Robert Irvine, a renowned chef and philanthropist, has transformed countless struggling eateries in over 300 episodes as the host of Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible.” He recently released his fifth book, “Overcoming Impossible,” offering invaluable insights from his culinary and entrepreneurial journey.
From trust over micromanagement to finding the right partners and savvy social media marketing, Irvine uses real-life tales from “Restaurant: Impossible” as case studies. Beyond the restaurant realm, he shows how these lessons can empower entrepreneurs to banish “impossible” from their leadership vocabulary and attain their aspirations.
The culinary maestro and business luminary took time out of a hectic schedule to reveal to Unfiltered his secrets of successful leadership.
Robert, your career has spanned the culinary world, from the kitchen to the gym. Can you share some key leadership principles that have been consistent throughout your journey in these diverse industries?
It all starts with the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. My leadership book expands on this in many different ways and applies it to a lot of specific situations I’ve seen, but when you boil it all down, it’s really just this. Treating others the way you want to be treated applies to micromanaging, not trusting your employees, being egotistical, not sharing credit, and not facilitating a situation where your employees can bring their creativity and new ideas to the table.
You’d never want to work in any of those situations, and if you had to, you’d hate it. So I think it’s just being honest about what your workplace is really like and keeping an ear to the ground to speak to everyone, from your lieutenants to the entry-level employees. If you can be honest about what the workplace is really like and apply the golden rule, then you should be able to create a great work environment. It’s not terribly complicated, but it does require some humility.
Pressure is a really wonderful thing. It reveals character and, in the best people, can produce really extraordinary results
“Restaurant: Impossible” episodes routinely showcase your ability to lead in high-stress situations. How have these experiences shaped your leadership philosophy, and what can entrepreneurs learn from your approach to tackling seemingly impossible challenges?
I think pressure is a really wonderful thing. It reveals character and, in the best people, can produce really extraordinary results. It starts with this: I believe that most tasks will take as much time as we allow for them. If your boss told you, “I need this big feature article in two weeks,” it would take two weeks. You’d research, interview a few people, outline, and play with different ways it might be structured. Yet, if you had three or four days to do the same job, you’re experienced enough that you could rise to that occasion. You could find a way to focus your energy and truncate some of those processes, and do away with some of the research that’s not likely to produce what you truly need.
You might feel tremendous pressure throughout the process, but getting it done would do a few things. First and foremost, let’s acknowledge this: if the job was poorly done, then your boss would know that you’re probably not the type of person who can handle pressure very well. But if you did knock it out of the park, not only is the boss happy, so are the readers, and you, the writer, you’ve got new confidence because you got this huge job done under pressure and now you’re emboldened to take on even bigger projects. And suddenly, your regular workload doesn’t seem so daunting as it did before because you’ve grown. I applied that example to you, but you can apply it to anything.
Thanks Robert, I hope my editor has as much faith in me to deliver as you do! As a successful entrepreneur with various business ventures, what advice do you have for those looking to build and lead a successful enterprise in today’s competitive market?
I think you have to stay on the bleeding edge of technology as well as customer taste and expectations. It’s no longer enough to have a great product. More and more I’m noticing that the great hole-in-the-wall eateries – who, for their entire existence, could get away with being cash-only, and people would go out of their way to hit the ATM before going in – well, now they’ve got tap-to-pay and online ordering. I don’t think there really are any more establishments – at least not in casual dining – that are tech-proof. People have an expectation now, rightly or not, that everything can and should be done with the phone. You can’t look at it as good or bad. It’s simply a market reality.
I would implore any business leader who sees office culture as essential to doing good work to rethink the notion… good work can happen anywhere as long as good people feel trusted and respected.
Trust is often a cornerstone of effective leadership. How do you establish and maintain trust within your teams, whether in the restaurant or fitness industry?
Yes, trust is a cornerstone of effective leadership, but for me, it’s not merely a case of: “If I trust my employees, I’ll get more out of them, or they’ll be happy” or whatever. My businesses literally cannot function without it. We are completely decentralised, with employees scattered throughout the United States. And to pre-empt the follow-up question: I did this for a decade before COVID ever hit, because I travel most of the year and I meet tons of people, and I’ve always been in the habit of recruiting and collecting the best ones.
Remote work is a way of life for us. Even if we had a main base of operations, the amount of travel that I do would necessitate the trust. I would implore any business leader who sees office culture as essential to doing good work to rethink the notion. In my experience, good work can happen anywhere as long as good people feel trusted and respected.
Finding the right partners can be critical to a business’s success. What strategies do you use to identify and collaborate with the right individuals or organisations?
In general, I’ve developed good instincts about people and, with the right questions, can usually sort out pretenders from the real deal. That said, I don’t rely simply on my instincts or opinion. This is where it comes back to trust. I trust the people I’ve assembled for my team to such a degree that I have them meet potential partners as well as critical hires. Then I take their temperature on how they feel about those new folks.
Then my wife Gail [Kim, former professional WWE wrestler] is the final vote, and hers carries the most weight! She has the best instincts about people of anyone I’ve ever met. If she feels uneasy, that’s a serious red flag. If she feels good about someone, I feel at ease. I think it’s natural to her, but I also think she honed that skill to perfection in her career in professional wrestling; that is such a brutal, cutthroat industry to navigate. You can’t survive, much less excel to the top as she did, without developing a great sense about people.
Tell people about your product or services: why it’s unique, how it’s made, and boy, oh boy, don’t you want some right now?
Social media plays a significant role in marketing today. What are some effective marketing strategies you’ve used, especially in the context of promoting health and fitness?
It’s all about message discipline. Again, this isn’t complicated, but it’s hard for people to stick to. It boils down to this: If you’re using your social accounts to spread solid information and a positive message, you’re doing it right. If you’re easily lured into bickering and political squabbles or yelling at UPS for your missing package, you’re doing it wrong.
You don’t need to chime in with your opinion on the topic of the day. Doing so and getting a lot of likes might give you a little sugar rush, but it’s short-lived – and only a matter of time before you spout an opinion that draws everyone’s ire and turns people against you. Just stay on message. Tell people about your product or services. Why it’s unique, how it’s made, and boy, oh boy, don’t you want some right now? That’s it.
Your book ‘Overcoming Impossible’ is a source of inspiration for many. Can you share a few key lessons from the book that readers can apply to overcome challenges on their fitness journey?
While the focus of that book is business leadership, I do think there is a lesson that can be perfectly applied to fitness: everything you do matters. In a business sense, we can apply this to everything you do for your customers, from being easy to find online to having enough parking to having clean tabletops. In a fitness sense, it’s applied to every bite of food and every minute of exercise you can do.
As a young man, I loved the epic gym session; the hour, 90 minutes, or even two hours in the gym where you really go for it. I still love that, but if what I can get is a 20-minute walk now and another 20-minute walk later, well, I’ll take that. In the past I might have held out for the proper gym session. Walking is for pedestrians! I’m an iron warrior! But with age comes perspective and a better sense of how all those little things add up. I’d recommend anyone develop generally good, healthy habits rather than trying to find the perfect workout or the perfect diet. It all adds up in the end.
In your experience, how can leadership principles be adapted to prioritise health and fitness, especially when faced with busy schedules and demanding business commitments?
I think this dovetails with the previous answer nicely; you cannot let perfect become the enemy of good or good enough. Replace one of your sodas with green tea or water. Not all of them. Just start with one. Replace the second slice of pizza with a salad. Replace one of the shows you wanted to watch with a brisk walk. Perfection isn’t just an unattainable illusion; it’s counterproductive, because when we fall short of that perfection, we’re more apt to say, “Oh well, what’s the difference? I’ll start next week.” And then you have that second soda and that second slice of pizza. Meanwhile, everything you do adds up. The best time to start is always now. The best thing you can do is always whatever you can.
Balancing a career in the food industry with a commitment to health and fitness can be challenging. What strategies do you use to maintain a healthy lifestyle?
It’s a priority. It’s more important than any calls I have to make or meetings I need to attend. After making time for my family, it’s right at the top. With the amount of travel I do, it can get complicated, but I get it done. Hotel gyms will do in a pinch, but I prefer to look up good gyms in the area with lots of space and equipment so I can have proper workouts.
It still shocks and disappoints me how many chefs smoke cigarettes to get tiny moments of stress relief
The restaurant industry can be notoriously tough. How do you manage stress and burnout while maintaining your leadership role?
Unlike some of my previous answers along the lines of, “This is simple, but maybe not that easy,” I don’t think the answer to this is easy or simple. It’s a terribly complicated issue, and I think it starts with your personality and whether you tend to be a pessimist or an optimist, and it extends to what kind of support system you have and healthy habits you’re able to maintain.
If you’re a pessimist without a supportive family and lots of unhealthy habits – it still shocks and disappoints me how many chefs smoke cigarettes to get tiny moments of stress relief – then burnout is going to be part of your life. This is a common combination in the restaurant industry, and it’s no wonder why burnout or even nervous breakdowns are so prevalent. And because it’s so prevalent, it becomes this weird badge of honour. As in, if you come into the kitchen looking refreshed and healthy in the morning, it’s almost seen as an indictment, like you’re not working as hard as all these other folks who are killing themselves to make it happen.
All I can say is it doesn’t have to be that way. Another path is available to anyone who wants to take it. Develop healthy habits, build a support system, and try to keep your mind on the bright side of life. No matter what you do today, the sun will rise tomorrow.
Many entrepreneurs struggle with work-life balance. What practices do you follow to ensure you prioritise health and well-being amidst a busy schedule?
It’s not just the gym, but that is a big part of it. Time with my wife and my daughters is key to my well-being. To make sure that happens, I schedule it into my calendar like anything else. “Dinner with the girls” or “Bike ride or movie with Gail.” It feels weird to do at first, but when you’re busy, if it’s not scheduled, it won’t happen. I love doing it this way now. I can look at the schedule and see all these back-to-back meetings, but if I see something fun with my family scheduled right after that, it gives you something to look forward to and gives you more energy for some of those things that aren’t as fun.
Life really is quite short. You might as well spend that time by unapologetically being yourself
Nutrition is a key component of fitness. Could you share some dietary tips or principles that have helped you stay fit and healthy?
My book “Fit Fuel” was born out of the fact that I used to work hard and play hard. Meaning, I’d hit the gym and felt justified in indulging in a lot of the pub food I loved so much growing up. But it took its toll on my blood pressure and cholesterol. Gail helped me change all that, and now I do a lot of what she does, which is centring vegetables and lean proteins at every meal and reducing fat, dairy, and simple carbs. When you learn how to cook fresh vegetables and really make them sing, you won’t miss having the fried stuff all the time.
Finally, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring leaders who aim to make a positive impact in both the business world and the realm of health and fitness?
There are an infinite number of ways you could approach that goal, so the best advice I can give is to do it in the way that is most authentic to you. Don’t worry about what other people are doing or try to calculate your way into having the most popular approach. You can’t really do that anyway, so just be honest with yourself and do it in the way that you personally are most passionate about, not what you think others will like best. Life really is quite short. You might as well spend that time by unapologetically being yourself.