A conversation with Chef Robert Irvine of 'Restaurant: Impossible'

Chef Robert Irvine (right) with the Food Network places a dish in front of judges Donald Barickman (left) and Ward Morgan for their judgment during the Cooking Well Invitational held Friday at Trident Tech in North Charleston. Buy this photo

Celebrity chef Robert Irvine of “Restaurant: Impossible,” a popular reality TV show on the Food Network, was in Charleston last week lending his star power to a cook-off involving 10 South Carolina hospitals.

Robert Irvine

Robert Irvine, 48, was born in England and grew up in Wiltshire.

At age 15 he enlisted in the British Royal Navy. His culinary skills attracted attention, and he was selected to work on board the Royal Yacht Britannia where he cooked for and interacted with the royal family, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Irvine also worked in the White House kitchens while training Navy chefs as part of a guest chef program. In all, he served 10 years in the military.

Afterward, Irvine cooked in hotels and on cruise ships, spending time in Europe, the Far East, the Caribbean and the Americas.

During his career, he had the opportunity to serve 6,000 servicemen and women on a U.S. aircraft carrier and plan the menu for a celebrity-studded after-party at the Academy Awards.

He has appeared in a number of Food Network shows, including “Dinner: Impossible,” “Worst Cooks in America,” “The Next Iron Chef” and “Restaurant: Impossible,” which is entering its fifth season.

Irvine has experienced his own flap: In 2008, a newspaper story cast doubt on some of Irvine's career assertions. Subsequently, the Food Network pulled his biography from its website and later replaced him as host of the “Dinner: Impossible” series.

The network restored a revised bio to the website and by the end of the year had rehired Irvine, who continued to host “Dinner” until its end in 2010.

Irvine then went on to new projects with the network, including the spin-off “Restaurant: Impossible” that premiered in January 2011.

Irvine is known for his tough-love approach in helping failing restaurateurs make over their businesses from top to bottom in just 48 hours and with a $10,000 budget.

In the show, he deals with a myriad of problems, including menus and the food, cooking skills, staff, management, work flow, sanitation, decor and more.

But it's often the psychological warfare between the owners and workers, or Irvine himself, that provides the show's tension and suspense. In the end, it all works out, and a “new” restaurant comes to life amid tears of joy from the families. Sometimes Irvine, too.

What is less known is Irvine's connections to South Carolina. He has had a home on Hilton Head Island since 2007, and operates two restaurants there, Eat! and Nosh.

Irvine sat down with The Post and Courier at the Culinary Institute of Charleston to answer a few questions prior to the cook-off.

Q. How did you get hooked up with this event in Charleston?

A: I've been working with hospitals in Florida an awful lot on their Healthy 100 program (focuses on healthy lifestyle changes), which has not only changed the Florida health system but also a local business, Tupperware, and an international businesses, actually, where they're more concerned with the health of their employees and their well-being than making money.

Money is a point but if you think about a major operation or a major business has many, many people and the insurance liabilities on these people is huge.

So there are tax breaks and incentives for companies to get healthier, to give options to their employees in food and exercise. And it fits very nicely with what I do, because I'm an advocate for health, healthy children, healthy eating, healthy living, exercise.

I am about to launch a whole line of protein bars and carbohydrate bars on the 27th of September, which are all healthy, low sugar, low fat. l live that lifestyle.

My wife is a professional athlete, my children are rock climbers and gymnasts, so it goes along with my mental focus.



Q. What brought you to Hilton Head in the first place? How much of the year do you actually live there?

A: I came to see somebody, a friend of mine. I loved the area so much that I called my now-ex-wife and said that if I didn't have a house here in seven weeks, we'd be divorced. And I've had two restaurants there ever since.

This has been a tough year. I'm on the road 345 days a year.



Q. So you're really not in Hilton Head that much.

A: I fly in a day here, a day there. But we are filming three new shows, so it's tough.



Q. What is appealing about Hilton Head? It's not for everybody.

A: Well, I like serenity, quiet and peacefulness. My life is on the road and I can tell you every airport and every hotel around the country. South Carolina in general is so peaceful and beautiful.



Q. How often are you in Charleston?

A: I come here, I go to the VA (hospital); you know I do an awful lot with veterans and Wounded Warriors. I did military duty. The last time I was here was to visit service members at the VA hospital.



Q. Just unannounced?

A: Yes.



Q. What is a restaurant or two here that you really like?

A: McCrady's obviously, but I don't get to ... here's the funny thing, I get in this morning at midday, after flying from LA. We shot all day yesterday and got a red-eye here. So there's really not that much time to do an awful lot. Normally when I hit the ground, there's a lot going on.



Q. Charleston doesn't have a nationally branded chef here like yourself, one who has had so much TV exposure. Have you or would you consider opening a restaurant here?

A: I actually looked at opening a restaurant two years ago in Kingstree. I just couldn't get the parking.

Charleston, if the right opportunity was here, yeah, absolutely. It's ripe for a different style restaurant.



Q. On “Impossible,” you can be really hard on people but you show a soft side, too. Off camera, which personality is dominant?

A: When somebody has a debt of a half-million to a million dollars, I have 36 hours in which to figure out their life. And nine out of 10 times, their home is tied to the restaurant, their family, their marriage, their savings, their credit cards, their friends and family that have put in money. So I make no apologies for being tough.

This is the only real reality show on television where there is no knowledge. I do not know where I'm going or who I'm going to meet until I sit in the car and do the drive-up.

They tell me I'm going to meet Pat and Gina or so and so. That's all I know about them until you tell me. So when people say you're tough, I always say to them, so if you tell me you're a million dollars in debt and you want me to get you out of it in 36 hours, how would you like me to be?

Would you like me to be all nice and soft? I don't have the time. In real time, I have 22 minutes to find out your life story.

Yes, I spend two days with you or a total of 36 hours and it's a real $10,000. It's not scripted and you tell me what you want to tell me, and based on what you tell me, it's how I react, how I figure out my plan of action to get this restaurant with its disgusting foodways to that next level by tomorrow evening by 6 o'clock.

So am I tough? Absolutely. Am I caring? I don't know any other chef anywhere that cares more about these families than I do. Out of 82 restaurants, 87 percent of them are successful.

I'm a dad, I'm a husband, I travel tirelessly 100 days a year with the military. I've just come back from Afghanistan after having a left hip replacement 10 days before.

Why did I do that? Because I committed to the Third Infantry Division that I would do that. And I'm a man of my word. You derive from that what you wish.

I travel probably 100 days doing kids charities ... Am I a saint? No, no. But I care about kids and veterans and military people.

Q. When and where did you experience that tough-love approach and then adopted it as your own?

A: I'm military. In the military you start with the end in mind. OK, what is the goal? The goal for me is when you tell me you're a half-million dollars in debt, which in actual terms means you're more because you're telling me what you think you want me to know.

Tough love always starts in training. And the military has done that great. The military and kitchens are very similar. They're running brigades, we know we have to put a plate of finished food out, we know we have to achieve a mission.



Q. All of the “Impossible” shows have a happy ending. Have you ever had to walk away from a restaurant that just wasn't going to work out?

A: I never walk away from anything. I'm their last hope. To me, it's not TV ... I'm here to help people no matter how nasty they get.



Q. Do you think Paula Deen will make a comeback? What would it take?

A: Paula is a dear friend. It's something she has to figure out.



Q. What is a favorite food indulgence of yours?

A: Roasted chicken and mashed potatoes.

Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4886.

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