For any other television chef, the premise of “Dinner: Impossible,” a surprise hit on the Food Network, would seem painfully contrived. Each week, British-born chef Robert Irvine, an Absecon resident who has cooked for Britain’s royal family, four U.S. presidents, and ambassadors and other dignitaries, not to mention countless celebrities and politicians, arrives at a surprise location, where he is presented with a nearly impossible culinary “mission” that has been kept a secret from him. This might range from preparing a gourmet meal for 250 guests at a Tucson celebrity golf tournament — right out on the course and in 100-degree heat — to preparing an authentic American Colonial dinner using cooking methods from the 1700s. Oh yes: each task comes with serious limitations on time, ingredients, equipment, and assistance.
The intrepid Irvine, whose first TV “mission” involved the wedding of a Princeton couple — in which he had 10 hours to create a menu and prepare 1,000 hors d’oeuvres and 200 dinners — will appear at Mercer County Community College and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, on Thursday, October 11, at 2 and 7 p.m., respectively, to kick off a national promotional tour for his just-released cookbook, “Mission: Cook!” The book’s subtitle is, “My Life, My Recipes, and Making the Impossible Easy.”
Irvine was just 15 when he joined the Royal Navy, eventually becoming chief petty officer. His cooking came to the notice of another sailor, Prince Charles, which resulted in a 10-year stint serving aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia and at the Windsor family palaces and castles. For the last decade he has worked in Atlantic City, at Trump Taj Mahal, Caesars, and Resorts casinos.
In a telephone interview from New York City, where he announced the launch a line of Healthy Choice meals in collaboration with ConAgra Foods, Irvine explains why he is kicking off his tour in our area. “Because of my connection with Jersey, we wanted to start in my backyard. People know me here, so we’re starting here. Five of my shows have taken place in this area, purposely, so I could highlight where I live.” In fact, he gives several New Jersey chefs equal footing with the world’s greatest in his book and on his website, www.irvinethyme.com. Kirk Avondoglio of Perona Farms in Andover even appeared in an episode of “Dinner: Impossible.”
His appearances next week will benefit Friends’ Health Connection, a non-profit organization that links individuals who share the same disease, illness, handicap, or injury, to provide mutual support. For Irvine’s cooking demo, tasting, and book signing at Mercer County College, faculty and students in the Hospitality Club will prepare Red Snapper Creole-style with Farmhouse Grits and Red Coulis, one of the recipes from “Mission: Cook!”
In the book, which is as much memoir — and a captivating one at that — as it is recipe collection, the 42-year-old chef writes extensively of his childhood experiences growing up as one of four children in a working-class family in Salisbury (“just a stone’s throw from Stonehenge”). His father, Patrick, was a former professional soccer player, who earned a living painting houses and his mother, Patricia, worked in a wallpaper shop. He describes her cooking as “typical English,” with lots of canned and processed foods. Vegetables “were boiled mercilessly until pulverized, and with extreme prejudice,” he writes in his engaging style.
Yet the book gives no details about his wife and two young daughters. When asked why, this latest Food Network megastar says, “My wife is very private. I didn’t want her and my family to be a target of silly people — and that has begun to happen. I don’t want my children to have to worry, or to have wacko letters come to my house, so I’m being very protective. Look, I’m on the road a lot. I don’t need to compound their worries. It is scary: I can defend myself but my six-year-old daughter cannot.”
He certainly can, with his military training and his buff six-foot-one, 220-pound frame that fellow Food Network host Paula Deen describes as “pure heavenly beefcake.” It is, in fact, his military mindset and experiences that make the unlikely premise of “Dinner: Impossible” a natural for Irvine. Foremost among these seminal experiences was being called upon, as chef aboard HMY Brittania, to feed on a moment’s notice nearly 3,000 evacuees on a beach in South Yemen during a civil uprising in 1986. Raiding the yacht’s larder, he fashioned pots out of 50-gallon aluminum garbage cans, dug pits in the sand, and cooked up enormous batches of rice, vegetables, and beans. For dessert, he writes, “I created the biggest bowl of rice pudding known to man.”
Irvine says he is as surprised as anyone about the popularity of “Dinner: Impossible.” “My demographic is from six-year-olds to 86-year-olds. My food is different, not the usual Food Network food. It’s exciting. We have a huge male audience. I read the blogs, you know, both the good and the not so good. Typically, some gal will write how her husband or boyfriend loves my show and that they now have a standing date to watch it together. But I still don’t consider myself a celebrity. I’m just gratified that people like what I do and who I am, my persona.” Even before the show, he devoted a lot of time and energy to charity events, and he likes that his newfound fame allows him to contribute even more.
“The shows are very meaningful to me,” he says, mentioning in particular an episode where his “mission” was to feed 850 U.S. Marines about to depart for Iraq. “I cried the whole show!” he says. “I know what they’re going through. When I first got there the gunnery sergeant started telling me how he was in charge and what he wanted and I just said, ‘I am here to give these guys the best food they’ve ever had,’ and that’s what I delivered. At the time I promised to do their homecoming meal, and that’s happening too. They’re returning in October, and I’ve already worked out the menu. This stuff touches me personally.”
For this reporter, who is an erstwhile caterer, watching “Dinner: Impossible” is compelling but nerve-wracking. It is, in fact, the stuff a caterer’s nightmares are made of. Take, for example, the episode in which Irvine’s mission was to prepare a meal for the staff of 75 of an ice hotel in Quebec — in six hours, with food supplies available by dogsled. Bad enough the cooking had to be done outdoors, in 16 degrees, so as not to melt the hotel (“I hate the cold more than anything else,” Irvine confides to the camera), but there is also the language barrier between him and his Quebecois helpers. Chef Irvine is not always 100% successful in meeting the terms of his missions, but in this case he was, making caribou stew, chicken fricassee, and tourtiere, a Canadian meat pie that was a special request of the staff.
The most difficult part of doing the shows, Irvine says, is that he does not sleep the night before, “and then afterwards, I constantly look back and second guess myself. And I have to think up a menu when I don’t know what food I will get once I go shopping.” He mentions the Tucson golf tournament episode, in which the refrigeration of the truck in which food supplies had been stowed the night before had broken down, with fish and other perishables spoiled. “Also, we never repeat a recipe twice. Everything is completely different each time.”
Irvine is in the process of opening his first restaurant, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Does this mean he will be leaving New Jersey? “I am absolutely not moving. New Jersey is my home base, and my production company is located in a suburb of Philadelphia,” he says. “An opportunity happened to come my way to do something on the water. It’s so hard to open a restaurant in New York or Philly; the field is so crowded. Plus, I am devoted to helping others — I work a lot with organizations involved in cancer and cystic fibrosis in particular — and the restaurant will, for the first time, provide me a base to continue giving back. It’s been a long road for me, and I have been blessed.” He plans to spend three-day weekends at the restaurant, which will consist of an upscale cocktail lounge and a fine-dining room, to be called Ooze and Schmooze.
Irvine’s appearance, says Frank Benowitz of Mercer County College’s program in hotel, restaurant, and institution management, is part of a plan to bring celebrity chefs to the campus on a regular basis and to support Friends’ Health Connection. “Last semester we hosted Walter Scheib, the former White House chef,” he says. Benowitz, himself a graduate of Mercer County, with degrees also from Rider, Thomas Edison, and Fairleigh Dickinson universities, is no stranger to television. He is featured in the “Ask Frank” segment on the college’s show “Dish It Out,” hosted by Benowitz’s colleague, Doug Fee, which is broadcast throughout Mercer County seven nights a week at 9 p.m. over cable channel 26.
Benowitz is particularly looking forward to Irvine’s appearance, he says, “so our culinary students get to see the passion he brings to cooking, and to cooking in painful situations. Of course, hopefully for them not each and every week as he does!”
Robert Irvine, Thursday, October 11, 2 p.m., Mercer College, West Windsor, and at 7 p.m. at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton. The star of Food Network’s series, “Dinner: Impossible!” has cooked on a desert island, for cowboys, and in an ice hotel — all at a moment’s notice. Ticket includes a copy of Irvine’s book, “Mission: Cook!” Register. $40. www.friendshealthconnection.org or 800-483-7436.