When he was just 15 years old, Robert Irvine joined the British Royal Navy. His 10 years spent among the sailors was the time when he began practicing the culinary arts — a passion that led him to become a world-renowned chef. After his time serving, he worked everywhere from cruise ships, to casinos, and hotels, including Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in order perfect his craft.
Now, aged 50, he has starred in a number of cooking shows on the Food Network like “Dinner:Impossible” and “Restaurant: Impossible,” launched his own restaurants, become a fitness guru, and even started a veterans charity: The Robert Irvine Foundation, which donates money to veterans advocacy groups across the country. Recently, Task & Purpose got the chance to catch up with chef Irvine, who shared his thoughts on MREs, fitness tips, and the reason he wants to give back to those who serve.
You spent 10 years in the British Royal Navy after enlisting as a teenager. What was it like to practice culinary arts on Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia?
I learned quite a bit about the challenges of cooking with limited supplies and equipment while working there. It was an honor for the entire crew; we were dedicated to making amazing food for a lot of people. It was a wonderful place to learn and truly helped me understand how to organize a kitchen and develop my own style of cooking.
When you were in the Navy, you traveled all over the world. Presumably that had some influence over your culinary learning experiences. Do you have a preferred cuisine to cook, or to eat? If so, why?
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many different kinds of amazing cuisine across the globe. From Cairo, to Germany to France. It would be difficult to pinpoint any one cuisine as my favorite. I enjoy food no matter where I am. I will say that my absolute favorite meal is a perfectly roasted chicken with mashed potatoes. It’s a simple and comfortable meal, but much harder to perfect than many realize! In England, we prepare a lot of Sunday roasts to have with your family and friends. As a child, I used to help my mom prepare Sunday roasts and it is one of my fondest memories.
Do you think you could make a gourmet meal with the contents of a ration pack?
That is a tough one, but if I were forced to, I’m sure I could come up with something! Whether or not the final result is gourmet would probably be up for debate. The thing you need to understand about challenges that I used to do on “Dinner: Impossible” is that I didn’t get to plan ahead. They’d leave me with a spare cupboard, a limited kitchen, and a ticking clock. But necessity is the mother of invention. When you’re up against a deadline that absolutely will not move, you’d be amazed at what you can really do.
This might be an impossible question, but what is the best meal or dining experience you have ever had?
You’re right — it is impossible to narrow it down to just one amazing meal or dining experience. One of my mentors was unsurprisingly one of my favorite chefs. Every meal that Michel Richard prepared for me was a favorite in my mind. I’m so grateful to have those memories.
In 2007, you were ranked by Men’s Fitness as one of the 25 fittest men in America. What advice would you give to service members and veterans about how to eat right and stay fit?
It may sound cliché, but I highly recommend that everyone start every day with breakfast. A hearty bowl of oatmeal provides fiber that keeps you full and fuels you for hours. Whenever possible, add protein with eggs, turkey bacon, and yogurt. Beyond that, motivation is the most important component of staying fit. If you’re on the road and want to get in a workout but don’t have weights or training equipment, there are plenty of exercises you can do that use your bodyweight as resistance. I like the diamond pushup with hands together in the center as opposed to shoulder-width apart, side planks, bodyweight squats, wall sits, and alternating and lateral lunges for quick no-equipment workouts. I try to hit four exercises per body part, with 20 minutes of cardio to get a full session in. The bottom line: If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way, not an excuse.
If you could change the way that the military feeds the troops, what would you do to make it better?
As with any balanced diet, it is important to continue incorporating fresh food with quality ingredients. But more importantly, there is a performance component to the way these men and women need to eat. They need clean carbohydrate sources and protein to fuel activity and support muscle repair, and they need healthy fats to support their overall wellbeing. So they need great quality — and they need it in an enormous quantity. It’s obviously a very big challenge to deliver all of that.
Your nonprofit, The Robert Irvine Foundation, honors the men and women who have served in the armed forces and as first responders. Can you tell me about the history of the organization, like how you got started, and exactly what the foundation does to help out veterans?
The Robert Irvine Foundation is the most rewarding aspect of my life’s work. The entire goal of the foundation is to support individuals and organizations who are committed to enriching the lives of our heroes and their families. We work hard to support the charities that look after the men and women defending our country. They make a tremendous sacrifice to keep us free and we need to do everything we can to give back. Most recently, in April, we participated in SavorCT, an amazing food and wine event at the Hartford Convention Center where the foundation, alongside other amazing and inspiring chefs, helped to raise $48,000 for the cause. At the end of the year, we take all of the money we’ve raised and allocate it to where it’s needed most.
What is your favorite part of working with veterans groups, and what is the most motivating part of helping out those who have served in the armed forces?
There’s nothing that brings me more joy than to provide a bit of entertainment and bring a smile to an active duty member serving far from home and facing extreme conditions. And even for those that do make it home and retire from service, memories of traumatic experiences are never gone from their consciousness, so any source of happiness or inspiration or hope that I can provide is incredibly rewarding. All of the success I have I owe to the fact that I live in a free society. If you don’t give back to the men and women who keep us free, it all starts to fall apart.