If everything you know about British chefs you learned from reality shows, you’d think that all of them yell and scream a lot and some of them like to work out even more. Robert Irvine, the aforementioned beefcake, does his fair share of yelling but also displays a softer side; as seen on his hit show Restaurant: Impossible. Irvine’s aggressive yet gentle touch appealed to audiences on the restaurant-saving reality show from 2011 through its last season in 2016. Irvine parlayed that into additional gigs with Food Network, and a big step to his own talk show.
Irvine had a meteoric rise, humbling fall, and in classic television fashion, an epic comeback that saw his star-power greater than ever. Irvine had a few different shows, but Restaurant: Impossible is why you know his name today. How did Restaurant: Impossible do it, and where did it come from? More importantly, was Restaurant: Impossible the only true reality show ever?
Their record was pretty bad
When you call your show Restaurant: Impossible you’re certainly taking on the… well… impossible. The failure rate for restaurants isn’t nearly as drastic as conventional wisdom would have you think, but still, taking a restaurant with a bad rep and rehabbing it isn’t the easiest thing in the world. The concept behind the show had Irvine and a crew (interior designer, builder, and more) spend $10,000 in 48 hours and (often) completely revamp a failing restaurant.
According to the reality food show tracker Food Network Gossip, by 2018 100 of 140 Restaurant: Impossible locations had closed. The premiere season in 2011 really put the "impossible" in Restaurant: Impossible — all seven joints visited were out of business by 2015. Now there are varying reasons why a restaurant closes — RI alum SiP put the onus directly on Groupon, which she says led to too many discounted meals and not enough profits, but when Robert Irvine and crew said impossible they meant impossible.
In more recent years it appears the show’s rehabbed restaurants have fared much better. Food Network Gossip states that of the 29 spots tackled by Irvine and his crew, only two have closed. A pretty good ratio considering how many beloved places (both local joints and popular chains) have gone under during the pandemic.
It was a spin-off
Did you know reality shows could have spin-offs? Robert Irvine first browned his bones on the national stage with a show not too far off from Restaurant: Impossible. Debuting in 2007, Dinner: Impossible saw a slightly less swole Irvine taking on large meals in a predetermined time period. So it’s not that far from Restaurant: Impossible, with just a lot more cooking — and instead of being behind the clock in the renovation process everyone was behind in the food prep.
Things were going pretty well for Irvine, until his inconceivably impressive resume proved to actually be inconceivable. The St. Petersburg Times (via The Washington Post) exposed Irvine’s impossibly tall tales, including cooking for three presidents and working on Prince Charles and Princess Di’s wedding cake. And just like that, he was out at Dinner: Impossible for falsifying his resume, and Chef Michael Symon took over. After a season, Symon departed and — as… impossible as it seems — Food Network brought Irvine back. Why? How could a fabricator with a whopper fitting of Dr. Evil’s dad make such a comeback? It turns out that Irvine was really good at his job and his fans forgave him. Dinner: Impossible served their last meal in 2010 and Irvine pivoted to Restaurant: Impossible the following year.
The real reason it got cancelled
Restaurant: Impossible ran from 2011 until 2016, which accounted for 13 seasons because television season math is like Common Core. Upon the cancellation, Reality Blurred pointed out that Irvine had the final restaurant makeover show on television at the time — meaning that the other ones had already flamed out. Oddly enough, Restaurant: Impossible’s ratings were still pretty solid, so what gives?
Besides some generic statements about production companies, no one really gave an answer. However, Robert Irvine (along with the very same production company that produced RI) announced in 2016 that he would host his own talk show. His talk show was announced in June and Restaurant: Impossible announced its departure — despite good ratings — in August. Given the salaries of certain daytime talk show hosts, going from traveling the country and making terrible restaurants profitable, to sitting on an armless chair and serving up relationship advice, seems like winning recipe. Unfortunately, Irvine needed a talk-show whisperer to sweep in and save his own talk show… in 2018 the show was canceled after only two seasons.
Not all of Irvine’s ideas stuck around
The changes Irvine and the crew made were not just knocking down walls and cleaning dirty appliances. The chef tastes the food and, well, let’s be honest, he always has something bad to say — even if it’s simply that there’s not enough salt. But Robert Irvine is a chef, and chefs cook and create meals. Often, that meant Irvine suggested dishes for the restaurants to try — usually by saying, "Make this. Now." But what happens when the Restaurant: Impossible train pulls out of town?
Not surprisingly, Irvine’s dishes don’t always stick on the menu. Mama’s On The Hill in St. Louis started serving a rabbit dish in 2013 after Irvine’s stop by to save the Italian joint; that dish remains on the menu as of 2018; others haven’t been so lucky.
John Meglio (of Meglio’s Italian Grill) told The New York Times in 2012 that his customers preferred the frozen, pre-made pasta versus the fresh made that Irvine suggested. "The food was good; it just didn’t fly," he told the newspaper.
The Coach Lamp received a visit from Irvine in 2013, receiving a new patio dining area and a plethora of other changes. By 2015 the owners changed the name and revamped it again themselves. "They didn’t get it right. It still didn’t work …because I don’t have any customers," owner Bill Darling told Insider Louisville. Maybe sometimes all you need is Irvine there to spark your own changes?
It wasn’t staged
You know how reality shows aren’t exactly reality? There are reputable sites that lay out the tomfoolery in intricate detail, showing just how far they will go. But that’s just regular old reality shows, what about cooking shows? If Reddit is to be believed, there are some shenanigans happening in the collective reality kitchens as well. Even Iron Chef faked a bunch of things. But what about Restaurant: Impossible? Would you believe that it’s the most real reality show ever?
According to people who saw the show from behind the scenes as an impossible transformation occurred, the show is absolutely 100 percent real. Just as it’s documented on the show, when people are scrambling around in the afternoon, trying to hit that 6 p.m. opening, they truly are scrambling around. Irvine does his sit-down interviews with owners in one take and when he swoops through imploring people to hurry, he does it once and doesn’t do it again to get the right camera angle. Producer Marc Summers, a long time behind the scenes guy at Food Network and host of Unwrapped (and Nickelodeon’s Double Dare!) told Reality Blurred that Restaurant: Impossible was, "The only true reality show on TV. Nothing was contrived. What you saw is what you got."
It was a family affair
If you were a regular viewer of Restaurant: Impossible, or any of Irvine’s shows, you’d know that despite his intimidating stature and vociferous nature, he truly came off as a nice, caring guy who really wanted to save places. Given the tough guy persona is a bit of an act, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Irvine often traveled to locations with his daughters Annalise and Talia. When Irvine visited The Main Dish in Meridianville, AL, he immediately related to the owners as they had daughters about the same age as his own girls. He used his personal experience with his kids to better understand the situations, and that often led to sympathetic and driven attempts to save the shops.
One of the most emotional episodes got a spur from Irvine’s own daughter. After learning that a family of 10 — with a special needs child to boot — was getting evicted from their home, Irvine’s daughter (on set at the time) burst into tears. The chef kicked in $10,000 of his own cash to save the family. Obviously family plays an important role in Irvine’s life.
There were many reluctant participants
The call of fame is a fickle mistress. You have to ask yourself, why would anyone want to be on Restaurant: Impossible? On one hand, you get to be on television; on the other, you’re on television because your restaurant is terrible. But desperation and the promise of five figures will lead many a man to reality TV. Still, there were a lot of guests on the show that didn’t really want to be there.
Dena White told Irvine’s website that she applied because her husband was too stubborn to do it himself. The White’s knew Joe Willie’s Fish Shack in Fishkill, NY needed some professional assistance but Joe would never ask for help. That’s a common theme among some episodes — make that all episodes — the owners couldn’t realize their own faults and the next thing you know someone is calling RI to have Irvine save the day (at least temporarily).
In later seasons, the show tried a few "ambush" style fixes — where they showed up unbeknownst to the owners. In season 13, Restaurant: Impossible visited Peppino’s in Oviedo, FL after an employee contacted the program for help.
The restaurant fix isn’t the main story
Did you ever notice how the focus of Restaurant: Impossible tends to be on the people — like the stubborn owner and their relationship with their family? The restaurant fixing is really the filler; the meat and potatoes are the people. Restaurateurs noted how unprepared they were as the show focused on their personal lives. Sarah Hummell told The Charlotte News & Observer that she was surprised by the emotional strain: "Going through the most intense psychological and physical evaluation of your life and then having this all be on national television." The show was really "Impossibly Stubborn Restaurant Owners," but let’s be honest that’s not a very clicky title.
Irvine did a very good job of prodding the restaurateurs into spilling their emotional baggage. And looking back at it, going from Restaurant: Impossible to a talk show host was a bit of a lateral move for Irvine; he’d been doing the same thing for years, only instead of a cozy studio with an audience, he applied his psychological skills at mom and pop joints.
His biggest blow up ever
Even though Irvine, by all accounts, is a genuinely nice guy who really wants to help the establishments he visits, he does yell a lot. Sometimes the people put up a fight, and sometimes they even left the set, but everyone eventually came back and hugged it out. One blow up, however, stands out and the most epic — and both parties agree.
MaMa E’s Soul Food holds a dubious record. It was featured on both Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (the highest of the Food Network highs), and Restaurant: Impossible (the lowest of the lows). Keith and Stephanie Patterson’s second location received a visit from Irvine so he could try to spice it up. Irvine said that the episode featured, "More arguments, more crying, more walk offs, more hatred, than any show I’ve ever done." Irvine really got personal, delving into the marital issues between the owners. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and no one was harmed in the filming of the episode, but ultimately, as with so many other Restaurant: Impossible places, that location closed.