Chef Robert Irvine talks life ahead of food and wine festival

Interview by Trisha Leonard

If you go

What: South Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival

When: Nov. 8-10

Where: Harrah’s Lake Tahoe

Tickets: Prices vary for individual events


Chef Robert Irvine’s career has him traveling for most of the year. The Food Network star’s latest project, “Restaurant Express,” which premiered Sunday on the Food Network, pits nine chefs against each other in a competition for a restaurant at a Las Vegas hotel.

Irvine took time out of his busy schedule to do a phone interview after getting off plane Monday. Read on to find out what keeps him going, what ingredients he always keeps on hand and what to expect at the South Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival at Harrah’s this weekend.

So where did you just land?

“I cook for people the way I like to eat. It’s how I run my restaurants. I make the food I like to eat.”
Chef Robert Irvine

I’m in Sacramento. I was in Orlando this morning. Before Tahoe, I’ve got to film an episode of “Restaurant: Impossible” for the next two days, then head to L.A. for “Melissa and Joey.”

Talk to me about your new show, “Restaurant Express.” Where did the concept come from?

It was actually a collaboration between myself and Andrew Schechter at Food Network. He wanted to do something cool. He came up with the bus idea and we worked it out from there. People think anyone can run a restaurant. They think about food, not everything else that goes with that. I wanted to do something that highlighted that. I’ve got this thing about helping people.

At this point, have you finished filming the first season of “Restaurant Express?”

We finished the “Restaurant Express” project about four weeks ago. Now we’re filming another 30 episodes of “Restaurant: Impossible.”

You’ve helped a lot of people on “Restaurant: Impossible.” You have also made appearances for charity or to help out other organizations. Why do you do it?

First of all, I would get a lot of emails of people asking me questions about how to fix their businesses — restaurants, hotels, motels — a wide array of people and I thought what a cool way to showcase that in “Restaurant: Impossible.”

I do Make-A-Wish, and I do things for our troops. I’m a big advocate of our military and veterans. I believe we forget these people that take care of us every day, and we can’t let that happen.

We just finished our 91st episode. I’ve been 82 percent successful in saving them.

How do you calculate that?

I count the ones that are sold and moved and failed. Some people sell and pay their debt and move on … For the most part, of everyone we’ve touched, we’ve only lost 18 or 17 of the 90.

You’ve got television shows, appearances at food festivals, cookbooks, restaurants and a family. How do you balance everything?

I travel 345 days per year. I work out, spend as much time with wife and kids as I can. I truly believe everything I do gives back in my life. I do things that are meaningful to me. If I truly believe in something, I don’t care what it takes, I’ll do it. I had a hip replacement and 17 days after I was on my way to Afghanistan.

What do you most enjoy about your work?

I really enjoy the smiles on the faces of people that we help. I truly enjoy doing it. No matter what it is. The reward you see when business succeeds or family is together and hasn’t lost their home or a military guy in desert smiling because you’ve just fed him … It’s just a really good feeling.

I’ve read that you were part of the British Royal Navy. Has anything from that background helped you in your current career?

Absolutely. The military teaches you the mission, and you have to work back to get to that mission. How do we get the steps to get there? I use that in everything I do in my life. … I believe in helping those less fortunate than you. My life shows that I begin and end with helping people every day. I believe we’ve earned the right to breathe on this planet, and I live life like that. My team lives their life like that, too.

What defines you as a chef?

Simplistic food with great flavors. Not overcomplicating it. I’m very into healthy eating. I exercise with my kids. I believe in family bonding through food. I try to keep that mantra in everything I do. Simple. There are a lot of people who do that. We do it a bit differently. I change flavors in a unique way. I do things I think people like. I cook for people the way I like to eat. It’s how I run my restaurants. I make the food I like to eat.

What are some of your favorite foods?

I like simple. I love roasted salmon with salad and beets — everything fresh. I’m big believer in hot proteins and cool salads. Lots of fresh herbs, acids, lemon juice, lime juice, orange juices, things lower in sodium, lower in fat.

In the opening of your book “Mission: Cook!,” you mention that you like to create an “amusement for the mouth” in each dish. What types of flavors do you turn to for this, and what are you hoping the person eating your food understands about you from this offering?

I believe we’ve got these senses, we love spice or we don’t. We love sugar or we don’t. We love salt or don’t. I combine flavors in simple format so one doesn’t cancel out the other. Every bite you take should combine all of them. I tend to find that majority of people love acid — vinegar, juices — really make tartness stand out … so that in every mouthful you have something really flavorful.

What will you be cooking for the food and wine festival?

No clue. I send somebody out to buy food and I have the audience choose what ingredients I use. I want people to understand how easy it is to cook. I show them how to create food using exactly what I just told you. I like creating things that are exceptionally flavorful, but simple. Everybody’s got families and kids and this and that going on, they’re all too busy to spend time cooking … if you think about the food in fridge, this is what you can do with it.

What are some ingredients you always keep on hand?

I always travel with demi-glace, white wine vinegar and juices. I can make anything from that.

What advice do you have for people who cook at home?

Anybody that cooks at home has to think about their day. What do they have going on that week? They’re all busy and have lifestyles … If you had 10 minutes on Sunday to map out what you’re doing each week and you buy food according to that, you can pre-cook chicken breast, pre-do vegetables, map out a menu, make sauces in advance, make salads in advance. I used to take my girls to supermarket and make a game … I’d get them on board with what tastes different. They’re not afraid to try stuff. It’s very good for bonding time. You cook and laugh and joke and make messes. We don’t do enough of that. Instead of getting kids on computers — smartphones have become babysitters — get away from that for a couple hours each day, cook, get out, kick a ball. We need to set our kids up for success.

Do you have any tips for baking or cooking at high altitude?

You lose temperatures, boiling point is very different. I truly believe if you’re a cook, you can cook anywhere with anything. I did it for almost five years on “Dinner: Impossible.”

You’ve been interviewed a lot in your career. What is something you wish people would ask you? How would you answer it?

People always ask me about fitness routine, my wife, travel schedule, eating habits. People never ask me about religion or anything like that. I’m a very religious, god-fearing man and I live my life like that. God gives us all a talent and we should use that talent for the betterment of the less fortunate. I live my life that way. That’s the only thing people never touch on.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Make sure readers come out and have a lot of fun. You never know what I’m going to do.

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