You probably know him from “Restaurant: Impossible,” where he takes a failing one and works a miracle with both the eating establishment and the owners and employees, or his new show, Restaurant Express, where chefs face off for the chance at their dream eatery. Now Robert Irvine is a “Man on a Mission” in Metro New York to let foodservice operators know the benefits of an innovative ice-making subscription program.
But Food Network chef Robert Irvine has a long and star-studded history; from serving as head chef at Academy Awards celebrations to being part of the Naval Mess at the West Wing of The White House to becoming executive chef aboard numerous cruise ships, culminating with the five-star MS Crystal Harmony.
How did you get involved in the industry?
I was in the U.S. Navy for 10 years as a cook with the Marines, in field and on field, and I worked for a couple of admirals and generals. When I came out of the Navy, I worked as the executive chef at the Renaissance Jamaica Grand. Then I was the executive chef in charge of operations at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. And then I went from there to one of Caesar’s hotels and casino, with over 1,000 employees. And finally, I started my own business, with two restaurants, Robert Irvine’s Eat!, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and Robert Irvine’s Nosh, Bluffton, South Carolina.
Tell me what it’s like to work in something as intense and high volume as cruise ships. What did you take out of that? What did you move forward with as you built your career?
These places serve thousands and thousands of meals a day and snacks with a variety of crew members from all over the world. What I took away was buying food in local areas and sourcing food. One of my biggest concerns was and is, how do we make food safe? How do we make the environment safe? Not only for the guests but also the people handling the food. Do we give them the tools they need to do their jobs? Or do we leave them hanging and expect them to do their jobs? That’s very important. Sanitation and cleanliness are key.
It may seem trivial but how does the proper handling of ice enter into this issue of food safety?
By going into these places and actually seeing the state of what the ice machines look like, I can tell you how clean and safe the whole operation is. I’ve seen everything that could possibly happen to an ice machine, cockroaches in it, bacteria in it, even mold growing in the ice cubes. And it’s something that nobody ever thinks about, but we put it into drinks. We feed children, old people, young people with it.
Sickness has no boundaries. And what I’ve seen is that ice machines are very dangerous if they’re not handled correctly. Because it only takes one person to ingest mold and tragically die. And if they’re 80 years old or 12 years old and they get sick, they could die. I use that all the time on my show, Restaurant: Impossible. Ice is very, very dangerous.
So what’s the solution for a restaurant?
I knew that I would clean my ice machine once a month. Maybe twice a month if I was lucky. But if I’m not there, I couldn’t trust my employees to do it. So why would I trust a restaurant that I go to when they’re busy and they’re short-staffed to really do it? I don’t. That’s why I use Easy Ice, you can get a subscription and know it’s clean and safe every time. I try to get the word out that, hey, listen, why worry about these things that you don’t need to worry about? Like ice and ice machines and cleaning when you have somebody to do that? Ice may seem trivial but it’s really not.
How did the idea for Restaurant: Impossible come about?
About four years before it started, I went to the network. At the time we were doing Dinner: Impossible. And they were not interested in doing a fix-it with a restaurant because of the liability. You know, letting an English guy go in with a sledgehammer! To fix a restaurant is not without potential disasters. So we tabled it. But after finishing 100-plus episodes of Dinner: Impossible, I suggested we go back and visit Restaurant: Impossible.
They said, let’s greenlight it, six episodes and see how you do. It was crazy. The people loved it. And here we are. We just finished our 98th restaurant, 76 of which have been successful. and we’re in the process of doing another 26 right now.
What are the common characteristics of the 76 that have been successful?
That’s easy. To account and record what they do and what they spend. And acquire knowledge that they never had before through creating systems to achieve the common goal of hey, let’s not lose money. Bring in an accounting company to make sure the books are straight. There’s all these things that go on but not everyone is the same. Sometimes it’s family members who are the problem and we get rid of some of them because we can’t work together. You know how a business runs.
Where did this tough love come from?
We trek back and see why it isn’t being successful and we take it piece by piece. Is it financial? Is it staffing? Is it food? Is it service? Is it the hard physical plant itself ? Is it a color? We break it down and that way I can figure out, ok, when I leave here in 36 hours, who is going to be responsible for the running of this restaurant and are they going to be able to do it the same as me.
We change the attitude of the cooks and we revamp the place and we show them how to buy fish the way it’s supposed to be bought, how to use and handle it, and obviously, we teach them how critical a part ice plays because the fish has to sit on fresh ice.
So I put systems in place to be able to make sure that when I do leave, it doesn’t change. Those who listen, thrive, and we’ve proved that. We’ve had restaurants go from half a million dollars in debt to a million five in revenue. One restaurant owner texted me just last night that now you can’t even get in the doors, after I was there a year ago.
Why is it so important to get the right distributor, the right specialty house?
I’m the spokesperson for Sysco, which has the largest farm of people on the planet. Or at least it seems that way! It goes from the seed all the way through its growing period to the end of the table, with its products. And at any one point, we can tell you what is in that herb, what is on that lettuce. And where it comes from. Same with their fish.
Sysco actually teaches growers how to farm in a different way. Not to teach them to farm, but teach them to farm so they make more money on their product, sustainability and everything. It’s so important.
Can a restaurant serve healthy food and be successful?
Restaurants can offer healthy food and it doesn’t have to be filled with butter and cream and eggs. It has to be available, if that’s what you want. But also there has to be a variety. We talk about gluten-free; we talk about all these nutrition fads. Some are health-related, some are just fads but we as chefs have to adapt to that to keep our business going. Fresh food simply with the least amount done to it using fresh fruit and herbs, low sodium, soy sauces and honeys instead of refined sugars, that’s the key. We can do the same thing, we just have to cut the butter and eggs and sugar back, and yes, my restaurants do it and they thrive.
What makes a restaurant fail?
There are four things that can be wrong. It’s outdated, the decor is dirty, the staff doesn’t know what they’re doing, the menu is old and redundant. As a business owner, I change my menu every five weeks. If I have people coming in five days a week, I don’t want them seeing the same menu.
I as a business owner better be on the ball as well when the guests are telling our server something isn’t right, make sure they pass that on to the manager to ensure we make the changes to keep them coming back. There’s no excuse why you can’t change your business, and I do it every week with $10,000 in two days.
What about the popularity of all the cooking shows on TV? What has that done to our industry?
Nobody wants to be in our business now – they want to be TV stars, they want to be on television, they want to make money. Or somebody sees that their wife is good at cooking and they can do really nice things with people so they deserve to have a restaurant. Come on. Before I got on TV I was working for 30-something years in the industry from hotels to cruise ships to restaurants. And in the military to get to where I am. And people think it’s easy to run a restaurant. I’m the one who stands there and says, if you don’t like vacations, if you don’t like boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever the case may be, and you want to go work for somebody in the industry for two years for free and don’t get paid, go ahead and do it. Sure, it’s fun to be a star. But it’s also incredibly hard work.