How a homeless child became a celebrity chef

WASHINGTON -- At Stanton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., a class of fourth graders was treated to a lesson on healthy cooking by local celebrity chef James Robinson.

Chef JR, as he's known, has a message that's about more than cooking -- it's also about overcoming adversity.

"My childhood was rough," Robinson said.

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A young James Robinson James Robinson

Rough is an understatement. The son of a single mother with six children, Robinson spent much of his childhood homeless, often sleeping in shelters, or on someone's sofa, even in empty buildings.

"I walked around with a book bag full of clothes because I didn't know where I was going to be that night," Robinson said.

Robinson told me he thought he was going to be on the street all of his life.

"You're either going to die or be in jail, because that's what most of my friends did," said Robinson. "It was to the point where it was just like, I can't do this anymore."

In high school he started dreaming about a way out and he knew it would have to involve his passion for cooking.

"My passion for cooking, I got it from my grandmother," said Robinson. "When I was 11 years old she introduced me to flipping the pancake and I was mesmerized by it."

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Chef JR with his grandmother CBS News

He got a scholarship to attend culinary school but had little money for housing. Robinson says he slept in his car during college.

Even so, he graduated with honors. Today he owns a catering business that's popular with celebrities. He also appears on television cooking shows, including "Hell's Kitchen." And he's a popular guest chef at some D.C. restaurants.

Robinson says his life has been like, "living in the basement to living in the penthouse." Now he wants to inspire others -- especially children.

"By the time they're in the 6th grade they might want to be president," Robinson told me. "So they need to know that nothing is impossible."

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Chef JR cooks for children at Stanton Elementary School CBS News

And it appears to be working. When I asked the students how many of them want Chef JR to come back, all the hands went up.

"He's like a leader and when I grow up I want to be that kind of leader," said one student.

A leader who proves it's not where you begin but where you go in life that counts.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.