Chef Robert Irvine didn’t plan to be on TV. “When I came to the US in the 90s, I knew I could cook and run a restaurant and I did that. Early on, no, I didn’t think of TV,” Irvine says.
He started out as the executive chef at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Coincidentally, that restaurant had been losing a lot of money before I got there,” Irvine said. “Turning it around was immensely satisfying, but only years later did I realize that such a transformation would make for good TV.”
According to Irvine, as Food Network started to grow and expand, and “people started to realize that food programming didn’t have to be a traditional instruction-style cooking show in a controlled environment, that was a watershed development for me.”
Now, years later, through his show Restaurant: Impossible, he’s helped over 200 (and counting) restauranteurs flip their restaurants and lives. He’s also hosted or appeared on countless other shows including Dinner: Impossible, Worst Cooks in America, Next Iron Chef, and many more.
And Irvine uses his notoriety for good, too. In 2014, he created the Robert Irvine Foundation, which focuses on giving back to our military and first responder communities. “Giving feels good. Helping feels good,” Irvine said. “I’m totally hooked on it and I’ll do it for the rest of my life.”
While on location in Nampa, Idaho, working on his next season of Restaurant: Impossible, Irvine took some time out of his busy shooting schedule to answer some questions for MensHealth.com about his TV shows and career, giving back and his foundation, and nutrition and exercise.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Where do you find the motivation to pursue all of your various endeavors, especially on the hard days?
I guess I don’t think of it in terms of needing to find motivation. The motivation is all around me. There’s my daughters, my wife, my team, my foundation. There are so many people relying on me to bring it every day and give it my all and I can’t let them down.
I can’t let myself down, either. The kind of life I want to live relies on forward momentum. In that sense, I’ve always been intrinsically motivated to achieve; there’s nothing “out there”—it’s all “in here” if that makes sense.
What do you think keeps shows like Restaurant: Impossible alive and thriving after all these years?
The menu redesigns and renovations are popular, obviously, and those are really strong visual elements that we could not do without. But I don’t think this show gets to 20 seasons and beyond if we had relied on that. We drill down with the owners and try to find the root cause of the issues that are threatening to sink the restaurant.
That’s a powerful emotional through line for the viewer. Every week, they should be rooting for that owner to reach a revelation and make a change, not just to see what the designer came up with. I think we’ve achieved that.
After all these seasons, what’s the most memorable restaurant you revitalized, and why?
It’s not a cop out to say that you can’t ask me that. I can’t pick a single favorite song, much less a favorite restaurant. I would say that I have a favorite category; I love helping restaurant owners who are civic-minded and using their restaurants as community hubs and are looking for ways to give back to the people in their area.
There were a bunch of episodes like this, but I’ve filmed so many overall that I’m biased toward the most recent, which were Park Vue Soul Food Bar and Restaurant in Buffalo and Smith’s Soul Food Bistro in Gastonia, NC. As usual, I was frustrated with how the owners were running things, but they had such big hearts and instincts to give back to their communities that I couldn’t stay mad for long.
What’s the hardest part of running a restaurant that people don’t realize?
I think most people who get into it are ignorant of how all-consuming it is. Running any small business has a way of becoming your whole life, but running a restaurant ratchets up the pressure exponentially.
People have such a wealth of food options you simply can’t afford to give them even one bad experience. Word of mouth is everything. Yelp is everything. A single off day can cost you a lot of money in repeat business. Have a few bad days and suddenly the whole endeavor is in danger of going under. Your margin for error is vanishingly thin.
How did the Robert Irvine foundation come about?
I’m an Englishman by birth, an American by choice. I love this country and can’t imagine my life without it. Understanding that the freedoms we enjoy—to pursue whatever excites us and makes us happy—could not be had without our men and women in uniform, I felt it was incumbent on me to give back. I also served in the military and I understand how hard that life is on both the individual serving and on their families. Even in peacetime.
There’s an adage, “the whole family serves,” and I believe that’s absolutely true. I needed to find an appropriate way to say thank you, so for a long time I went on USO tours and assisted the Gary Sinise Foundation with their charitable work, and eventually I created my own foundation.
Tell us a little bit about the many effects the foundation has had on the military community so far.
Right now there are veteran homeless shelters that have been renovated to serve more people thanks to grants from the foundation. There are veterans who have lost limbs or become paralyzed who are able to purse active outdoor lives with their families thanks to motorized wheelchairs we were able to buy for them.
Then there are the thousands of meals we’ve cooked and served to troops and the countless protein bars we’ve donated. We’re finally at a place where we’re raising significant money and able to have an even bigger impact. I’m thrilled with where we are, but even more excited for where we’re going.
What is the best part about giving back?
From an altruistic point of view, it’s simply the right thing to do. From a selfish point of view, it feels great! We’re naturally hard-wired to help each other. Giving feels good. Helping feels good. This is how we evolved as a species. It’s how we create community.
There’s a little endorphin rush when you can give something to someone who needs it; that’s nature’s little incentive for us to keep doing things like this. It hits me every time I see a smile on the face of a veteran, first responder, or their families.
If someone wants to give back in their local community, what’s a reader’s first step?
It doesn’t need to be big! You can give money to great organizations, obviously, but you might get more satisfaction—and form real, lasting bonds—by acting locally. You can volunteer at veteran shelters or hospitals, or just buy dinner or drinks for your local VFW hall. Don’t have the money or time for any of that? Just say thank you to a veteran. So many of these brave men and women struggle because they don’t know if their sacrifices mean anything, or they worry that they’ve gone unnoticed. Take notice and let them know. It can make all the difference.
If a reader wants to come up with their own easy healthy recipe, where should they start?
It has to start with what you love. I can sit here and talk about this fish and that fish and oh it’s fresh and look at all the nutrients in there, but if you don’t already love fish, that’s a tough sell. So what’s your thing? Tacos? Burgers? Pizza? Start small and just make that stuff at home.
I think if you’re just starting out on a fitness journey, an admirable first step is to make your own food. Simple home prep is going to make it healthier off the bat versus getting your fix from a fast food joint. It may not be healthy, per se, but healthier than what you were having before. Then you can take the next step and swap beef for chicken or turkey and start controlling portion sizes.
But in this country I think step one for most people is breaking the drive-thru habit. Once you’re in control of it in your own kitchen, a lot more is possible.
What’s your favorite nutritious meal that you could eat again and again?
I love a whole roast chicken with root vegetables and potatoes. It’s such a simple thing and a little bit of love goes a really long way. I put my favorite recipe for this in my cookbook, Fit Fuel.
What does a typical workout routine look like for you?
For years I’ve been an old-school body part split type of guy. That and steady-state cardio. I know. It’s not sexy or exciting, and it’s rather time-consuming, but it’s the truth. That’s always been my default and always will be, though I have a new trainer—Steve Wrona out of Tampa—who’s got me doing a lot more in terms of conditioning, pushing sleds, and all kinds of work I wouldn’t do if left to my own devices. That change of pace has done wonders for me.
How do you manage to fit it into your grueling work days?
I see it as fitting the other stuff around the training. My day starts with it and everything feeds off of me taking care of myself. If I’m traveling, I go online and pick out my gym—though at this point I have a favorite in every big city. I’ll use a hotel gym in a pinch, but I prefer a proper weight room and the energy that’s in places like that.
When and how did fitness and nutrition become such an integral part of your life?
I was always active. I played sports and lifted weights since I was a kid. I would say I really turned a corner when I met my wife Gail. I was a big guy but I ate whatever I wanted. Gail, meanwhile, is meticulous about diet and showed me how much more potential I could unlock by cleaning up my diet. After that, I started trying to make restaurant-style dishes healthier (that’s when I wrote Fit Fuel), and I developed my own line of protein bars, FitCrunch.
If a reader can only pick one—a healthy meal or working out—which one should they pick and why?
There’s an old saying amongst gym rats, “You can’t outrun a bad diet,” and I’ve found that to be 100 precent true. When you’re young and training for hours and hours, there’s a lot you can get away with, but as you get older and you start collecting pets and kids and responsibilities, that time in the gym is cut back.
And there are times when your schedule dictates that you’re going to have to miss a day in the gym. What I’ve learned is that if you can keep your diet on point, that missed training session isn’t that big of a deal. Meanwhile, you can have a lousy day of eating and drinking that has a serious effect. All of a sudden you don’t want to train the next day because you don’t have the energy or you’re hungover.
So in a general sense, diet is more important because it’s something you have to take care of 24 hours a day versus your one hour in the gym.
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