Robert Irvine is the brash, loud host and idea man behind Restaurant Impossible Ambush. Restaurants that are in trouble apply for a makeover and if granted they are ambushed by Robert and his construction and design team who in a matter of days transform the restaurant in hopes of saving it from failure. This week’s episode featured SIP Bistro, a restaurant in Holly Springs owned by Justin and Sarah Hummell. I applied to volunteer on the show because I wanted a behind the scenes look at what really happens on a Food Network reality show.
Staging. Call me skeptical but I went in thinking reality television show equals staged. At one point the team of volunteers was assembled and Robert asked who thought the show was staged. I don’t know if everyone else was afraid to answer for fear he’d throw them across the room but I raised my hand. Robert talked about the show, how they select people and his pride in the fact that unlike some other restaurant makeover shows which I will not name, though he did, his show is real and unscripted. I must say from all I saw while there he told the truth. When I arrived to volunteer I misunderstood the instructions given or well, I don’t like following directions so I found myself in the restaurant watching Robert’s initial interview with Justin and Sarah. There was no posing other than you sit here, she sits here. There were no take 33s. The questions asked, the answers given and the emotion shown on the finished show were all what I saw in that room. There was no fancy editing to up the drama and as a matter of fact a few things that could have made for high drama were edited out.
The makeover process – Imagine a giant tornado sweeping through a room. That’s what the makeover process is like. A team of volunteers and the crew emptied SIP from top to bottom in the course of a few hours. As the restaurant was being emptied carpenters were already getting to work building in new features and demolishing areas of the restaurant. While the demo was underway volunteers sanded, scraped and painted everything from bar stools to tables, cleaned glasses, assembled storage shelves, wine racks – you get the idea. If you’ve ever done a home improvement project you know no matter how carefully you plan there’s always a reason to go to a home improvement store. Food Network is no different. “Here’s some cash, bring back a receipt and don’t forget to use the coupon”, the designer Tania Nyack told a volunteer who was headed to the fabric store. “We need an iron.” Back to the store. Suddenly my endless trips to get forgotten things seemed quite normal. I’m not incompetent – yay me.
The crew worked well into the night to stay on schedule and even with those late nights it was down to the wire. Sip was to open for dinner at 6:30 and at 4:00 the restaurant was a disaster zone. Tarps still covered the floor, the painters were painting, boards were being cut and wine was sitting in boxes so that’s when the yelling began. But it wasn’t Gordon Ramsey yelling. It wasn’t yelling to be mean. It was OH MY GOD THIS PLACE HAS TO BE OPERABLE IN AN HOUR PEOPLE urgency yelling. Like a duck you just let that roll off you. Hmm, is that all you got Robert?
The Man: I’ve watched the show. I figured in a fight between Game of Thrones’ Mountain and Robert they’d be perfectly matched. Surprisingly Robert Irvine is big but not nearly as big as he seems on television. Now let me be clear. He has arms the size of many people’s bodies and looks like he could rip a live oak from the earth and throw it like a toothpick but he’s about 5’10. I was expecting over 7 feet and menacing. He does yell but it seems that’s because he’s a yell first ask questions later kind of guy. When there are five saws going and folks moving in and out you’ve got to be loud to be heard so a lot of the yelling was not for drama it was for necessity. He didn’t come off as abusive but simply in a hurry to get stuff done. I get it. The restaurant is serving dinner at 6:00 and it looks like a hurricane swept through at 4:00. Chop, chop people.
While the crew and volunteers worked Robert spent a great deal of time with the couple functioning as a marriage counselor of sorts. That scene where he is yelling at the husband in the tent – that was real. I couldn’t see it but could certainly hear it. Robert seemed genuinely concerned about the relationship between this couple. This seemed so at odds with his television persona but was completely consistent with what I had seen over the course of 2 days.
I can’t be the only person who forgets when watching television that what you see isn’t what you necessarily get. There are certain celebrities I’m sure could be my BFF and others I give side eye all based on their television image. Robert Irvine is so different than his persona it was a humbling reminder to not judge people. I was able to interact with him a few times and he was warm, funny and a seemingly nice guy.
At the end of the project even though the restaurant opening was running late he took the time to call all the volunteers and crew together. He thanked us all and took the opportunity to talk to us about the show and its mission. His mission, he said, is to preserve people’s dreams. He talked about the fact that no one opens a restaurant without it being a passion but it’s a hard business where few will make it. He stated he wanted to help folks follow their dreams. He talked about building up local communities and empowering them and encouraged us to continue giving our time and money to improve our communities. Finally he talked of food insecurity and went so far as to suggest in the grocery store if you see someone clearly making the difficult choice of deciding they need to put something back because they can’t afford it, if you can, just buy it for them.
I did not expect to feel such a sense of pride and so invested in Sip but when I saw the Sip sign lit up, knowing I was part of the polishing, gluing and assembling of that piece and thinking of the many other things I was able to do to hopefully help Sip thrive, I was rather overwhelmed. Crowd funding is great but giving money can never feel as good as giving time.
What I learned is that Robert Irvine isn’t an ass and that barn raisings still exist.