Robert Irvine on Restaurant Express, Paula Deen, More

By Kelly Dobkin  |  November 1, 2013

Food Network star Robert Irvine has a new show premiering this Sunday at 9PM called Restaurant Express, which tests the abilities of nine random people (from all walks of life) to run their own restaurant. The winner gets to live their dream of running a real restaurant at the M Resort in Vegas, and the drama on this show isn't scripted. The brawny TV chef, known mostly for his hit show Dinner: Impossible, and more recently, Restaurant: Impossible, chatted with us about this new endeavor, his upcoming real-life restaurant plans and overcoming a scandal that nearly brought down his career. Check out our chat below.

Zagat: Tell us about Restaurant Express - what do you think makes it unique?

RI: It’s really simple. It’s a very unusual show. It begins with nine contestants from all walks of life, some are in the military, some are housewives, chefs, etc. Some don’t speak English. It’s just a very mixed bag of people. They all have one thing in common - they have a dream to own their own restaurant. Over a period of seven weeks, they will go through a series of challenges and at the end of each, one person will be sent home. The challenges are about how to run a successful business and the tests are ones that they face in real life, if you’re running a restaurant, hotel, etc. They live on a tour bus and they there will be eight beds on that bus. They’re all fighting for a dream job of a lifetime to help open a restaurant at the M Resort Spa Casino in Vegas, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my life. But it’s their decor, their menu and they are the executive chef of that restaurant. It’s a very very great prize. A lot of shows promise those jobs and they never deliver. 

This is basically a business school on wheels. The most unique thing about the show, even if they are kicked off the bus, the life lessons along the way of this journey are amazing. It’s real - it’s not a scripted show. This is one of the things I’ve kept on all my shows - we don’t fabricate it. You say what you want to say, and how you want to say it. That’s really unique in this world of television.

Zagat: Does keeping the show unscripted pose any challenged to filming - does it take longer?

RI: When you’re following people around, there’s cameras on the bus and one thing we don’t do, and Food Network is amazing at doing this, unlike other people, we don’t load up the contestants full of alcohol and let them go at it with each other 3 AM. With Restaurant: Impossible, we’re 82% successful getting these businesses turned around from bankruptcy. We save homes and restaurants and jobs. Express is all about giving one person a dream, but in effect it gives nine hope at a dream. 

Zagat: Without giving away too much, what kinds of challenges test someone’s ability to run a restaurant?

RI: There’s a challenge where they had to market a restaurant, given X amount of dollars and time to create commercials and things like that. The show is full of things as a viewer, one wouldn’t normally think about running a restaurant. It’s all about business savvy. They can cook but before you get to the cooking part, what about the design, service, etc? Just like Restaurant: Impossible, Dinner: Impossible, it’s a real show that will give somebody a dream job that they’ve wanted all their lives. When I went into it, people would say, oh did you meet the cast? I didn’t cast the cast, I met them the same as the audience will meet them. Life is a series of moments put together in this journey that we’re all on together.

Zagat: You’ve done a lot of high pressure, reality-based shows, I assume you thrive on stress?

RI: Yeah, well, it’s the military in me, I always have the end in mind, the mission in mind. And I try and work backwards and do whatever steps are needed to get to that point. I love what I do and the military is what brought me in that frame of mind. We see what the military does around the world and I was in it for 10 years, so for me it’s just a natural progression of how do you teach people. When you take Restaurant: Impossible, how you take six people, me and Tom, a designer, and two assistants, and we turn around someone’s life around. There is no stress, it’s just "get the job done" and move on.

Zagat: We know you began your career in the Navy, how is the kitchen environment similar or different from that of the military?

RI: It’s identical. In fact many years ago, when Escoffier developed the brigade system in the kitchen, it was based on a military brigade system. Someone does sauce, fish, someone's in charge, someone’s the sous chef, etc. So it was very similar, the hierarchy and just like you earn your stripes in the military. You progress fast if you work hard, etc.

Zagat: What’s going on with eat! in Hilton Head, South Carolina - is it closed for good?

RI: It closed for a week, because of a mold growth. It reopened on Monday of last week. When you have mold it’s not good for the guests or the staff.

Zagat: Any other restaurant projects on the horizon?

RI: I am looking for one in the New Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. That’s the only one I’m looking at right now. We just launched our protein bars Fit Crunch. It’s an amazing tasting bar. We’re filming another season of Restaurant: Impossible soon and hopefully depending on what happens Sunday, we’ll have more seasons of Restaurant Express next year because I had such an amazing time doing it.

Zagat: Regarding the whole resume scandal you went through in 2008, it was reported at one point you had plans for a book on what happened. Is that still in the works?

RI: I did a blog about it when it was happening. I made a mistake but there were a lot more people that were out for financial gain. That was, however, long ago, and that’s past. I’m not going to look back at that. I am working on a new book called Fit Fuel, which will come out toward Q1 of next year. That’s the only book I’m working on right now.

Zagat: As someone who was once fired from the Food Network and then rehired, do you think Paula Deen has a chance at a comeback?

RI: I can tell you this, I don’t know anything that Paula said or did. All I can tell you is that she’s a very dear friend of mine. She will do what she needs to do to make sure that she makes it right. And she’s a great human being. You know, people make mistakes. Second chances are allowed. That's any walk of life. It’s just unfortunate that when you’re in the public eye, it is what it is. You have to grow from your mistakes and learn from them.