The Wonderfully Worldly Career of Chef Helen Tribble Roberts
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Photos by Scott Peterson
It was her mom’s covert home enterprise in Brooklyn that got Helen Tribble cooking.
“Every Friday night, we held card games at our house. People had to ante up to get in, and we sold plates of food while they were gambling.”
Chef Helen says she was around eight years old when it all started. While Mom was out at the tables flirting and watching the money, Helen and her older sister were in the kitchen cooking and filling plates with good, solid soul food like fried chicken, fried fish, oxtails, and smothered pork chops; sides of corn, string beans, potatoes, cornbread, and potato salad; and a lemon cake with lemon curd filling, cream cheese frosting, and coconut on top for dessert.
“I had the burns to show you,” the chef recalls, laughing. “These people are drinking, they’re angry and hungry and losing money, so the food has to be right.”
It might seem like an ignoble start to a long and rich career in food, but that was not at all how Helen regarded it.
“The thing about it is, I didn’t really like my mom’s cooking because I had tasted other people’s food,” says the chef, whose friends on her block were Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish. “I would go eat at their houses and go back home and say, ‘where can I get a little of that garlic?’ Then I would cook something, and my mom would be like, ‘what is this?’ I was always excited to know what I could make, and I would always say ‘it’s gonna be different.’”
Helen Tribble was born in Harlem, but her family came from the Gullah Geechee community in Coastal South Carolina, where she says everyone grew their own fresh vegetables, and some cured their own pork products as well. She doesn’t recall garlic or onions being used in her family’s dishes, and they didn’t go in for much seasoning beyond salt and pepper, so the budding young chef was happy to spice it up.
After graduating with a degree in journalism from Hunter College, Helen did a short stint at a NYC newspaper before moving in 1979 to Oakland, where she reentered the food industry as a copywriter for Corn Nuts. “It was still family owned then,” she says.
A few years in, Helen got an offer from Kikkoman—the Japanese-owned company well known for its soy sauce—which has its USA headquarters in San Francisco. While her writing skills were of value there, she soon got involved in new product development.
“One day they decided to test all the employees to see who could distinguish all the different types of soy sauce,” she says. “I had never even had Japanese food at that point in my life, but we all took the test, and I was the only one that got all of them right.”
First, Helen was booted into the lab to work with “the guys” as the official taster and then she was flying around the country to taste new products under development at the various Kikkoman USA plants. Back in San Francisco, she and a group of women in the test kitchen prepared new recipes and tested them out on the laborers working on-site.
Knowing a thing or two about American tastes, the chef says she had to push back against the idea that Americans would only want to brush soy sauce on boneless, skinless chicken breasts. “People in Wisconsin aren’t going to do that,” she says. And when tasting some of the stronger-flavored condiments popular in Japan, she recalls herself saying, “that needs to go back in the ocean because that’s way too fishy.”
As Helen’s role in the company grew, so did her culinary ambitions. She got her AA at the California Culinary Academy and started experimenting at home on recipes using new Kikkoman products. A spice cake flavored with Kikkoman’s hoisin sauce and iced with a frosting she made with cream cheese and the company’s plum sauce was uniquely successful, but unfortunately, the recipe has since disappeared.
Kikkoman started sending their official taster overseas to find out how they could sell more products in countries with no history of soy sauce in their food traditions. Wherever she went, Helen enrolled in culinary courses, so she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and took classes under a star Japanese chef in Los Angeles. Travel to Japan was exciting for her. Tall, striking, and exceptionally personable, she made waves in Japan, and she fell in love with the cuisine. “The food in Japan is just totally different than Japanese food that we get here,” she says. “More intense flavors … and things that many Americans wouldn’t know what to make of. I can’t really cook Japanese food the way Japanese people make it, but I can use those ingredients. You lose something by not being in the place where the food is grown and the people have that history.”
In 2010, Chef Helen was among a group that Michelle Obama invited to the White House to help launch “Chefs Move to Schools,” a program aimed at solving the childhood obesity epidemic. As the First Lady wrote in her thank-you letter to Helen, now framed on the dining room wall, “helping children learn how to make healthy choices is important not only now, but for the rest of their lives.”
Now retired after 37 years with Kikkoman, Chef Helen Tribble Roberts continues to help younger generations as she coaches up-and-coming chefs through Les Dames d’Escoffier. She’s also working on a project to share her soul food heritage with a special audience. The details of that project must remain a secret, however, until such a time as it’s appropriate to write about it for Edible East Bay. ♦
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay. Photographer/filmmaker Scott Peterson presents a range of his work at scottpetersonproductions.com.