Having come to the aid of 89 ailing eateries on his long-running Food Network hit Restaurant Impossible, Robert Irvine knows a thing or two about what makes a dining establishment thrive.
For his newest series, Restaurant Express, Irvine’s hitting the road with nine aspiring restaurateurs to see if they do, too — and to teach them everything he knows in the process.
Over the course of seven hourlong episodes, Irvine and his charges (who represent an intriguing mix of culinary backgrounds) travel the West Coast in the Restaurant Express — a luxury coach that would make rock bands green with envy.
At each stop, Irvine presents the competitors with challenges that test not only their culinary savvy, but their money smarts, market understanding, marketing skills and more. At the end of each challenge, the least successful contestant is bounced from the bus and the competition. The last chef standing will serve as executive chef of the newest flagship restaurant in the four-star M Resort Spa Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Irvine says what sets his competition series apart is that, while only one chef will claim the ultimate prize, everyone walks away that much closer to achieving their dream.
“What I deal with on Restaurant Impossible was the basis for creating the challenges,” says Irvine, who is currently filming Impossible‘s seventh season. “I want to teach — I’m not trying to trip them up. I’m teaching them what it takes to be a successful restaurateur in the real world. A lot of people think that running a restaurant is about food and service. Whilst that’s part of it, there is also marketing, there is leadership skills, there are technology skills, there are financial skills. What’s interesting is this is the only show I know where if you’re a good cook, it doesn’t give you an advantage. It’s a very level playing field.”
Irvine says he’s happy to have a venue in which both the contestants and Restaurant Express viewers can better understand why more than half of new restaurants go belly up in the first five years.
“For me, the importance of teaching good practices of saving money and allocating money for refurbishment and putting money away and watching food costs, labor costs, marketing costs is huge,” he explains. “Once you get that under control and you understand it, then we’ll talk about service. Then we talk about menu and food. Because the guests don’t see the technical stuff — but they will see it if, three years down the road, the restaurant looks tatty and a new restaurant opens down the street and everyone goes off to the new kid on the block.”
As for the idea of taking his show on the road — literally — Irvine says it’s intended to keep the contestants on their toes, never allowing them to get too comfortable or too familiar with their working environment. But, he adds, even though the stakes were high and the quarters close, the Restaurant Express remained a surprisingly civilized rolling community.
“When you put eight people from different ethnic and moral backgrounds together on a bus, it’s interesting,” Irvine says. “But other reality shows would turn around and say, ‘Let’s give them alcohol and see what happens.’ That’s not what Food Network is about. We want to give people a real reality show just like Restaurant Impossible and Dinner Impossible, and it’s interesting to see how they stuck together and they worked together and never threw each other under the bus … literally.”
Still, Irvine says, he understood when emotions did run close to the surface — and he dutifully tackled the job of keeping up morale when the going got tough.
“I’m the resident psychologist, I’m the teacher, the mentor, the guidance counselor, and you’ll see emotional moments for a lot of these people,” he says. “They’re after the same prize — their dream of owning their own restaurant — and everybody wanted it, including me! I wanted that restaurant, too, because it is amazing. It’s a great opportunity that other shows can’t even touch.”
With such an unusual prize at stake, Irvine says he felt an enormous amount of responsibility for making sure that the outcome was good for everyone involved.
“I sat down and met with the owners of the M in the finale, and ultimately we agreed on the same person,” Irvine says. “But I’ve got to tell you that as a chef and a restaurant owner and a person who saves restaurants, yeah, that was a huge weight on my shoulders. Because ultimately, I want to make sure they don’t end up on the other show, Restaurant Impossible. My name is attached to this, so the person who wins has to be the best candidate possible for the restaurant to be successful and thrive.”
And, Irvine says, the other eight contestants left the Express knowing he’s there for them, too, if and when they are ready to open an eatery of their own.
“We didn’t crush their dream when they were sent off the bus,” he says. “We helped their dream and we helped them get hungrier. I’m very proud of that.”
Restaurant Express airs Sundays at 9/8CT on Food Network