Robbin Haas, chef and restaurateur behind Baltimore’s Birroteca and restaurants from California to Miami and Guatemala, died last week of pneumonia after a battle with esophageal cancer. The Mount Washington resident was 66.
Wherever in the world he was, Mr. Haas seemed to ask himself every morning: “What new fun could I have today? And what good food can I find along the way?” according to his daughter, Heather Haas Karns. “He wanted to live the fullest out of every day.”
In the era just before the Food Network made chefs famous, and loving food became a serious pastime, friend and fellow chef Norman Van Aken said he and Mr. Haas had gone into the industry not for glory, but “because we wanted to belong to that particular circus that is the restaurant family circus." Mr. Van Aken dubbed their circle of south Florida chefs “the Mango Gang," a name that sticks to this day.
Born July 10, 1953, in Buffalo, New York, to parents Katheryn Tallman Haas and Frederick C. Haas, Mr. Haas got his start in the restaurant industry through his mother, who worked as a waitress when he was a child. He got his first job washing dishes at age 14 and jumped into the industry full time after graduating from Maryvale High School in Cheektowaga, New York.
Buffalo’s food scene would influence his career in later ways — not the famous wings, but the roast beef carving station on the bar of a restaurant he worked in upstate New York, something he introduced at a restaurant in Baltimore.
At age 19, he married JoLene Sanders. Along with their daughter, Mrs. Karns, the family began a pattern of zigzagging across the United States as Mr. Haas accepted the jobs at various restaurants around the country, from California, back to Buffalo to Texas and even Guatemala, where he opened restaurants Bistro Cinq and Nokiate. He moved four separate times to St. Louis.
After divorcing his first wife, Mr. Haas remarried Kathryn Parrish in St. Louis. In 2000, he married Tanya Camper-Haas in a Las Vegas ceremony officiated by an Elvis impersonator. Mrs. Camper-Haas traveled with him to Guatemala and collaborated with her husband on various restaurant projects.
“He liked a challenge of someplace new. He liked the challenge of a new kitchen and a new staff. It helped keep his creative juices flowing,” said his daughter, who now lives in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
The status quo was anathema to him — he always tried to improve on the classics. “If they had something great on the menu and it was a bestseller, how could you make it even better?”
He later settled in South Florida, where he worked at restaurants including the Colony Hotel and Turnberry Isle Resort, and became part of a group of chefs that called themselves “the Mango Gang.”
“We hit it off,” remembered Mr. Van Aken. The two friends whose restaurants neighbored each other in South Florida would review each other’s menus before service began, Mr. Haas sitting with his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette over coffee.
Many contemporaries remember Mr. Haas as a hard partier, said Mr. Van Aken, but just as significant was his commitment to the craft of cooking, and his ability to pull off a charity dinner for up to 1,000 people. One night, the chefs collaborated on a dinner for Julia Child.
Despite his over-the-top personality, he was not a flashy dresser, favoring simple black T-shirts, which he paired with jeans and red kitchen clogs or jeans. “We called it his uniform,” Mrs. Karns said.
In 2012, Mr. Haas moved to Baltimore to open Birroteca, a rustic Italian restaurant on Clipper Mill Road where house specialties included artisanal pizza, charcuterie, and pasta with a wild-boar Bolognese sauce. “It was new and different for the area,” his daughter said.
Encantada opened in 2015 at the American Visionary Art Museum. The restaurant, which closed early this year, specialized in vegetables, with meats playing a supporting role. "He called it veggie centric,” his daughter said. Her father described the vegetables as cooked to “satisfy your fat tooth,” Mrs. Karns recalled. “You didn’t miss the meat.”
Another restaurant was Mount Washington’s Nickel Taphouse, modeled after a restaurant in his hometown of Buffalo, with a roast beef carving station on the bar and “that dark atmosphere, dark walls, the warm lights and cozy feel," said his daughter. According to a 2013 review in The Baltimore Sun, the restaurant featured a 40-foot-long, 110-candle steel candelabra that Mr. Haas designed himself. Nickel Taphouse closed last year.
Food was a focus of family time — a favorite destination was Chopstix Gourmet in Rosedale and Mr. Haas would lift the lids as the carts of dim sum passed to see what was in it. His dining companions needed to be prepared to share. “His fork was always coming onto your plate,” Mrs. Karns said.
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No one complained on the evenings Mr. Haas suggested the family stay home and cook. He managed to make any kitchen, large or small, work for him — neatly organized with knives in a chopping block, a cutting board always nearby, and “sheet pans stacked like little soldiers in a cupboard," remembered his daughter, who saw him as a "flurry of activity” at the counter.
He and Mrs. Camper-Haas traveled extensively. “They loved life together," Mrs. Karns said. "He adored her and she adored him. "
Mrs. Karns recalled a cherished memory from a family trip to Paris: chicken from a street vendor, roasted on a vertical rotisseries so that the juices dripped down upon potatoes below. “Mouthwatering," remembered his daughter. They washed it down with lots of rose.
Travels were “always all about the food,” Mrs. Karns said. “That’s how we lived our lives whenever we were with him.”
In addition to his widow and his daughter, Mr. Haas is survived by siblings Jeri McWhirter Etzel, James Haas, Michael “Mickey” Haas, all of Buffalo, and a granddaughter. A brother, John “Jack” McWhirter, preceded him in death.