When you’re on the road for 330-plus days per year, maintain elite-level fitness and inspire almost everyone you meet with positive energy, you’re either a superhero or you’re doing something really right by your body and mind. In Chef Robert Irvine’s case, it’s a solid balance of both.
This 46-year-old former British Royal Navy man is the picture of health and fitness. His muscular, lean body looks competition-ready and he radiates an easy, confident glow that he attributes to excellent nutrition and a 6-day-per-week workout regime. His grueling schedule has included filming two shows for Food Network that have taken him all over the country and challenged his culinary chops and problem-solving skills (Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible).
Challenge is the basis of both television programs, so Irvine has to surmount a lot of deadline and budget pressure in each episode. For example, Dinner: Impossible regularly tasked him to plan, source ingredients and cook a six-course dinner for 300 with an inexperienced, rag-tag crew of a helpers he had to train on the spot—all on a limited budget, in a non-professional kitchen and within a ridiculously short time frame (10 hours!). It can be nerve-wracking to watch him pull it off.
On Restaurant: Impossible, Irvine is a tough-love reality chef who comes into failing restaurants and revamps menus, whips the existing chef, cookstaff —and often the owner—into culinary shape in an attempt to save the business. He also usually has about $10,000 to spend on a “front-of-house” renovation—all of which has to happen within 2 days.
There are often tears of stress and frustration from the subjects, but Irvine weaves in compassion with his hard-knock lessons and brutal honesty. By the end of the experience, the people he works with know beyond a doubt he’s there for them and that he cares about their success. This bear of a man shed a few tears himself when he was eliminated from the most recent The Next Iron Chef competition. He clearly likes to win, but—superhero or not—he also is very human. He revels in seeing others succeed.
Irvine also delivers motivational talks to groups all over the country and runs his own restaurants. He has many more projects on tap including a book and more TV shows. He is on a mission to evangelize the magic of good nutrition and fitness in a healthy lifestyle for all, but especially for kids.
Sandy Todd Webster, IDEA’s editor in chief, interviewed the chef February 25 at the 2012 Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival (SOBEWFF) in Miami. Aside from doing culinary demos and throwing a major bash (Party: Impossible!) at the Festival, Irvine carved out time to be at a side event designed for kids and families called 2012 Florida Blue presents Fun and Fit as a Family sponsored by Carnival featuring Kellogg’s Kidz Kitchen. He shared lessons of food and fitness in a “kitchen stadium” atmosphere where hundreds of kids and parents listened intently and laughed as Irvine spread his positive message about making smart choices and taught them all to cook a few different dishes.
Here are a few thoughts from Chef Irvine gleaned straight from our interview before he went onstage.
Sandy Todd Webster (STW): You’ve made time to be at Fun & Fit as a Family today. You clearly see educating kids about nutrition, cooking skills and fitness as an important triad.
Robert Irvine (Irvine): The children are our future. I truly believe that if you educate people about food, they can learn anything and apply it. Children especially are so like sponges. They will absorb anything you want to give them and then they can replicate what you make in a demo. Monkey-see, monkey-do.
Kids are good learners, but you have to make it fun for them. Their education needs to include food lessons as well as information about exercise. There seems to be an education void about these topics at home and at school. To fill that void you’ve got to make it a priority and you’ve got to make it fun. Whether kids are working with a bowl of icing or grating carrots, they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives if you can make it fun and interesting for them. To me, that’s what food is. It’s not just a means to survive. It’s a means of communication.
STW: What are your early food memories?
Irvine: I grew up on two boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and a gallon of milk per day until my 15th birthday, when I joined the navy.
STW: You just really liked corn flakes?
Irvine: No, it’s that my mother was a terrible cook! She didn’t enjoy cooking, so nutrition was whatever came out of a box or whatever you could microwave. The only thing she did well was a Sunday roast. So, Sunday was the highlight for me.
STW: You seem to have survived corn flakes pretty well. Speaking of survival, you’re a great example of someone who has an incredibly demanding schedule yet manages to thrive and stay fit. You’re on the road a lot and you’re around rich food all the time. Please share with our readers some of your personal success secrets. Many of us and our clients seem to “scapegoat” our busy-ness or demanding business travel as reasons we can’t maintain fitness.
Irvine: I work out 6 days a week and it’s fun. I love to feel good, especially when life’s demands are stressful anyway. Working out gives me that feeling of gratification—maybe not so much while I’m doing it but when I’m finished. I will get up at 3:00 am and work out then to make sure I fit it in. I always get my workout in. I take one day off in a week and that can be any time in my rotation.
I truly believe that food and exercise work very well together. I travel 330-plus days per year. I’m in hotels, planes, trains and automobiles—you name it. My filming schedule is so busy that when I film my shows 2 days at a time, I have to make sure I get fed. Otherwise my brain goes and I get cranky.
I start my day the minute I wake up with oatmeal. Then I work out, and afterward I have 6-8 egg whites for protein and whole-wheat toast. I don’t carry pots and pans to cook my own food in. I can make the eggs in a microwave in my hotel room.
I do between 45 minutes to 1 hour of very light weights, but with high reps in sets of 60, 50, 40, 20, 30, 10. I do four exercises per body part with one minute rest in between. For example, bench press: 60, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10; one minute; next is another body part and so on. I find this gives me an aerobic workout that also burns fat. When I’m finished I have a shake. This morning I did an hour of cardio, but normally I do 20 minutes of cardio three times per week.
You don’t need to be in a gym to work out. You can swim. You can walk. You can walk up and down stairs. People get this sort of stigma thinking, “Oh, I have to go to a gym, but I don’t look good enough to go to a gym.” The stigma of their extra weight or feeling like they don’t look good enough stops them from going.
Okay. Don’t go to a gym. Instead, find a personal trainer.
STW: What do you feel a trainer brings to the table?
Irvine: Inspiration is the biggest word in the fitness industry. I’m a big believer in trainers because they motivate most people to show up on time, do their workouts and work hard. If you’re a little overweight or just getting into a gym, you need that motivation. I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have [motivation], you may never find it without some help. You need someone to push you. Sometimes I bring my personal trainer on the road with me.
STW: Parallel to the way you “edutain” people about food, fitness pros need to be out there and “on” all the time with the kind of energy and enthusiasm you bring to your shows. What advice do you have to help them “bring it” every day?
Irvine: My advice to trainers is to be dedicated to each individual and live the example. I’m broad-stroking here, but a lot of trainers like the money they make; however, they’re not that focused on the individual because they have five to seven clients every day and they are rushing through. Treat that person in front of you like it’s the only person you’re going to see today. Love them, nurture them, train them with results in mind—because they’re paying you to do that. After clients reach a plateau, many lose interest because they’re not seeing results anymore. That’s where the trainer needs to step up and be a good example all the time. Train in the way in which you lead your life.
STW: What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your personal trainer?
Irvine: Eating! Eating more frequently and eating later, so the body doesn’t go into that fasting-survival period during the night. I think people think the less they eat, the better it is. Because of my schedule I’m a mess if I don’t eat right. People always ask me what I’m drinking or taking because I’m always energetic. That’s because I eat enough.
I also eat late at night—which I never used to do. There’s some controversy over that in general. But for my body, if I eat a baked potato, steak or whatever is good for me before going to bed, I find that when I wake up in the morning, my body is telling me “Okay, it’s time to eat.” It’s your clock letting you know it’s time to put some fuel in again.
I also don’t work out to build muscle. I work out to be healthy.
STW: Interesting that the most valuable takeaways you have from your personal trainer are centered on food and nutrition. If you had to assign a ratio of importance to nutrition and fitness in the overall picture, how would that balance out?
Irvine: 70:30, with emphasis on nutrition.
STW: How has your choice of a healthy lifestyle impacted your cooking philosophies?
Irvine: Hugely. I started to change because I could see people were starting to worry about salt and fats. I do a lot of substitution with cream and butter. I may use a little, but not too much. I also use grape seed oil—which I’m a huge fan of, because I feel it’s way better than olive oil. I preach that grape seed oil has less flavor, so it doesn’t change the flavor of the foods you’re working with. It heats up a lot faster.
I’ve also tried to bring my influence to other areas of food. Up until 6-7 years ago there was not a single fresh ingredient in most commercially produced salad dressings. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently the extraction of oils and the extra cost of pitting fruits and adding fresh vegetables was cost prohibitive. I told Kraft and Unilever, “People will pay for it. They will pay for quality.” Nowadays, you can see that. They changed their philosophy on this, but it cost millions of dollars to do that.
STW: What are you planning to teach your audience of kids and parents today?
Irvine: I will have a big emphasis on making choices. For example, you can always find somewhere to eat no matter where you go. But it’s how you ask for the food that can make a big difference. You can go to an airport restaurant and see a cheeseburger on the menu, but you can ask for it on a whole-wheat bun and without cheese. There are choices we can make. Today I’ll talk about choices that can be made, but I’ll talk about them in a fun way. You can’t educate kids like you do an adult or you’re going to lose them.
STW:Any final thoughts about how food, ingredients and nutrition impact us as a society?
Irvine: If you don’t put in the right stuff, the right stuff doesn’t come out. That means energy and focus. For the longest time we couldn’t figure out why [one of my daughter’s] focus was going somewhere else. I finally figured out it was all based on food. A lot of people don’t understand that.
She recently took the Duke University entrance exam and aced it out of 700 people—because we changed her diet. Diet is phenomenally important with children. If you want someone who’s going to be bouncing off the walls, keep feeding them sugar and processed food. Or calm them down and educate them. But you can’t just take foods away. You’ve got to show them why. You’d be amazed. I’ve done it, so I know what it’s like. I did it with myself and I did it with my children. It’s just a fun connection between food, fitness and family.