FOR A MAN who dubs himself a “pretty simple guy” and a chef who repeatedly stresses the importance of “simple food,” Robert Irvine’s life is far from simple. Primarily heralded for his talents in the kitchen, Irvine has blossomed into a bona fide jack-of-all-trades since his initial rise to stardom on the Food Network shows Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible. Today, Irvine wears a wide variety of hats, from television personality to philanthropist to business owner. It’s a multi-faceted career that keeps him quite busy—he is on the road roughly 345 days a year—but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I have a great time,” Irvine said. “I have the best life on the planet.”
Breaking Barriers with Food
“It was 30 girls and a home economics class and I thought I was going to get lucky,” he said with a laugh. “I made my first quiche lorraine at 11 years old and then the girls went out the window.”
He blossomed into quite a cook, joining the British Royal Navy at age 15 and honing his culinary skills for 10 years before transitioning into the hospitality industry. Through the years, as he cooked for the Navy, hotels, casinos, and cruise ships, he realized his initial approach to cooking—using it to facilitate a connection with others—was just as exciting as the food itself. Food is still one of his biggest passions, and it understandably plays an extremely prominent role in his life, but these days, it’s not as much about the food as it is about the people.
“As you get older, your priorities change,” he said. “If you think about every event we have in our lives—marriages, funerals, divorces now, declarations of independence, homecomings—they’re all based around food. It’s the most amazing way to break barriers, and I think that’s what I use it for: to break barriers.”
Irvine is a self-described “people’s person,” so it’s only fitting that his hit show Restaurant: Impossible revolves around people as much as it does food. On Restaurant: Impossible, Irvine and his crew have 36 hours and a $10,000 budget to help save a failing restaurant. While there are always problems with the cleanliness, decor, or food quality of the restaurants Irvine is tasked with fixing, in many cases, the biggest issues involve the people at the helm.
“The kids that suffer, the families that end up getting divorced or can’t talk to each other—if I fix those, it tends to fix the restaurant, believe it or not,” Irvine said. Cleaning and re-decorating and revamping a restaurant’s menu are all important tasks, but Irvine focuses on the family behind the restaurant first.
“When we started this show three years ago, it was basically a show that I would go in, re-do a menu, re-do a decoration and try to fix a restaurant, and quickly, it became a show that took its own direction, and it was about people,” he said. “It’s real people and real problems, and we give real solutions.”
With only 36 hours to make an impact, Irvine often needs to take a strong stance to get his point across in such a short amount of time. As a result, casual viewers of the show might see his approach as mean or intimidating, but Irvine only has the best interests of the restaurant owners and managers in mind.
“I never want to demean anybody, although if you want to fight me, I’ll fight you all the way,” Irvine said. “But I’ll always win. At the end of the day, I’m there to help you and not hurt you.”
“They start to trust you after about 8 hours,” Irvine added. “They hate me up until that point.”
By the time Irvine and his crew leave town, they have usually righted the ship and transformed a terrible restaurant into a thriving one. As of November 2014, Restaurant: Impossible boasts a 73% success rate in over 115 restaurants.
The majority of those successful establishments are still operated by the owners Irvine worked with during filming, but some restaurants are sold to new owners after the show. Irvine is happy with either result.
“If they sell the restaurant and they get out of debt and they can move on with life, then that’s a success to me.”
While viewers can see how much Irvine cares about the well-being of the restaurant owners and staff who appear on Restaurant: Impossible, what they don’t usually realize is that he tries to build and maintain lasting personal relationships with the people he helps. At the conclusion of filming, Irvine gives the restaurant owners his contact information in case they need any additional advice or assistance.
“If you’re not sure of something, call me,” he tells them. “And they do.”
“I just talked to two guys in North Carolina that I did three years ago,” Irvine said. “They were $1 million in debt, now they’re a $3.5 million a year company that you can’t even get in the door. That makes me like a proud papa, because they’re actually succeeding. They’ve listened. It’s a great feeling.”
Building a Brand
Over the years, Irvine’s immense success on his Food Network shows opened the door to a multitude of other opportunities. He has authored two cookbooks, he owns a successful South Carolina restaurant (“Robert Irvine’s Nosh”), and he is planning to announce a handful of other eateries in the near future.
In September 2015, “Robert Irvine’s FRESH Kitchen” will open at the Pentagon to serve government employees and contractors. Irvine says that two additional fresh-based restaurants for the public will follow.
“I’m a huge believer in fresh food,” he said. “I think you have to celebrate freshness, you have to celebrate life. All that I do is geared towards that.”
For those who want to enjoy an Irvine-approved meal but don’t live near any of his restaurants, Irvine also plans on introducing a new food line. He already has his own brand of fitness bars sold in 60,000 locations across the country and available online, but he is excited to expand and offer full meals.
“We have a whole new food line coming out that’s going to change the way children eat, the military eats, school systems eat,” he said.
As if he didn’t already have enough on his plate, Irvine is also working on a number of new television shows, a line of fitness clothing and a book.
“I have a new show called Fitness: Impossible coming out, a new show called The Partner coming out, and a new daytime talk show,” he said.
One of the reasons Irvine is involved in so many business ventures is so he can give back to a society that has embraced him.
“It’s a social conscience for me,” Irvine explained. “It’s not about making money. Money doesn’t help you unless you’re helping people, and I live that life.”
Irvine has a 501(c)3 charity called the Robert Irvine Foundation that he uses to lend assistance to those in need, from kids with cancer to military members and their families.
Irvine is a huge supporter of the military in particular, making countless appearances each year. Whether he’s visiting troops overseas or cooking for military functions, much of Irvine’s time is tied up with his military endeavors.
“I travel 345 days a year, 150 days a year for our military,” he said.
Last year, Irvine helped feed 122,000 Wounded Warriors and their caregivers. This year, in addition to those efforts, he is working behind the scenes to develop better meals for the military.
“We’re redesigning menus and looking at the way we feed our troops right now to keep them well-balanced,” he said. “We’ve looked at all of the machinery and all of the guns and all of the weapons, but we’ve never looked at the computers that carry them, which are people. We’re looking at that now, which is really exciting for me.”
While Irvine first rose to fame because of his talents in the kitchen, it’s his skills with people and his compassionate nature that have helped him maintain a successful career.
“It’s funny, because life changes,” Irvine said. “For me, it was all about food, and now, it’s about helping people. Food is the conduit to helping people.”