Food Network’s Tough-Love Host Chef Robert Irvine Talks About the Business of Giving
Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine is Santa Claus in a bodybuilder suit.
OK, that’s probably stretching it, but Irvine does drop some major surprises on the contestants of his latest reality show Restaurant Express, and quickly wraps up business plans and recipes for struggling eatery owners in Restaurant:Impossible, both on The Food Network.
Granted, he does these tasks in a militaristic way, barking orders and slathering truths when it comes down to wilted pieces of lettuce pretending to dress a platter or overpriced, undercooked barbecue menus.
Despite his tough love, Irvine’s goal is to empower people through food and fitness. His passion is to lend a helping hand where needed and teach his expertise in restaurant management, biceps and complementary flavors.
He’s accomplishing all these not only with his TV shows, but also with a forthcoming book to be released early 2014 on family, food and fitness; a live, national comedy show that talks about fitness and lifestyle in a fun way; a new nutritional snack food; an instant customer feedback technology called Humm Systems; and regular cooking tours for military personnel.
Yes, Irvine’s mind does run a thousand miles per hour. That’s why he works out, the 49-year-old British native says. It’s the only thing that really keeps him focused as he races from one end of the country to the other.
The reason the running around is worth it? He gets to help thousands of people, including those who are part of a project extremely important to him: Wounded Warriors.
“This year, we were able to cook for 122,000 Wounded Warriors,” Irvine says. “We met our goal.”
The Wounded Warrior Project (Woundedwarriorproject.org) provides programs and services to severely injured members of the military who are in transition between active duty and civilian life.
Irvine also volunteers with Invisible Children, an organization that spreads awareness about children forced to fight in Central Africa’s Lord’s Assistance Army (key name Joseph Kony); the Make a Wish Foundation; and 70 to 80 other charities annually.
His television work reflects his philanthropic personality as well, focusing on bringing people out of whatever funk is causing their restaurants to sink, or whatever barriers are holding them back from running their own kitchen or food venue.
For example, in a recent holiday Restaurant:Impossible (R:I) episode, Irvine revamped both a diner and a firehouse in New Jersey that incurred severe damage during Superstorm Sandy.
That episode was noticeably dear to Irvine’s heart, because before he got into cooking, his dream was to become a firefighter.
“I just came out of the [Royal] Navy, but I wasn’t really smart enough for [firefighting] so I became a cook instead,” he laughs over the phone from Albuquerque, N.M., where he’s getting ready to shoot an episode of R:I. “But my dreams have never changed. I joined the Navy, and I fought fires in the Navy.
Life is about just helping other people.”
The premise of R:I is that Irvine enters a struggling business, analyzes its major issues and tries to turn it around in two days with $10,000, following up after the episode with online updates to ensure the restaurant makes it.
Restaurant Express is a little different in that Irvine helps potential chefs make it big. In the debut season that just ended last week, Seonkyoung Longest—who grew up in South Korea and was residing in Mississippi—won the chance to be executive chef at M Resort’s restaurant Jayde Fuzion in Las Vegas, after seven intense episodes that included cooking meals for zoo animals, preparing dishes out of food trucks and meeting the whims of Irvine like cooking up a unique version of fish and chips.
At one point, Irvine was so impressed with Longest, despite her only having three years of kitchen experience, he said, “You move around a kitchen like you were born in one.”
The concept of the show intrigued Irvine when a friend at The Food Network pitched the idea of traveling across the country with a bus full of cooks. It wasn’t too different from Irvine’s own personal experience of traveling the world by sea during his time in the Royal Navy, and being asked to do one-in-a-lifetime menus like cooking for the Academy Awards or for Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal.
His experiences increased his business savvy and his efficiency in putting out impressive food fast. He now brings those skills to home cooks who want to make it big, just like Irvine did.
“It took a year of putting it together but I gotta tell you I was so proud of it, so proud of the show, the challenges, the way we taught the contestants,” Irvine says of the work behind Restaurant Express. “You went away learning something in the business. Every one of them did.”
Education and life-changing experiences epitomize Irvine. If you ask him what he’s learned in the last 25 years as a chef, he’ll tell you it’s to not judge anyone. That’s a hard task in a field that is rewarded through strict taste competitions and high standards. But for Irvine, the end game is more about business success and good food.
And he’s not that picky.
“I don’t really have any favorite foods,” he says. “I like new and exciting. Texture, taste and color. I love comfort foods like roast chicken.”
That sentiment makes sense with his two brick-and-mortar restaurants in South Carolina—Eat! and Nosh. Both focus on local cuisine, but one brings a unique sophistication while the other amplifies the perfect lunch.
When asked about major food service trends and the next big thing in the industry, Irvine keeps it simple.
“The next big thing is here,” he says. “It’s tapas, small plates and shared food, but there is not the next ‘wow thing.’ We’ve been through it all. There’s nothing that hasn’t been done already. We’re just moving toward a less formal atmosphere.”
Seems that way from the surface, but judging from Irvine’s full plate of projects, the big things—publicly anyway—are coming from the celebrity chefs who have some fun tricks up their sleeve.
If you’re interested in seeing what Chef Robert Irvine is cooking up in the kitchen, live, in the tech world or at the grocery store—because he will no doubt touch them all—visit Chefirvine.com.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, no he doesn’t get to eat as healthy on the road as he’d like to but at the time of this interview, the chef was diving into a salad of spinach, beets and walnuts with some pita and carrot hummus.
See Robert Irvine live in Sacramento when he brings the “impossible” to the Crest Theatre on Jan. 14, 2014. Doors open at 6:30. Tickets can be purchased at The Crest’s box office, through Thecrest.com or by calling (800) 225-2277.