story & photo
by Jon Persson
On a snowy night in December, Chef Robert Irvine holds court with a VIP contingent at New London’s Garde Arts Center. From the lobby below the flash of cameras can be seen lighting up the souvenir photos of those who have the good fortune of a special moment with the popular chef. At eight o’clock Chef Irvine will appear on the main stage of the Garde to prepare a meal using ingredients suggested by the audience, in a live showing of his various books and television programs.
But before the show begins, Chef Irvine is scheduled to answer questions for an exclusive interview, well beyond the stage door and deep in the inner workings of the Garde at Chef Irvine’s austere dressing room.
Chef Robert Irvine is perhaps best known for his “Restaurant: Impossible” program on the Food Network. The premise is to bring his staff into a struggling restaurant, upgrade the facility, improve the menu, re-train the staff, and promote the business, all on a budget of $10,000 plus the input of know-how, creativity, wise spending, and energy.
Energy is indeed the first word one uses to describe Chef Irvine. As he bounds out of his dressing room into the narrow hallway, he enthusiastically shakes hands and offers a pleasantry in his understated British accent. What can one do for well-run restaurants in a poor economy?
“The economy is only a small part of it,” replies Chef Irvine emphatically. “People are still eating out,” he continues, “perhaps not four times, but two-and-a half times a week. Restauranteurs need to know their business and their surroundings, they need to draw people in by providing something that no one else can.”
“People are better informed than ever, and they will pay more for quality and freshness,” Chef Irvine explains, “everyone wants to say it’s the economy but really it’s just bad management and not understanding their place in the market.” With well-delivered quality, he insists, a restaurant can do well: “I’ve seen it time and time again,” says the Chef.