Before Robert Hesse became a chef, restaurateur and fan favorite on the wildly popular food challenge TV show “Hell’s Kitchen,” he was a troubled kid in St. Petersburg.

Addicted to drugs, in and out of boys youth homes and frequently in court and behind bars, at 15 he was sent to Eckerd Academy in Brooksville to straighten his life out.

As part of the program, once a week the boys were responsible for all the cooking for the day, which teaches them math and writing skills, responsibility and planning.

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“Cooking changed my life,” Hesse now tells people.

A camp counselor had handed him a potato and a peeler and asked, "Do you know what to do with that?"

He had watched his grandmother and mother cook, but now it was his turn, and by the end of his time at Eckerd Academy, Hesse knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Now the owner of Fo’Cheezy Twisted Meltz in St. Pete Beach, Hesse and his Fo’Cheezy food truck team visited the girls at E-Nini-Hassee in Floral City on Tuesday, March 9, sharing his story with them and then feeding them lunch from his gourmet grilled cheese food truck.

“I was a heavy-set kid — at one time I weighed 655 pounds,” he said. “I came from a dysfunctional, abusive home, no father figure, no direction ... coming to the camp was a last-resort for me.

“I’m here to tell you, the things you learn here are tools you will need in life, because life’s going to throw you a bunch of curve balls ... unfortunately, when I graduated and left camp, the streets were very easy to find again and I found my way right back to jail,” he said.

His life changed when he went to New York and was hired by restaurateur Craig Munroe to work as a dishwasher.

Munroe is now a partner in Fo’Cheezy Twisted Meltz and still a friend.

“Being in the kitchen, I got a love of the camaraderie, of belonging to something,” he said. “It was family to me.”

At the time he still struggled with addiction, but for the first time in his life, other than camp, he had a direction and a standard to uphold — and a drive to succeed.

From there, he traveled to 36 states and four countries working in kitchens — all before he was 27.

At one point, he worked for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who pushed him — hard — and after Hesse suffered a massive heart attack, actually paid for Hesse’s gastric bypass surgery.

Since then, he’s lost 450 pounds and has kept it off for three years.

Hesse, who turns 44 on March 18, talked about his low points, jail and abuse and suicide attempts, and also his high points — making big money, meeting and cooking for celebrities — and then having his money taken away by the IRS for back taxes owed.

“People thought that would make me suicidal, but I said, ‘I have a story to tell.’ I came from dog nothing, and I know how to hustle. I know how to work. I know what I’m worth and that restaurants will always need a guy like me.”

He also said the fear of going back to his old life of crime and ending up in prison has kept him straight.

“I hope you’ll keep that fear, because the respect of that fear will keep you on the path of the noble and righteous,” he said.

He ended his hour-long talk by telling the campers to have a dream, but set small, obtainable goals, because small successes breed larger ones. Also, don’t be afraid to fail, because that’s how you learn.

“Risk it for the biscuit,” he said.

“He said a lot of the same things we hear here, but it’s different coming from someone who’s been a camper — it means more,” said one 16-year-old camper. “He talked about a lot of difficult things that I personally connected with — I’ve been in that spot; I’ve hit that bottom ... it’s helpful to hear from someone else who’s been so low and was able to come so high again.”

She said Hesse’s story reinforced her determination to keep working toward her big-picture goal of helping girls who don’t have access to education to get an education.

Another 16-year-old said she, too, related to Hesse’s rock bottom experience.

“I’m inspired to go after my dream, but take the small steps to get there,” she said. “My big dream is to help people who don’t have support ... I want to buy a big piece of land and start something for foster kids, have a shelter for homeless (people) and an animal rescue.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy at 352-564-2927 or nkennedy@chronicleonline.com. Read more of Nancy's stories at tinyurl.com/yxt69grh