Spark caught up with chef Robert Irvine to talk about mitigating risk in the food industry, so let’s dig in.
TWO DAYS, $10,000, A HALF-A-MILLION-OR-SO HEADACHES. THAT’S THE PREMISE OF “RESTAURANT IMPOSSIBLE,” HOSTED by Robert Irvine, which returned to the Food Network this year following a three-year absence. Irvine, of course, is the chef with the big biceps, the big grin and the bigger ideas about how to resurrect a dying dining establishment that might be going through hard times for a platterful of problems. With all the big issues on the menu, it’s not too surprising that Irvine’s first stop in the latest season of “Restaurant Impossible,” which debuted in July, was in what poet Carl Sandburg called the City of the Big Shoulders—namely Chicago.
In episode one of season 15, we see Irvine visiting Josephine’s, which has been serving up soul food on Chicago’s South Side for more than 30 years. We see a mostly empty, somewhat dilapidated restaurant that can’t keep up with the food demands or the rent payments. Still, the restaurant has been a pillar in the community for a generation. The problem is easily spotted as a communication and trust issue that must be resolved.
It’s Irvine’s mission to dig in and find a way to turn things around.
Under the “Restaurant Impossible” rules, Irvine and his team have 48 hours to cook up a better restaurant and just 10 grand to do it with. It’s a lot of work to do in such a short period of time, but it pulls at the old heartstrings to see it all come together at the end. Of course, anytime you’re dealing with rapid construction, especially in an eatery, there are potential risks from molds and other unknown hazards—not to mention the typical risks restaurants deal with. Spark caught up with Irvine to talk about how his “Restaurant Impossible” crew mitigates risk and some of the things he does in general to ensure safety for staff and guests.
Spark: I have to say that the start of the new season of “Restaurant Impossible” really hit home with me as I live in the Chicago area and I went to college at the University of Missouri at Columbia, so let’s start with how you pick the locations and what recognizance work goes into the process.
Robert Irvine: We get requests from all over the country. Our producers do a lot of work to filter these requests by a number of factors: from the urgency of the situation to the number of years in business. A restaurant that’s been a local mainstay and fallen on hard times would get priority over, say, something that opened just a few months ago and never had much of a customer base.
Spark: Many of these establishments are on the smaller side and yet you have workers renovating the places in just 48 hours in tight quarters on a limited budget. What safety protocols are in place to ensure the workers are safe during the renovations, and how do you choose the teams?
Robert Irvine: The construction team is run by the most talented and capable contractor I’ve ever met: Tom Bury. Through 15 seasons—and now working on our 16th season—Tom and his folks have always stayed incredibly diligent and focused. They’ve never sacrificed safety for the sake of speed. To work in the time constraints we have, you have no choice but to be incredibly organized, have a plan and execute it. He’s also learned over the years that it doesn’t pay to just work straight through the night to try to get ahead. He and his workers sleep for a couple of hours and wake up with enough energy to finish the job right.
Spark: Besides risk from hammers, nails, tools and such, there has to be environmental risks you run into from mold, etc. What are some of the worst problems you’ve seen and how do you handle that?
Robert Irvine: Every construction job has those moments where you realize the fix isn’t as simple as you thought it was. You take down a part of a wall or rip up some flooring and you find water damage or mold. That happens. In our case, we find a lot of fridges gunked up with old, rotted food, and stoves and grease traps that, well, you’d have to see to believe, and we do show the viewer all of that. It gives us more work to do but, again, we’ve never sacrificed safety in the name of speed. That goes for everyone on the construction and design teams to the TV crew to our fabulous local volunteers who always turn up for these projects with such great attitudes. They really want to help their neighbors in need, and we couldn’t do it without them. And, at the end of the day, if we’re late, we’re late. You’re seeing a lot more of that with this new season as the problems we’re tackling are getting a little more complicated.
Spark: You said in an episode: “When you lose caring, you lose a business,” is that the biggest problem you run into in the restaurant industry?
Robert Irvine: Absolutely. Passion is your lifeblood in just about any business. But in the restaurant business especially, you’re only as good as the last meal you served up. You can’t have a terrific grand opening and then try to coast. How many times have you seen that in your own town? Something comes in, starts with a bang, and it’s gone by the end of the year. It’s an epidemic in the restaurant industry because a lot of new restaurateurs don’t understand the commitment required. You need to care about every aspect of the customer experience: not just the food, but the décor, atmosphere, cleanliness, service, speed and on and on. And today when you slip, not only do you lose customers, but they multiply that loss by hitting you with bad reviews on Yelp and social media. The margin for error is smaller now, as it probably should be.
Robert Irvine discusses his plan to save Josephine’s restaurant with Josephine Wade and her son Victor Love on “Restaurant Impossible.”
Spark: What role does teamwork and trust play in workplace safety in restaurants? How about precision and speed?
Robert Irvine: Speed is key to keeping the line moving, but again, safety takes priority. Restaurant kitchens are places with gas stoves, leaping flames and fryers full of gallons of boiling hot oil. That’s why it’s such a big deal if you suffer from high turnover; team chemistry and trust—knowing who’s doing what and working at what station—or, in other words, what’s going on behind your back as you’re focused on the dish in front of you, is huge. It’s a lot like ‘team sports’ in that sense.
Spark: When it comes to food safety, besides temperature, refrigeration, etc., what are some of the other protocols you look for in a restaurant to help mitigate risk?
Robert Irvine:Inventory management is huge, as in making sure the first products in are the first products used in a recipe. You need to minimize waste and at the same time make sure that everything you’re using is fresh. I use restaurant management software called Compeat, which not only makes sure we’re doing this, it knows exactly when various ingredients need to be reordered because every time a server writes up a ticket, the software knows that the chicken sandwich they just punched into the computer uses X tablespoons of breadcrumbs, X teaspoons of paprika, salt, pepper, mayo and so on.
Spark: While watching some of these shows, the question comes to mind: How do these establishments pass safety inspections?
Robert Irvine: In a lot of small towns, the local government resources might not be there to ensure that everyone is an ‘A.’ In Manhattan, yeah, a really filthy place might get shuttered or hit with a ‘C’ on their window, which is just as bad. But when a restaurant is surrounded by corn fields in all directions… it’s a very different situation. [Editor’s note: For food inspections, an ‘A’ means few or no risks, a ‘B’ means multiple low or high risks, and a ‘C’ means many low or high risks.]
Spark: Obviously not every restaurant survives, even after experiencing a 48-hour “Restaurant Impossible” experience, so how do you judge success after you’ve left the building?
Robert Irvine: We spend a lot of time checking in with folks, especially in the immediate aftermath of a turnaround. We want to make sure that new menu items are landing with customers and that they’re satisfied with the craftsmanship of the renovation, which, being perfectly honest, they always are. But there is intense curiosity around how these establishments fare in the long run, and that’s what sparked the creation of ‘Restaurant: Impossible Revisited,’ which has been airing after new episodes of ‘Restaurant: Impossible.’ Each one of these places has a different story to tell, and I prefer to let that show and the work that we’ve done speak for itself. It’s a hell of a track record.
Spark: As a teenager in the U.K.’s Royal Navy, what was the most important lesson you learned about food safety?
Robert Irvine: For one thing, you don’t take any chances with the cleanliness of your prep area. You have to make sure that wherever you’re working with raw meat that it doesn’t cross-contaminate any area where you’re working with veggies and other dry ingredients. So that military experience made me quite a stickler for having a clean work area. In terms of cooking, you can’t take any chances with food being undercooked. So I would say, as a whole, it just made me more careful. If you screw up, it has quite a ripple effect: You’re giving food poisoning to a whole lot of people and potentially crippling a day’s work. That can’t happen.
Spark: You have an unflappable persona on TV that seems to thrive on order, so do you ever get shaken and frustrated when things don’t meet your standards?
Robert Irvine: Things fail to meet my standards all the time, and I do get quite worked up about it. Tom and the construction crew read it for what it is: a kick in the butt and a call to do better. They never take it personally. The restaurant owners on the other hand often take it personally and think that an attack on their cooking is an affront to them and what they stand for. There’s nothing personal about it. I’m here to see you succeed. I don’t want confrontation because I think it makes for dramatic TV. I would take a humble owner who can be coached 10 times out of 10 over an egotistical owner who wants to resist everything I’m trying to do.
Spark: How great is it to hug it out with the owners at the end of a show? It must be an emotional moment for you as well?
Robert Irvine: I cry a lot, and it’s real because I can’t act. The fact that fans have embraced the return of the show so enthusiastically and the ratings are good—that’s kind of like icing on the cake to me. It means I get to keep doing it, and I’d love doing it if it had no audience. I love giving someone a second chance. It feels just as incredible to me as it does for them. That’s the paradox of giving isn’t it? The more we give, the more we have.
Spark: What was the first meal you remember cooking? When was that and how good was it?
Robert Irvine: It was probably baking something in a home economics class—which I joined so I could be around girls. [Laughs] I doubt it was very good. I hit my stride as a cook when I joined the military because I was just thrown into the fire. You don’t have time to be precious about what you’re doing. You have to learn and learn fast.
Spark: Assuming no dietary restrictions, If you were going to cook a meal for a stranger, what would it be and why?
Robert Irvine: When you take the time to do it right, a roast chicken dinner can be the best meal in the world. Add some potatoes and root veggies. But it goes back to passion and caring. There are a million ways to make it a lousy or mediocre meal. Take the time to care though, and you’ve got a gourmet meal. Just put some love into it. Best of all, you don’t need any talent to care.
James Tehrani is Spark’s editor-in-chief. He is an award-winning writer based in the Chicago area.