He survived homelessness, drugs, morbid obesity, a suicide attempt and jail time as a teenager in St. Petersburg. As an adult, he weathered the scathing wrath of firebrand chef Gordon Ramsay, participating in not one, but two, seasons of the hit TV show Hell’s Kitchen. Now Robert Hesse, a chef who’s plied his trade at the Playboy Mansion, rubbed shoulders with hip-hop stars like Flavor Flav and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and had his extreme weight loss — more than 450 pounds — covered by the national news media, has returned to St. Pete with, wait for it, a grilled-cheese restaurant and food truck.
Hesse and business partner Craig Munroe, also a trained chef, opened Fo’Cheezy Twisted Meltz in March 2020, right as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States. They started with a food truck and then opened a brick-and-mortar location at 6305 Gulf Blvd., in St. Pete Beach. Speaking to the Catalyst this week, Hesse said he’s about to open a Fo’Cheezy in downtown St. Pete. He said he has a deal in place to take over the former Five Guys Burgers and Fries location at 111 3rd St. N., but he’s also made an offer on the space formerly occupied by the Brass Bowl Kitchen & Juicery, at 656 Central Ave. “They love that location,” spokesman Daks Davis said. “They are 100% moving into one of those two locations.”
Whichever location Hesse chooses, it’ll be sure to bring a uniquely vibrant addition to downtown St. Pete’s culinary scene. The Fo’Cheezy brand identity, built around bright colors and graffiti-style lettering, embraces hip-hop and rap culture, but it also keeps prices low, with most entrees in the $12-$14 range. Hesse, 42, said affordability is a priority for him after spending so much of his career in fine dining and catering for celebrities. It also couldn’t be more important during the Covid-19 crisis, when so many people are struggling financially.
“If you feed the masses,” he said, “you live among the elite. If you only choose to feed the elite, you will be living among the masses, chasing the Joneses. So what that means is the more people you can touch on a bigger spectrum for $20 is a lot better than trying to touch people for $400, maybe two times a year.”
Hesse said he learned that approach from Ramsay himself, who told the aspiring chef that he had invested more of his own money in moderately priced concepts, like Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips in Las Vegas, than his more upscale brands. Ramsay and other master chefs Hesse trained under, such as the late Anthony Bourdain, also drilled into him the importance of prioritizing quality and service above all else.
“It’s about people and food and experience, not ambiance,” he said. “The best restaurants are the restaurants that are holes in the wall … the greasy spoons … they’re the salt of the earth, man.”
The best restaurateurs, Hesse said, also give back to the community that supports them. That’s why he and Munroe have launched No Kid 86’d, a charity that aims to help at-risk youth avoid the kind of trouble that Hesse got into when he was young. Munroe said it was never a question of whether Fo’Cheezy would give back, but rather, what cause the company would support.
“I personally interviewed over 20 charities,” Munroe stated in a news release. “After considering how the funds would be allocated and formulating our vision of how we can reinvest in the community, Robert and I decided it’s best we do this on our own.”
No Kid 86’d offers food drops to struggling communities, toy donations and back-to-school supply drives. Additionally, No Kid 86’d helps by creating jobs and providing culinary training to people with criminal records.
“It’s been looming over me for years, that I am forever indebted to pay it forward,” Hesse said. “Someone, at one point, saw something in me and I want to offer that same support to those who may be struggling. No one will be taken off the menu, or 86’d, if we can help.”
Fo’Cheezy donates 2 percent of its revenues to No Kid 86’d. It also encourages patrons to donate when they visit the food truck or restaurant.