Minneapolis City Pages - May 4, 2016
Mecca Bos 2016-05-05 04:47:34
A PRINCELY FEAST The Purple One’s personal chefs talk about life at Paisley Park The last meal Ray Roberts prepared for Prince was roasted red pepper bisque and a kale salad. When he entered Paisley Park that night, he was told he could just leave the meal and go. “Whatever was going on with him that night, he clearly wanted to be alone,” said Roberts. Typically, the artist was jovial and his home and recording studio was a joyful, light-filled, fun place to be. By the following morning, Roberts would discover that Prince never did eat that dinner. By now we all know why. “He didn’t seem like his normal self that night. He’d been like that for months.” Roberts and his wife, Juell, had been cooking and serving dinner, six nights a week, to Prince for the past three years. They are among the 30 or so inner circle of friends, family, and employees who attended the superstar’s private memorial Saturday before last. Though Prince was notoriously private, the couple considered him something of a friend, and were treated in kind by their employer. If they had one message about what working for Prince was like it’s that it was always joyful. “Prince was always funny. He had funny interactions. He was a breath of fresh air. All the people around there have so much joy and life. Everyone there believed in something bigger than themselves,” the two declare in a stream of remembrance, alternately smiling and tearful. They heard the news of his death like everyone else — in a Tweet from TMZ. “I thought, well, he was the only person there last night, so it has to be him,” says Roberts, though Juell was incredulous. It wasn’t until they received confirmation from Prince’s personal assistant a few hours later that they learned the tragic news was true. Like everyone else, they were in shock. The couple nabbed the job three years ago after a band member’s spouse came into their restaurant, Peoples Organic, to inquire whether they offered personal cooking services. They didn’t. That is, until they learned of their potential client. Suddenly, they did. A couple of auditions and interviews later, they had the gig. It was nine months before the artist interacted with them directly, but eventually, he was comfortable enough to make menu requests directly, chat, joke, and hang in the kitchen, the way all people do, everywhere. Naturally, the Robertses are bereft, and say they’re currently in the anger stage of grief. They feel reticent about talking to anyone— much less media. Of course, they signed confidentiality agreements, and say that even close friends were unaware of their position and the details surrounding their work. After so many years of silence, it feels strange to open up, and they’re still protective of Prince’s personal life and habits. While simultaneously running four restaurant locations by day, as well as raising two small children, they quietly cooked for Prince, virtually every single evening that he was in town. Practically no one knew except for their parents. When asked how they managed to do it, they responded: “How could you not do it?” Their loyalty was rewarded. “I know he really enjoyed my cooking,” says Ray, “and it made him really happy. I don’t think that [level of satisfaction] was easy for him to get.” Was he a perfectionist? Yes. And that was just fine with Ray and Juell. “He didn’t want anyone around him that was just stagnant because he wasn’t stagnant. He wanted you to be better every day. He kept you on your toes — never in a bad way. Always in a good way.” That said, they had to be ready for whatever at all times, and corner-cutting was not tolerated. “He liked honesty. If something went wrong, I had to come forward,” Ray remembers. Once, there was a smudge on the outside of a package in which he had left an overnight meal. When he arrived to work the next day, Prince was in the kitchen waiting. He pointed at the smudge, and simply gave Ray the two-fingers-to-the-eyes “I’m watching you” gesture. It was one of only three times Ray got in trouble for anything. The other was for lateness, and once, for leaving a cake out of place. “His personal refrigerator was organized like it was staged for a photo shoot.” They say they saw a lot of employees come in and out of the doors. “The people who weren’t cutting it? Yeah, their lives sucked there. But he was an honest gentleman. If he ever made you wait, he always apologized. He got doors for you. You never wanted to disappoint him.” So they didn’t disappoint. But the million-dollar question: What did he like to eat? His soft spot was sweets. “I always had to get a lot of dessert going first.” Cakes, cookies, sour cream apple coffee cake, chocolate mousse, caramel sea salt cake, chocolate macadamia nut cookies. “Some nights that’s all he had to eat.” He was a disciplined eater, though, sometimes having only a single bite. And sorry, vegans, he wasn’t a member of your tribe after all. But he was a vegetarian. Meat was among the “long list” of items they were not to use, along with onions, Feta cheese, and mushrooms. But Roberts confesses that he fed Prince onions every night, finely minced. “It was a textural thing. He just didn’t want to think about it.” They had to compile that list of “don’ts” often by deciphering code: “He’d leave a single pepper on a plate, and that meant: no more peppers. A less observant person would have missed the signs.” Or sometimes, he’d leave them a note in the kitchen about something he particularly liked, and it was always in the hieroglyphic writing he was famous for— an eyeball drawn out instead of “I,” for instance. “I’d think, I’ll make it again if I can figure out what it is!” Ray saved all those notes. He came away from the job with few other mementoes, taking care never to filch even a stray guitar pick, regardless of the intense temptation. Prince was ever-observant, and they never wanted to fall into a test or a trap. “Prince didn’t do drama,” says Juell. Other favorite dishes were roasted poblano peppers with pinto beans, fresh corn tortillas, and avocados; minestrone soup; veggie wraps; edamame dumplings; and, though he didn’t eat cheese very often, a cheesy pasta. Spicy foods and Indian cuisine were also big, along with fresh juices and smoothies, lentils, chickpeas, and dark greens. Though he rarely requested anything too out of the ordinary, Ray says he still had to be ready for anything. There was a month where everything had to be raw. “Then I think he forgot the assignment, because when I delivered the soup, he asked, ‘Why is my soup cold?’ I said: ‘It’s raw.’ He said, ‘I’m going to stick to having hot soups from now on.’” The couple laugh at the memory. But for the most part, Ray had carte blanche to cook what he liked for the artist — they had a nice little groove going. Prince called Ray a “master.” “If he liked what you did, he put you on a pedestal. It’s one of the beautiful things he did for people.” And when he really liked something, he’d always smile and say: “That was delicious.” Juell, still red-eyed from days of crying, smiles at the memory. Prince lived on site, and the kitchen was adjacent to the sound studio, so the biggest treat of all for Ray was hearing the music, every day, loud and clear in the kitchen. “This last year he was always working. Almost always playing piano. He was destined to be the next Ray Charles on tour.” (Prince had been embarking on his “Piano and a Microphone” tour, and Roberts says Prince was studying Ray Charles videos for inspiration. He says Prince would regularly play three seconds of a song, dozens of times in a row, to get it right.) But despite the diligent work, the last few months had been worrisome for Ray. “The last few months he had the flu or a cold, always. There was always something going on. He was off his game and needed to rest. I had to be careful about what I was serving him.” Prince was more frequently requesting foods that would help him to feel better, or something easy for his throat, or foods that made him feel like he was being nourished. And on the Monday before he died, he made an unusual request: a crudite plate with edamame hummus. “He ordered it like he was ordering something from a restaurant,” which seemed odd to Ray — it was something Prince almost never did. But they couldn’t have ever guessed that a few months of Prince being under the weather and issuing unusual requests would end this way. So much possibility has been truncated. There were plans for a greenhouse and a sustainable garden that will never be realized. They were preparing to join Prince on tour. There was so much more he was going to do, the couple says. Now they’re not even sure what to do with themselves. “I hadn’t stopped moving since I started working for Prince three years ago,” Ray says with a faraway stare. “The day Prince died I stopped moving. It was my dream job. I loved every minute of it.” They say they’ll always remember Prince tooling around the grounds of Paisley Park on his bike, wearing platform shoes, maybe sipping an iced coffee. Ray and Juell Roberts still own and operate Peoples Organic restaurant at several locations.
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