired by The Food Project in Boston, which offered a solid blueprint for what they wanted to do. In 2019, they started putting in the infrastructure, irrigation, compost facility and everything needed to run a working farm. Projects in the works include an outdoor kitchen and a stage for events and fundraisers.
There’s a massive wall in DeHart’s home that serves as a vision board for the farm. “We wanted to do it right, so kids would be set up for success, be successful,” says DeHart, an attorney by trade.
Realizing they needed an educational leader, Bradshaw immediately thought of Reggie, whom he knew as a skilled instructor and a natural mentor.
“Once I learned about the FunkyTown Food Project, I was all in,” says Reggie. “Educationwise, it feels good not to be hindered by testing and school standards. Plus, the concept of food insecurity is near and dear to my heart. The thought that we can make a difference by providing homegrown produce and fruit to those in need is the cat’s meow.”
This summer, the farm hosted its first six-week program for high school-age students — 11 in all — teaching them everything from mindfulness to how to compost to how to pick a ripe cantaloupe. And the students are paid for their attendance.
“The kids come from local high schools and homeless shelters,” says Bradshaw, who signed up his own daughters to go through the program. “They also worked the local farmers market this summer and distributed leftover food to other nonprofits including food banks. In the fall and spring, they’ll move on to helping build raised beds in low-income communities, help with ongoing projects at the farm and become mentors at next summer’s camp.”
As lunchtime approaches, Reggie gets the kids started on making lunch, a vegetable lasagna. Peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes come from the farm (there’s a large walk-in cooler on-site for picked produce). He leaves them to the chopping and cheese-grating, so we can check out what’s growing. It’s quiet, save for bees buzzing around some hardy zinnias.
“I really feel safe out here,” says Reggie. “And it’s a good place to think. We always make sure the kids have time to use their minds. I went to school in Keller but also spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ 7-acre farm, so I know how the land can do a body good. A better future is ours to grow.”