The Big LeadThe Big Lead

Chef Robert Irvine On How He Does the Impossible 48 Hours at a Time

Robert Irvine is an imposing figure. The host of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible is, in his own words, intense. But then again, when turning someone’s life around in a tight window is on the menu, there’s little time for chit-chat. Irvine is about rolling up his sleeves — sometimes to the bicep — and getting to work.

The chef, who is as passionate about the military and giving back as he is his food, took some time to tell The Big Lead about his process and traveling the world for a good cause.

Kyle Koster: Do you have a checklist when you go into these places to identify what’s wrong or do they all present their own unique challenges and have deficiencies in different ways?

Robert Irvine: I don’t have a checklist because they’re all different. They’re all unique in their own way. When I visit I walk in and I try to figure out why it’s gotten to the place it’s gotten to and the story behind the restaurant. Then, and only then, can I understand what’s going on. So I don’t have a process, it’s more of a feeling.

KK: Do you immediately get a sense of how hard the project is going to be, and how often are those initial instincts correct?

RI: Am I normally right? Yes. You can normally see how difficult it’s going to be based on meeting with the owner. Are they defensive? Are they open to change? When you tell somebody that the food sucks, the place is disgusting, all these things that I tell them, their reaction like normal people is, ‘Well, it’s not my fault.’ Well, yeah, it is your fault because you own it. You’re paying people to do these jobs, you’re not busy because you’re not bringing in any revenue. They’re here and you’re paying them, so why can’t they clean? The owner’s meeting shows whether they’re open to change or if it’s going to be a fight and normally it’s a fight for the first eight hours.

KK: Do you ever stop and consider if these people would have gotten back on the right track if you hadn’t showed up? It feels like human nature to need a push from the outside.

RI: I can prove that the answer is no. If I hadn’t come in, they’d be closed. You know, it’s like the military. We train young soldiers to use a rifle in the dark, the wet, the cold. Simply take it apart, put it together again because someone’s life depends on it. We train that. So I feel the same way with restaurants. If we train the people properly and hold them accountable, there should be no issues.

The problem is that in the restaurant industry, so many people get into it who don’t understand it, who don’t know how to lead people, they hire their family and friends, and it’s a party. But it’s really not. It’s a business. I believe it should be run like the military simply because there is structure in the military, there is accountability, there is great leadership, there is teamwork.

KK: I imagine that’s a shocking thing to process considering so many get into the industry because they want to do their own thing and be their own boss.

RI: You know what? I’m okay with shock as long as they learn because if they learn from what I teach them they can make more money — both the owners and staff — and they’ll be busier. They won’t have time to dilly-dally and mess around.

KK: Underneath your intense exterior, what type of wear and tear does it take on you personally? I assume you get pretty invested in these places.

RI: I am very, very invested from the minute I walk through that door, to the point that it stops being a TV show to me. It’s about somebody’s livelihood. So I’m intense with the production team when they put the wires in the wrong place when I’m trying to build something. I’m intense, I really am. Because it’s their future that I’m messing with. They’ve allowed me to come into their lives to help them and I’m going to help them by hook or by crook.

What you see in 42 minutes is 42 minutes of 48-hour intense show– on camera, off camera — every minute. These poor people do not get much downtime. They don’t sleep much during that time. The roller coaster of emotions is unbelievable, not only for them but for me and the team that I’m working with.

KK: What don’t we see that’s going on in that time?

RI: You see the renovation going on but you don’t see all the work that I’m doing behind the scenes. Teaching them the value of a dollar, the menu, the portion size, the profit-loss, showing why it doesn’t make sense. You know, all those intricacies that big businesses have but they can hide those because revenue hides all ill. They don’t have revenue and most times their house is tied to it, they’re family, they’re husband and wife. The restaurant business is the biggest divorce statistic in the world. I have all those in the back of my mind which puts pressure on me and I take that pressure literally personally.

I’ve got to figure out what the dynamics are between the husband, the wife, the kids, the servers, the business, the clientele, the surrounding area, what the kitchen staff can actually handle … all of those things are down to me. I don’t have a team to do that. I’m not like any other show that backs up a 53-foot trailer and has all the food already done in bags.

This is one of the things that all the volunteers say: ‘Oh my God, it’s real.’ Oh, it’s real. It doesn’t get any realer than this.

KK: Switching gears, you’ve been very involved in the USO and taken dozens of foreign trips. How did that come about?

RI: Obviously, I was in the military for many years. I came over to the States, worked with Donald Trump at Taj Mahal — I was the executive chef — and started to work with the White House with a friend of mine, Tony Powell, who was the director of food service for the White House. I got involved with the USO way back in 1997 and we just finished our 24th USO Tour.

We’ve actually started to do our own tours. I would contact the base or ship directly, so we’ve done about 40 of those on our own: to Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Poland, Spain, Djibouti, you name it. We do 3-7 of those a year now.

It’s just great that we have the opportunity to entertain these men and women.

KK: What stands out?

RI: I was in Afghanistan in 2013 and a general asked me what I want to do. I said I wanted to visit every FOB that nobody goes to, and we did. When I left he said, ‘I want you to do me a favor, Robert. Don’t let the American people forget what we do every day of the year, not just when you read it in the newspaper.’ I took that to heart.

I’m happy to be a part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. We can give a couple hours of relief, do a show or just shake hands. The difference it makes is unbelievable.  It gives me pride in our military and their families, those who support them.

It makes me proud to be an American. I’m an immigrant but I champion our military because I truly believe they need to know that we care about them. They’re out there doing long tours away from their families. People say to me, ‘Do you have passion for food?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ But that’s my No. 2 passion. No. 1 is the military, but food is the vehicle that gets me to that point.

KK: What do you think people who haven’t had the experience may not appreciate day to day?

RI: America’s been at war for 18 years in that part of the world and I think people forget that we have DOD civilians, we have family back here where mom or dad have become the cook, the cleaner, the cab driver, the coach, the plumber, because the other partner is deployed.

Freedom is not cheap. One percent of our country puts on that uniform to defend the freedom of this country. I don’t because I’m around it, and I love that. But we do in our daily lives. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are great because there’s all this support but there are 360-some other days in a year other than those where these guys and girls are out there doing what they do. We need to be reminded of that.

A new episode of Restaurant: Impossible premieres Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET on Food Network.