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Robert Irvine Dishes On Cooking With Garbage and His Favorite Places

Chef Robert Irvine photo by Tom Briglia

Food Network star Robert Irvine has led us through cooking with minimal ingredients on Dinner: Impossible; teaching kitchen skills on Worst Cooks in America; and revitalizing eateries on Restaurant: Impossible. It’s all in a day’s work for a man who has shown his culinary skills around the world in resorts, catering halls, and even on Navy ships.

Robert Irvine was born in 1965 in Wiltshire, England. At only 15, he joined the Royal Navy and put all of his effort into showing off his cooking skills. It paid off and he was chosen to work on the Britannia Royal Yacht, often visited by the British Royal Family. He then moved to the United States and continued to work with the government, cooking his way from the White House to U.S. Navy carriers. From there, Irvine settled into Atlantic City, working for both Caesars and Trump resorts before making his way to the Food Network.

When you sit down and talk to Robert Irvine, the first thing that strikes you is how soft spoken he really is. Despite the physique of a body builder, a background in the Navy and the ability to make restaurant owners squirm in the kitchen, Irvine never raises his voice, even when discussing his passion for cooking.

Travel, Food & Drink: How did you learn to take random items – like a box of fish sticks and a loaf of rye bread – and make a meal for thousands?
Robert Irvine: One of the things that the Navy taught me was to be able to create things from garbage. When you go to war on a warship, they actually stack the decks that you walk on with food, dehydrated food and cans of food.

Have you ever tried dehydrated eggs? Or dehydrated cabbage? Try making something for 240 sailors out of that, that they can eat — and be happy with. It’s very important to create food that these people eat to sustain their well-being for the job that they do and the Navy taught me that a lot — to use garbage ingredients and have to create (meals). I think that has stood with me. I cooked in every conceivable place with every conceivable piece of rubbish you can imagine. And I made it edible. So that was all to the Navy’s credit.

Travel, Food & Drink: You’ve cooked a lot of meals to impress very important people. What would you suggest as a dish that someone who isn’t such a great chef (like those on your show Worst Cooks in America) can cook to impress?
Robert Irvine: I’m a big believer that simple is good. Take an ingredient, such as salmon, season it with salt and pepper. Then take crabmeat and season it in. Take a little bit of mayonnaise, a hardboiled egg and some chopped parsley. Mix it all together and put it in the oven with the salmon.

With that, I would take mushrooms — any type of mushrooms — slice them together with thinly sliced broccoli and cauliflower sliced in florets, little slices so they look like trees. I would then sauté them with butter, a little red onion and lemon juice. Then cook it down and once that is done I’d add a little bit more of butter to it so we have the liquid from the cauliflower, the mushrooms and every vegetable in there. Then put the vegetables on the bottom of the plate, then the fish with lemon.

I think seafood is the easiest for people to cook.


Travel, Food & Drink: Why?
Robert Irvine: Because it’s fast. It takes three minutes to cook fish — no matter how thick it is — you leave it to rest for five minutes after that. One of the biggest misconceptions about fish is that you have to cook it until that white gummy stuff comes out. Do you know what that is? The protein. Have you ever cooked fish until the white came out? You’ve killed it. (laughter).

Travel, Food & Drink: You’ve traveled a lot. What is your favorite place to go?
Robert Irvine: I love to travel. I travel extensively 330 days a year. Recently I was in Tokyo, I was in Italy, and I was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I do an awful lot with the military. I do appreciation dinners for them all over the world. And in this country, I don’t think there’s a place that I haven’t been to.

What would I say is my favorite place? I was in Hawaii recently, on Maui for nine days, and I have to tell you that was a ‘Yes!’ I went to a little restaurant called Mama’s Fish House and it’s almost like a mainstay of the island. It grew from like this little shack, literally, and now they are adding pieces. They are all different pieces, but it’s the smartest, the coolest place ever. But there are so many great places also here (on the mainland).

I was in Joplin (Missouri) a few weeks ago. I was doing a fundraiser with all the country music stars. It was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen some nasty things. Joplin made me cry because it is just devastated. There is nothing there.

The Red Cross took me to a lunch, and not in any restaurant, because there’s no restaurant left there. It was just on one of the little tables. It was probably one of the best meals I’ve had in my life, not because the food was great, but because it was produced by a bunch of ladies with love and if you’ve seen Joplin, what you see on TV does not do it justice. There is literally nothing there and that was probably the most devastating thing I’ve seen in my career. It was the devastation of a tornado.

Travel, Food & Drink: You have been tortured in every way possible on “Dinner Impossible.” If you were able to set up your own challenge for a chef, what would you do?
Robert Irvine: It depends. You pick the chef and I will tell you.

Travel, Food & Drink: How about Paula Dean?
Robert Irvine: Take her butter away (laughs). Paula and I have a very, very close relationship. She has a restaurant 40 minutes away from me. When we did South Beach (Food & Wine Festival), she took my clothes off and she took a stick of butter and rubbed it all over my chest, and licked it off. The video is on the web!

By Marcia Frost