He cooks up his own way to honor grandfather

Posted: April 11, 2007

Nearly 10 years ago to the day - April 15, 1997 - Jesse Robinson Simms, then 18, was on the field at Shea Stadium, shoulder-to-shoulder with a cadre of luminaries that included President Clinton, taking part in a 50th anniversary celebration of the day his grandfather, Jackie Robinson, broke through major-league baseball's color barrier.

At the time, Simms seemed on a path to be the first in the family to carry on his grandfather's athletic legacy. A 6-foot-3, 270-pound prep school football star from North Stamford, Conn., Simms had signed a letter of intent with UCLA, where Jackie had excelled in baseball, football and track and had met his wife, Rachel, Jesse's grandmother. The emotional attachment to UCLA was strong.

Jesse never knew his grandfather, who died seven years before he was born, but he became well aware of his deeds through his mother, Sharon, Jackie's daughter, and his now-84-year-old grandmother, who helped raise him and still visits almost every weekend.

"Although I obviously never had a one-on-one relationship with him, it almost feels like my grandfather is still here," Simms said in a recent telephone interview. "It's a tremendous amount of pride."

Yet, Simms recalled, an internal struggle was raging at the time. Though he felt the pull of carrying on Jackie's legacy, did it have to be as an athlete at UCLA?

Simms reneged on his commitment to UCLA and enrolled at Penn State to play for Joe Paterno, who grew up as an admirer of Jackie as a Dodger fan from Brooklyn.

"Coach Paterno was wonderful with me, and I thank him for showing me love and respect in a difficult time in my life," Simms said. "I went there with the intention of playing football."

Simms said he was ineligible to play as a freshman because he hadn't met the NCAA's academic standards. It was during that first year at State College that he realized he didn't have the passion necessary to excel at football. There must be another way, he thought, to carry on Jackie's legacy.

"So I went back home and thought about the things I love to do and found I had a passion for the culinary arts and entertainment business," he said.

Today, Simms runs a culinary- arts and business program at High Road Upper School in Somerset, N.J., which specializes in serving special-needs students.

At the school, Simms has set up an Italian bistro and an American diner with a gourmet kitchen, where he teaches life skills to about 65 students, some with Down syndrome or autism.

It's part of a grand vision Simms hopes will culminate in a restaurant franchise he plans to name Robinson's Cafe, with locations in many of the cities that have a major-league baseball team. In his vision, he will employ students from his program with hopes that they someday can become restaurateurs.

He plans to open the first Robinson's Cafe in Rhode Island as a pilot program by the end of the year. He would also like to arrange a deal with the Food Network for a show on his program.

"It will highlight the legacy of my grandfather and, most important, highlight my legacy and the culinary journey myself and my kids are having," Simms said.

"I'm going to bring job opportunities to communities. I want to get into the schools and find kids who are interested in the culinary arts, bring them into Robinson's, educate them on our menu and on our way of service and then give them employment. Then, what I hope to do is set up a franchise of Robinson's Cafes and make them revolving doors of opportunity for individuals in the community.

"The biggest component will be tying the kids in to the service and tying in with big business, enabling them to get opportunities as minority entrepreneurs that were given to me. But I'm talking about all these kids, regardless of color."

Looking back, as the 60th anniversary of sports' greatest social moment nears, Simms said he has not regretted for a moment putting away the pads and helmet for saute pans and mixing bowls.

"It's been so fulfilling," he said. "These kids don't know it, but they have made a difference in my life and I will repay them the best I can. Maybe they'll have a legacy. It may not be a famous one, but it's my job to have my legacy and use the platform I have to help them develop life skills that maybe they can pass on.

"The kids have really helped me put things in perspective. I see how some of them come from two hours away to school, maybe going without a meal or maybe they slept on the floor, and they still come in with a smile on their face to work for me. It changes you. It's a humbling experience.

"Ten years ago, I was Jackie Robinson's grandson and an athlete, and I was on such a high pedestal I almost lost sight of who Jesse was. I almost missed out on pursuing something I'm passionate about. I'm in a much better place now.

"But, you know, when I hear stories that some of my students go home and tell people that they're being taught by Jackie Robinson's grandson, I feel so proud. It was never a burden. I always embraced it. But there are obligations that come with it, and I feel obliged to enable these kids to have productive lives.

"I'm Jesse Simms. He is Jackie Robinson. I know that I will never accomplish what he did, but I feel that I still have to carry on his legacy."

Read other stories in this series, view historical photos and hear audio slide shows at

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo

at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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