Food & Drink | May 14, 2020 12:18 pm

First Meal Back: Robert Irvine of "Restaurant: Impossible"

Irvine discusses life during lockdown and where he’s hoping to go once restrictions are lifted

Robert Irvine First Meal Back
Chef Robert Irvine poses with food in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty for NYCWFF)
Getty Images for NYCWFF

In honor of all of the restaurants we dearly miss and can’t wait to get back to, we’re asking some of the country’s most decorated chefs to tell us about the meals that will be at the top of their list when Stay at Home orders finally lift. This is First Meal Back.

Robert Irvine, the star of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible, knows his way around the kitchen — and how to tear one up. Irvine began cooking professionally after enlisting in the UK’s Royal Navy at the age of 15 and went on to serve aboard the Queen’s royal yacht, Britannia.

Following his 10-year tour of duty, the 54-year-old chef continued his culinary journey in the kitchens of hotels and ships in Europe, the Caribbean, the Americas and the Far East. Eventually, that journey led Irvine, who was once named one of the 25 Fittest Guys in America by Men’s Fitness, to the Food Network, where Restaurant: Impossible just returned to the airwaves for its 17th season.

As part of our series First Meal Back, we connected with Irvine at his Florida home to find out what he’s been up to during the lockdown and where he’s hoping to eat once restrictions are lifted.

InsideHook: Where are you most looking forward to going out to eat once restaurants are back open?

Robert Irvine: For me, eating is about being with a group of people I like to be with. Where am I most looking forward to eating? Any restaurant where I’m around good friends. One of the things the pandemic has stolen from all of us, apart from confidence, is our friendships. Yes, we can Zoom and do all those things, but the reality is we are a bunch of men and women and kids that love to hug, to shake hands and to be around people. Part of that for me is dining with people I love. I love my wife, but I’ve been here for eight weeks. I’m doing the same routine. It’s almost like Groundhog Day every day. You get up, you shower, you go on a bike ride, you come back, you eat, you watch TV, you eat, you go to bed. So I’m really looking forward to being around people and enjoying food.

Who are you most looking forward to eating with when the lockdown is over?

A big part of my life until coronavirus was helping people and I spent over 150 days a year with our military worldwide. For me, sitting down at a table and breaking bread with a 19-year-old male or female from one of our armed services who may be forcing a nuclear warhead down a 20×15 hole or driving a tank or flying a plane is the most exciting dining experience ever. You get to hear things from a different perspective. You have a 20-year-old who’s sending a $60 million plane off the end of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean, yet he or she can’t drink beer yet. I get the most joy when I’m dining with people who serve our country and I mean that most sincerely. I love to listen to their stories.

Is there anywhere particular you’re looking forward to getting a drink?

Vegas. I have a restaurant in Vegas and we have a huge bar. When I go to Vegas, it’s really the only time I can, not exactly let loose, but be myself. It sounds weird when I say that, but I’ve got my family around me and I can enjoy it because I know I’m in that circle of safeness, if that makes sense. I drink tequila. Not a lot, but I like tequila. We have a partnership with Patrón, so we make our own tequila that’s only sold at the restaurant. I have it literally shaken until it turns white and then I chug it like a shot. Then I chug a Stella after as a chaser. It’s called a Robert Irvine.

Is there anywhere else you’re really looking forward to going once the lockdown is over?

I love Washinton D.C. I love the food scene there. I love New York, but I spend a lot of time in D.C. because I do a lot in the Pentagon and we have a restaurant there. I’ve got a lot of friends there and I just like the vibe. It’s very classy, very fun, I can’t wait to get back there. There’s a restaurant I love called Founding Farmers . You can get farm-to-table anywhere, but they — you’re going to laugh when I say this — have the best deviled eggs on the planet. I keep going back there because they do an awful lot of great stuff, but I always start with deviled eggs.

What have you been cooking at home during this strange time?

If you look at me, it’s obvious I eat a lot of meat. My wife is almost vegan and she has been trying to “teach me” about tofu, gochujang and a lot of Asian kinds of food. We don’t usually cook it here because we’re always on the road, but now we’ve been playing with tofu and some Asian spices. It’s been kind of fun, actually. When you write this, people are going to say, “Robert Irvine, tofu? Yeah, OK,” because I’m not that guy.

What have you been doing to keep yourself in shape?

At first, I thought we could order some weights because we don’t have a gym. Well, try getting weights in a pandemic. You can’t, literally. So, we ended up driving 45 minutes to get a couple of bikes and since then we’ve been biking. I’d not ridden a bike since. since I was probably 16. One day we’ll do 20 miles and the next day we’ll do eight miles. We do alternate doing 20 miles and eight miles. That’s what we’ve been doing to keep fit.

What will the restaurant industry need to do to bounce back after all this?

If you’re married and have kids, most of the decisions of the household are made by women. Women are the decision-makers in our world, period. In my world too. My wife decides something, we do it. That’s a good thing because I don’t want to be decisive when I’m not working. I mean this sincerely, in a positive way, but unless we cater to make the wives of the world feel comfortable to go to a restaurant, then we won’t go. Guys will go anywhere. We don’t think about safety, or maybe we do now because we’ve got to take considerations, but we never used to. I believe, for me in the restaurant business, I have to get all the mums of the world to know that my restaurant is safe for their kids, for their grandma, for their granddad, for their husband and for their friends. Once I can prove to them that it is a safe environment, the restaurant industry will come back pretty quickly. But it’s going to take a minute to get to that point.

What’s been the biggest challenge of this whole experience for you?

Sitting back and watching people go through hardship and not being able to reach out and help them. The feeling of helplessness is the worst for me, because I’m a do-it guy. I walk into a place, I fix it. I see a person, I fix them. I’m a doer, so for me being forced to stay home creates anxiety, because I know I can help folks. For me, sitting at home at eight weeks is like I lost eight weeks just stuck in time. The feeling of helplessness is just the worst part for me and I can’t wait. I want to go into the world at the risk of putting my own health at risk. It’s not a matter of if I get coronavirus, it’s a matter of when. Some of us are going to get it, some of us are not going to get it. Some of us are going to get it worse, some of us are not going to feel it. It’s out there, but we can’t live in a bubble or in a box. We have to be the safest we can and follow protocols with gloves, masks and social distancing. I think there are ways to do that but still help people. Restaurant Impossible is a real show. Real people, real problems, real solutions. This makes it even more real.

Have there been any positives to all of this? A bright side?

Absolutely. There have been horrific deaths, let’s get it out of the way. We’ve had time with our families that we would never have ever have had if we hadn’t been put into this forced lockdown, so I think that’s a positive. We’ve learned to do things that we wouldn’t normally do together. To cook together, to clean together, to eat together, to go to school and adapt to changes in life. I think we’ve learned to do more with less. I think a lot of us have started to understand what family means and that comes through the loss of other people’s families. I think that has really made us think about what we have more than what we don’t have. We have love, we have life, we have each other. We don’t have toilet paper, but it’s OK, we’ll figure it out.

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