“Robbin Haas has passed away”. Those were the words that woke me yesterday. They woke me with sadness. Especially for his family. But also for the South Florida food and restaurant community that Robbin joined us in and helped propel forward ever since his arrival here. When I met Robbin we were both young firebrands working on our individual paths from outposts on Ocean Drive. He was at The Colony Hotel and I was at the Betsy Ross doing the restaurant, ‘a Mano’. We hit it off immediately. Everyone who knows Robbin knew his laugh. It was wide open, unchecked, joyous, raucous and one you wanted to be a part of. He was old school in ways. The caution to not smoke and to drink in moderation were not ones that Robbin would ever adopt. He worked hard and he played hard. But what joy he found in both. South Florida was just becoming a place where the food community of chefs was finding its own first voice. There were, of course, famous and important restaurants before the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. But it was not then a celebration of our cultural diversity. And the guests of the restaurants rewarded the bold.
Robbin was raised in Buffalo, New York but moved around landing in the American Southwest cooking for awhile. He knew a lot about all kinds of foods. He was keenly intelligent. When he got to Florida he found a home and he found a way to express his passion for food in a number of restaurants he made famous over the years. He was one of the members of ‘The Mango Gang’. It didn’t start off that way but he most certainly was key in the region becoming known outside of Florida and joined the band (as did Cindy Hutson).
Robbin was our ‘Captain Fantastic’ for many, many fund raisers that were held at Turnberry while he was the Executive Chef at that amazing property. Working with long time collaborators Cheryl Stephenson on public relations and Chef Todd Weisz, Robbin called upon a wide band of us in the industry to galas that defined the time for causes that needed help. Whether it was ‘Share Our Strength’ or “Hurricane Andrew Relief” you name it… Robbin was able to provide the venue, resources and positive energies needed to pull it all off. There has not been a center for such things in South Florida that has been parallel to those times since. It would take some serious recall to list the names of all of the Chefs who came from near and far that cooked for those events. Big names. I opened my memoir, “No Experience Necessary” with a scene from a night at Turnberry where we were cooking for Ms. Julia Child. It was a spectacular night. I was paired up to cook a dish with Emeril. Charlie Trotter was there cooking as were several out of town guest chefs. The top chefs of Miami were there too. It was a place that Robbin made sure brought chefs from near and far and in doing so he was a big hand in shining a light on what our community was becoming. At these events many folks come from out of town. Some from across the nation. In addition to doing the work necessary for the events they would also dine at the local restaurants they had been reading or hearing rumblings about. It then became evident to folks like Nobu, Drew Nieporent, Bobby Flay, and so many more that our city was just as serious as any in America when it came to deserving a reputation as a food destination. We were a marriage between cultures that were just getting to know each other during that time span. We were hard to define. There were so many new new food words to learn with us. Like new music there was no quick way to describe what we were doing. It was an exciting, revelatory era of discovery, of energy, of rock and roll joy. Robbin was one of our great trailblazers. We will miss him. But we will not forget him. Raise a glass my friends. It is what Robbin would want us to do.
The poem, “The Laughing Heart” written by Charles Bukowski and read by Tom Waits is in the link. I hope Robbin knows it makes us think of him.