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Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine's Fitness and Business Secrets

In his quest to create a healthier planet, chef Robert Irvine built a massive global brand. Now 53 and still ripped, he tells us how he maintains his impressive physique while running a business empire.

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Celebrity Chef Robert Irvine's Fitness and Business Secrets
Ian Spanier
Ian Spanier
Duration 2 Days
Exercises 8
Equipment Yes

It's normal for Robert Irvine to be jolted awake in the middle of the night by an idea, eager to pitch it to his team the next morning. Sometimes it’s an idea for a new live event or an addition to his line of frozen foods. It’s a lot to deal with if you work for Team Irvine, but it’s that inherent and maniacal work ethic that has made the 53-year-old celebrity chef turned entrepreneur’s name into a globally recognized brand.

Chances are good that you’ve heard of Irvine from his popular Food Network shows Dinner: Impossible and Restaurant: Impossible, in which he dispensed tough love and whipped kitchens into shape at breakneck speed. More intense than Irvine’s on-screen demeanor was the interest viewers showed (and still do) in the hard-nosed chef with a heart of gold. Dinner: Impossible lasted for eight seasons and 80-plus episodes, and Restaurant: Impossible, which ran 13 seasons and 160 episodes, garnered a weekly viewership of 1.2 million. In total, 1 billion—yes, billion—people have seen Irvine on TV.

If that’s all you know about Robert Irvine, though, you’re just scratching the surface. He’s penned four books—Mission: Cook!, Impossible to Easy, Fit Fuel, and, most recently, Family Table—hosts a live show called Robert Irvine Live, and publishes a monthly namesake magazine available online. You may have fueled up on Irvine’s FitCrunch bars before a workout or picked up a Robert Irvine Foods meal—a line that includes crab cakes, scallops, and cheesecakes—from your local grocery store. He also has a restaurant, Fresh Kitchen by Robert Irvine, in the Pentagon (which is all we can tell you about that), and, as of July 2017, another in the Tropicana in Las Vegas. And then there’s his partnership with Boardroom Spirits and the Gold’s Gym he owns in Largo, FL.

“I don’t just throw things at the wall and see what sticks,” Irvine says. “I look for a purpose, and how we can continue that mission of helping people. There is a master plan.”

That mission of “helping people” sounds like a respun cliché uttered by a successful, rich celebrity who needs to sound wholesome before rushing back to his yacht to pop the cork on a bottle of Cristal with a couple of strippers. But Irvine’s activism is genuine and rooted in a sincere desire to create a healthier planet. He won’t give you a lecture on junk food, leave a box of protein bars on the table, and call it a day. When it comes to instilling healthy habits on a global scale, he plays the long game.

“Food and fitness are the two things I love and am really good at, and now they’re businesses—big businesses,” says Irvine. “We have a huge presence in retail and in military areas all over the world. I want to make the world a lot healthier.”

Irvine’s approach to healthy eating rejects the principles of asceticism. Great nutrition doesn’t have to come from celery stalks and granola pellets. Live a little, he insists.

“I don’t want us to eat rabbit food. I want us to enjoy life in moderation. We have a liquor company with the largest distillery in Pennsylvania where we do vodka, flavored vodkas, and bourbon. It’s good, natural stuff. Real cranberries, real carrots, real lemons. I want people to have tequila, wine, and soda if they want, but it’s got to be in moderation.”

Whether it’s booze or protein bars, Irvine remains committed to his vision.

“It has to pertain to our general message. Is it healthy for you? Is it better for you? Who will benefit from it? And it has to be good quality.”

If you have any doubt that the Irvine juggernaut is unstoppable, a revival is in the works for the show that made him a household name but was canceled in 2016. “We just started filming Restaurant: Impossible again after three years,” Irvine says. “We have a billion viewers in 170 countries. And they wanted that show back.”

Truth is, he never really left.

DEFYING THE CELEB CHEF STEREOTYPE

When Irvine made his debut on the Food Network in 2007, he was a welcome respite from the temperamental divas who terrorized kitchens like Cersei Lannisters in aprons. With his patient demeanor, black-rimmed eyeglasses, and bulging musculature stretching his tight polo shirts, Irvine struck many as a swole nerd with a spatula. He immediately established a connection with viewers as unpretentious and earnest. Instead of dishing out the hectoring abuse typical of fellow countryman Gordon Ramsay, Irvine approached the hapless restaurant owners and novice chefs on his show with calm empathy. He didn’t condescend, didn’t toss pots and pans around in anger. He was an anomaly: the down-to-earth celebrity chef.

Not that it’s all puppies and rainbows when he’s trying to turn a failing business around in a couple of days. Irvine’s no-nonsense advice doesn’t have room for petulance or whiny resistance. But his intensity is always under control. While his physique intimidates as he looms over clueless cooks burning $50 steaks, his voice remains measured and reassuring.

“People think I’m very intense, and I am,” Irvine says. “But on the show, I’m dealing with people who have been doing something for 20 years and lost half a million dollars, and I’m trying to fix them in two days. I’m not mean, but I’m intense, because I care.”

Irvine’s ability to motivate people in a language they understand is a product of his deep-set emotional intelligence. Matt Tuthill, general manager of Robert Irvine Magazine, has observed Irvine’s uncanny ability to reach people.

“He can read right down to your DNA and figure out what makes you tick,” Tuthill says. “It’s like he says, ‘I’m going to press these buttons to motivate you and turn you around. You’re operating at 50% now, but you’ll be operating at 110% by the time I kick you in the ass and leave you in 48 hours.’ ”

Irvine’s culinary interventions are more like counseling sessions, says Tuthill. And the British chef’s efforts aren’t just for show. Long after the television cameras power down, Irvine continues working with the people he’s advising. His infectious enthusiasm has no off switch.

Part of Tuthill’s job is to follow up with people years after they have appeared on Restaurant: Impossible. What he hears from them aren’t just stories about their businesses being saved; he hears how their entire lives have changed.

“They’re touched to the point of crying,” says Tuthill. “They’ll say, ‘Matt, you don’t know what it’s like to have someone come into your life and look at your potential instead of all the mistakes you’ve made.’”

While Irvine’s ability to draw out the best in others is a key to his success as an entrepreneur, it takes more than motivational aptitude to build a globally recognized brand. It takes bulletproof self-confidence and a type of brazen fearlessness. After all, this is a guy whose motto is “Nothing is impossible.” The bigger the challenge, the greater the opportunity.

As Tuthill puts it: “For all those entrepreneurs out there: It doesn’t always work. But with Robert Irvine it seems to work all the fucking time.”

FORGED BY IRON

To understand what drives Robert Irvine, you need to visit a place familiar to Muscle & Fitness readers: the gym.

“I got my first set of weights at 11 years old, and my first copy of Muscle & Fitness with Arnold on the cover, and that sparked my interest in fitness,” Irvine says. “I was like every other kid around the world who wanted to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were not a rich family, but my mother somehow found this set of gold weights. They were gold with a gray bar. I’ll never forget it. I’ll be 54 this year, and I’m still pretty much doing the same thing. It was a natural progression.”

Irvine doesn’t feel the need to deviate much from the workout routine that has served him well for decades. “After reading 99 million issues of Muscle & Fitness, I’ve seen everything there is, but I always go back to those basic bodybuilding moves. I pretty much stick to the basics, the same building blocks that Schwarzenegger did years ago.”

As you would expect, Irvine’s approach to nutrition is based on moderate portions and common sense. For him, food is a pleasure, and being fit doesn’t mean deprivation.

“I make sure I eat every two hours or so. I do cheat. I love cheesecake and sweets. Snickers and Twix are my favorite with hot tea. I’m in the restaurant business so I could eat what I want, when I want. But I couldn’t do that every day. If I’m doing a photo shoot or something, I’ll be strict to prepare—no salt, no sugar, and it’s rough for a week or so. But you have to cleanse your body at some point. To detox. Especially when I’m on the road 345 days a year. Depending on where I am, the food options may not be great, so I have to adapt.”

Like Schwarzenegger, Irvine learned that building a physique is a gradual process. You have plateaus, injuries, and other frustrations. But you power through, stick with the program, and eventually it pays off. Like Schwarzenegger, who credited bodybuilding for teaching him perseverance in achieving his goals, Irvine has taken the character-building lessons of the weight room into the business world. Even on the road, he doesn’t miss a workout.

“One of my rules, even in my contract with Food Network or any production company I work with, is there has to be a good gym in proximity to my hotel. I have to be able to get into that gym at four or five in the morning before I film, and then after I finish.”

Despite his head-spinning schedule, Irvine is always on the lookout for new ventures in healthy cuisine.

“I want to find out what the next superfood is. We are what we put into our bodies. If you put olive oil into a Mercedes, it’s not going to go very far. I’m looking for that next great thing that we can take from an idea and make it mainstream for everybody.”

For Irvine, making a difference goes beyond developing healthy foods. He created the Robert Irvine Foundation to help military veterans and their families.

“I had always done a lot of charity, but I wanted to do more. It wasn’t about money; it was about giving and whatever you could do. The more you give, the more blessed you become. Everything we do goes to support the foundation.”

Irvine spent 10 years in the British navy, part of that as a cook. His military service left him with a deep respect for members of the armed forces, hence the RI Foundation’s focus on the military. And his dedication goes beyond financial support. Irvine often visits military bases and even travels to combat areas like Afghanistan to visit the troops far from home. But he’s willing to lend a helping hand to anybody who can use a boost.

“It could be a handshake, or just listening to someone. You go into the supermarket, and it’s a shame when you watch people put food on the side because they can’t afford it. I always say, if you can afford to pay for them—pay for it.”

Nice guys aren’t supposed to finish first, but Irvine can’t pretend he’s anything else. Sometimes a hard physique comes with a soft heart.

“I love chick flicks,” Irvine admits. “I’m a sucker for that sentimental stuff. My wife is hard as nails, and I cry like a baby.”

RIPPED LIKE ROBERT

Robert Irvine follows a classic body-part split like the kind he read about as a kid in the pages of Muscle & Fitness. When he’s pressed for time, he’ll do a total-body conditioning workout. What follows is an example of each mode of training: his biceps and triceps workout (Day 1) and a conditioning workout (Day 2).

Day 1: Biceps and Triceps Workout Before lifting, do 20 to 30 minutes of cardio on an elliptical or machine of your choice.

Exercise 1

Dumbbell Curl You'll need: Dumbbells
Dumbbell Curl  thumbnail
4 sets
12-15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 2

Barbell Curl How to
Barbell Curl thumbnail
4 sets
12-15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 3

Underhand-Grip Barbell Bent Row
exercise image placeholder
4 sets
12-15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 4

Rope Pressdown You'll need: Adjustable Cable Machine, Rope Attachment How to
Rope Pressdown thumbnail
4 sets
12-15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 5A

Dumbbell Kickback You'll need: Dumbbells How to
Dumbbell Kickback thumbnail
4 sets
12 reps
-- rest

Exercise 5B

Diamond Pushup You'll need: No Equipment How to
Diamond Pushup thumbnail
4 sets
25 reps
-- rest

Exercise 6A

Skull Crusher You'll need: Dumbbells How to
Skull Crusher thumbnail
4 sets
12 reps
-- rest

Exercise 6B

Tate Press You'll need: Dumbbells How to
Dumbbell Tate Press thumbnail
4 sets
15 reps
-- rest

Day 2: Conditioning Workout Before lifting, perform 10 to 15 minutes of cardio. Then do the following workout as a circuit; rest only for 1 minute at the end of each round. Perform as many rounds as possible in 20-25 minutes. Cool down for 5 to 10 minutes on a cardio machine.

Exercise 1

Goblet Squat You'll need: Dumbbells, Kettlebells How to
Goblet Squat thumbnail
-- sets
10 reps
-- rest

Exercise 2

Shoulder Press You'll need: No Equipment How to
Shoulder Press  thumbnail
-- sets
15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 3

Walking Lunge You'll need: Dumbbells How to
Walking Lunge  thumbnail
-- sets
20 reps
-- rest

Exercise 4

Hammer Curl
exercise image placeholder
-- sets
15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 5

Barbell Triceps French Press
exercise image placeholder
-- sets
15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 6

Wall Ball You'll need: Medicine Ball How to
Wall Ball thumbnail
-- sets
15 reps
-- rest

Exercise 7

Rope Slam How to
Rope Slam thumbnail
-- sets
30 sec. reps
-- rest

Exercise 8

General Plank You'll need: No Equipment How to
General Plank thumbnail
-- sets
60 sec. reps
-- rest
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