For chef and community volunteer Darrell Robinson, 62, life has come full circle. A U.S. Army veteran who served from 1969 to 1971, Robinson was assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard after spending a year in Vietnam. Although Robinson did not want to speak about his duties in the military, he smiled when he said that he is living in the same neighborhood where he was stationed decades ago.
“Forty years later, the military offered me the opportunity to move to Myrtle Avenue,” said Robinson, who has lived in Fort Greene for five years. “I came to investigate. I moved down the block, and there was the Navy Yard. God’s got jokes. Forty years later, I’m back serving a community where I served in the military.”
Service is key for Robinson – and today, he uses his passion for food and nutrition to serve his neighbors. He works as a community chef for the Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project (MARP), where he runs the organization’s organic vegetable market. There, he also facilitates a program in which he brings senior citizens to the supermarket and teaches them how to read food labels wisely.
“I tell [the seniors] that the human body is a beautiful machine that the creator has given us,” Robinson said. “It’s like someone bought an expensive luxury car, brought over to the gas station and only fills it with high-tech gas. Then why would you take it home and put diesel in it?”
As he walked to MARP’s office one day last year, he encountered Sandor Gubis, the caretaker of the Trilok Garden on the corner of Myrtle and Waverly Avenues, next to the Trilok Fusion Center for Arts and Education.
“I saw this gray-haired old man who was growing these beautiful peppers out of a five-gallon spackle bucket,” Robinson said. “It was the only time I’ve ever seen him here by himself. I was amazed by his gardening skills. I walked in and introduced myself to him. I told him if he ever needed a hand, by all means, I would help. He called me three days later and I’ve been working here for a year now.”
The Trilok Garden, which Gubis helped transform from a vacant lot into a green oasis two-and-a-half years ago, is home to five different types of lettuce and eggplant, purple okra and other vegetables that can’t be found in the average supermarket, Robinson said. Gubis and Robinson work as a team: Gubis plants the vegetables, and Robinson cooks them.
Once a year, the management of the Trilok Garden throws a Halloween party, where locals can try Robinson’s dishes. Robinson had scheduled a Habanero Festival for the beginning of this month, where attendees could also sample his culinary creations, but it was cancelled due to “unforeseen difficulties.”
Robinson’s passion for cooking began when he was three years old. He remembers visiting his grandmother’s house where he enjoyed her sunny-side-up eggs, but when he returned home, he told his mother that hers just didn’t taste the same. His mother urged him to “fix them yourself.” Since then, Robinson was always in the kitchen.
“I wasn’t getting footballs and basketballs for Christmas,” Robinson said. “I was getting Betty Crocker cookbooks.”
Robinson was born in Little Rock, Ark., but growing up with a stepfather in the Air Force, he moved around a lot. His family settled in Wyandanch, Long Island in 1961, where his mother started a garden and required that her son help maintain it.
His first professional cooking experience was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he served as a line chef. But he decided to take a break from cooking and returned to school for training to become a substance abuse counselor. Yet, he noted, he didn’t enjoy the work and longed to cook professionally again.
“It’s very hard work and I felt unrewarded, so I went back to my first love,” Robinson said.
Today, he teaches culinary classes with the New York City Department of Education’s “Garden to School Café” program during the fall harvest season. Through the program, Robinson helps kids plant fruits and vegetables in a school garden and later cook them. In any given week, he works at two schools – two days at one school and two days at another. The first two days, he said, are “harvest and clean” days, and the two others are “prep, mix and serve” days. At each school, he cooks for about 1,800 students – not a challenge for Robinson, who said that preparing a meal for such a large group comes naturally for him.
Robinson’s service extends beyond the kitchen. When he first moved to Fort Greene, he served as the president of the Walt Whitman Houses‘ tenants’ association. Although he doesn’t hold that position anymore, he continues carrying out the duties of that job — serving as a liaison between the residents of the Houses and the rest of the community, he said.
“We have a relationship with LIU where we acquire tickets for plays, basketball games and summer camp for the children,” Robinson said. “We also have a relationship with [the] Barclays [Center] through the Tenants Association where we get tickets for Disney on Ice.”
He also serves at the tenant association’s food pantry every Wednesday, where he helps package food that comes from the Food Bank for New York City, ShopRite and other places, and then donates it to families.
Robinson said he also plays an active role in local town hall meetings.
“I’m the guy that asks [elected officials] the hard questions – what are you going to do for our community?” he said. “In a community that is ever-changing, I don’t want to be the one who is sitting idly by and complaining about how things should be, being an armchair revolutionary. I’m actively involved in making this community a safe place to grow and be nurtured.”
He emphasized that giving back to the community – whatever way he can – is his first priority.
“I’m retired from the U.S. military,” Robinson said. “My time is free time, and I invest all my time and energy in this community.”