PGN: You are one creative guy!
RR: [Laughs.] Yes, I come from a creative family. My mother runs a dance and performance school. I have five siblings — two sisters and three brothers — and we all performed together.
PGN: Where did you go to school?
RR: I attended the University of the Arts to study dance and then decided to branch out creatively and went to Community College of Philadelphia to study liberal arts and English literature. After that, I went to the University of the Arts, where I graduated from their baking and pastry program.
PGN: How did you start cooking?
RR: I was always in the kitchen, ever since I was a kid. I spent a lot of time there with my mother and grandmother and I learned a lot of their techniques, and then I started making my own barbecue sauce and roasting chicken and making the holiday meals. I liked to play around with food a lot, making batters or breaking open crabs, using my hands a lot.
PGN: Tell me about your mother.
RR: She’s an amazing person: I credit everything I am to her. She founded the Point Breeze Performing Arts Center. What’s amazing about the center is that it’s not just a dance school. The mission statement reads, in part: “To use the performing arts as a social action strategy that cultivates talent and revitalizes communities. Our goal is to help children and youth become not just better artists, but also better people and better community members. Our programs are geared toward building confidence, self-esteem and discipline and cultivating citizenship.” She lives that mission: The center has helped thousands of kids.
PGN: And your father, is he a dancer?
RR: [Laughs.] No, he’s an HVAC engineer. He’s the cofounder of the school, though. He and my mother started the center in 1984 with nothing but a vision and a lot of willpower. The motto they believe in is, “Children are the bridge to the future and we must be the support beams for the bridge.” The students all call him “Mr. Al.”
PGN: What did you like to do with your siblings?
RR: Well, we were in rehearsal most of the time. We performed as a dance group originally called Positively to the Point. As soon as we finished schoolwork, we would have rehearsals pretty much six days a week.
PGN: So you were like the dance version of the Partridge family. What were the benefits of it?
RR: Oh, we got to see the world! We’ve been to South America, Europe, Australia. I got to perform for Aborigines in Australia. At the time, it was eye-opening to see and hear so many different types of people — Asians and black people and white people all with Australian accents. It was the first time I realized what a huge rainbow the world is.
PGN: What types of dance did you perform?
RR: We do, and did, quite a bit: everything from tap to African to hip-hop to modern jazz and ballet.
PGN: And you’re an author?
RR: Yes, I enjoy writing and am trying to pursue a career in fiction, in addition to my chocolate making. I have a book called, “My Sugar Daddy Ain’t So Sweet,” which was published in 2005 under my pen name, Robert Leslie. We sent out 2,000 copies and it sold out in two weeks. Unfortunately, the publishing company, like so many businesses recently, hit hard times and had to fold.
PGN: Did you ever write a letter to Santa?
RR: Yes, I wished and wished and wished for a Voltron set. Voltrans were toys that were the precursors to Power Rangers or Transformers. I wrote to Santa and that year I got them, so it worked!
PGN: How did you end up in chocolate?
RR: It’s quite funny. My original desire was to go into pastries. I attended the Art Institute of Philadelphia to learn how to construct pastries. I needed to get credit in a course called Chocolates and Candy, but it wasn’t open at the time, so I was able to do an independent study and Tom Block, the owner of Naked Chocolate, offered to teach me about chocolate. I fell in love with it and, after graduation, I came to work with him.
PGN: What makes working with chocolate interesting?
RR: Chocolate can be fickle. It works at its own pace and you need to work with it or it will work against you. Time is of the essence with this medium. There’s also something sexy about it because it’s slow and has a shine and can cover just about anything.
PGN: What’s the wildest combo you’ve made?
RR: The most unusual is chocolate-covered bacon. People think it sounds awful, but it’s actually quite tasty because of the saltiness. They complement each other very well.
PGN: If you could disappear for three days, where would you go?
RR: I just returned from my disappearing act. I went to Paris. I love Paris in the springtime. Cheap wine, great cafés, lots of relaxation.
PGN: Isn’t that a song?
RR: “I Love Paris in the Springtime”? Yes, I like that song too. But I like the song “April in Paris” by Thelonious Monk even better.
PGN: Favorite day of the week?
RR: That would have to be Thursday, because it’s the precursor to the weekend. On Thursdays, you know that you only have one more day and then you’re good to go!
PGN: If you could go back in time, what era would you choose to visit?
RR: Circa Studio 54 in the ’70s. It seems like it was a lot of fun.
PGN: Strange item from your childhood bedroom?
RR: Well, it would have to be the Michael Jackson doll and the Miss Piggy doll I stole from my sister. Uh, I still have them now ...
PGN: Speaking of stealing your sister’s dolls, how was coming out?
RR: I think because of the creative world we lived in, it was never a problem. My parents always stressed that it was important to be myself. At the same time, we were taught that as inner-city youths, and especially as African Americans, we represented more than ourselves. They wanted us to be ambassadors for not just ourselves and our family, but for our community. So I was taught to be proud of myself, and that included all parts of me. And most of my friends and peers were fellow dancers, so there were a lot of openly gay people around me.
PGN: You’re around the smell of chocolate every day. Name three other scents you love.
RR: I love the smell of lemons. I love the smell of hydrangeas and lilacs and I love the smell of strawberries cooking.
PGN: Any distinguishing marks?
RR: When I was 16, I got a tattoo. I got in so much trouble for it. My best friend at the time and I had the same name, so we got matching tattoos. Fortunately, even though people called me Bobby at the time, I took into consideration that I might not want to be Bobby all my life, so I had Robert put on my right arm.
PGN: My first crush was ...
RR: Intense. He ended up being my first experience. It was a challenge to myself. I knew what I wanted and made it happen. I can be a bit of a vixen.
PGN: Best karaoke song?
RR: “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain and Tennille.
PGN: Any hobbies?
RR: I collect soil from places I’ve traveled.
PGN: Last time you cried?
RR: Coming back from Paris. I was watching the in-flight movies and they were entertaining, but they were all so tragic! I watched “Marley & Me” and Will Smith’s “Seven Pounds.” I was weeping in my seat.
RR: No, I have a partner, Chad. We met online. I was sleepless in Philadelphia, and came across his photo. I pursued him and we had our first date and have been together ever since. It’s been five-and-a-half years.
PGN: Who would you like to sit next to at a dinner party?
RR: Singer, songwriter, pianist and civil-rights activist Nina Simone. She was such a passionate person. I don’t think she got as much credit as she should have. People are still sampling her work today. She was not a very censored person: She would just say what was on her mind, and she made some songs that were shocking choices at the time. Songs like “Four Women,” “Sinnerman” and “To be Young, Gifted and Black.” She started out playing classical piano and had her concert debut when she was 12. During the performance, her parents, who were sitting in the front row, were moved to the back of the hall to make way for white people. She refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front. Her memory of the incident is what got her involved in the civil-rights movement.
PGN: Life motto?
RR: I’ll give you something from my book and that is, “Free ain’t free.” Meaning that you have to work for everything you get. It’s worked so far for me.
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