Preparing for the Impossible
The question Robert Irvine is most often asked—aside from "Aren't you that guy on Food Network?"—is whether the missions on his show, Dinner: Impossible, are real. Is it true that producers send him off to cook, under extreme circumstances, for hundreds or even thousands of people, without letting him know where he's headed or what he'll be doing? I've been watching the show for years and I had the same question for Robert when I met him at one of our photo shoots last year. I assumed he would just answer "Yes," but he did me one better: He dared me to join him on a mission and experience the insanity firsthand.
Few people would be crazy enough to tackle a Dinner: Impossible challenge once, let alone about 30 times a year, as Robert does. For him, there is no off-season. Every two weeks or so, a car picks him up at home in South Carolina so he can fly to an unknown location and take on a new mission, such as cooking for 250 at a Roller Derby or 2,000 at the NBA All-Star Game. "I don't know anyone else who would do this job," he says. Iron Chef Michael Symon is the only other person who has tried: "I told Robert, 'I could just feel the show ripping years away from my life.'"
Robert told me the only way to really understand what he goes through would be to meet him at his house before dawn on the day before his next mission. Neither of us would have any idea where we were headed next.
How could I refuse?
Day before mission
The guessing game begins.
I meet Robert in his front yard just before 4 a.m. It's pitch-black. I can barely keep my eyes open this early, but Robert is pumped: "Didn't sleep at all last night!" We're both carrying suitcases that are way too big for our two-day trip. Of course, that's because we don't have a clue what the weather will be like at our destination. Parkas are packed alongside flip-flops, heavy sweaters with sunglasses. All we know is that a car is scheduled to pick us up and take us, probably, to an airport.
An hour later, we arrive at the Savannah airport, but there's a glitch: The driver doesn't know which airline we're on, and neither do we. "This early in the morning at Savannah, that means we're either flying Delta or U.S. Air," Robert says calmly. He quickly calls his manager, who confirms that, yes, we're flying U.S. Airways. Robert has done this so many times (this will be his 65th mission) that almost nothing fazes him. He doesn't even seem to be wondering where we're headed, while I'm checking weather reports across the country on my cell phone. "I used to do that," Robert says. "But it's never where I think it will be, so I don't bother anymore."
When Robert and I get to the check-in counter, we receive a welcome surprise: We're headed to Key West, FL. Jackpot. "It's nice when it's someplace warm," Robert says.
Robert mentally prepares.
Just because we're headed to paradise doesn't mean we're on vacation. I realize this when we land in Charlotte, NC, to catch a connecting flight and meet Marc Summers, Dinner: Impossible's executive producer, who's been waiting for us. He asks Robert if anyone told him to pack shorts. Robert says no. "You won't want to wear long pants for this," Marc says. "It's gonna be brutal."
When we land in Key West, I ask Robert if he starts canvassing the location for clues about his mission. "We did that during the first season, but it never helped," he says. "The producers are so secretive. And they keep me from talking to people."
Instead, he spends the day doing what he always does the day before a mission. He eats lunch, works out in the hotel gym, grabs an early dinner and then performs an unlikely ritual: He irons all of his clothes. "That's when the whole thing becomes real for me," he says. The ironing stems from his time in the military (he was a cook in the British Royal Navy for 10 years). So does his sleep schedule. At most, Robert sleeps about three hours before a mission: "Tomorrow morning I'll be up and sort of itching to get on with it."
Robert gets his orders.
With cameras rolling, Robert has the go-ahead to meet Captain Stitch, a local "professional pirate," beside the schooner. He learns he'll have eight hours to shop and cook a feast for 150 pirates, and that he has to include seafaring dishes like turtle, bone soup and something made with scurvy-preventing citrus.
"Arrr! Those are my rules," Stitch tells him before sending him off to cook. Then, Robert finds out he won't be working on the boat. Instead, we all hop back into our cars and drive to a makeshift outdoor kitchen at a nearby state park; producers chose it for the postcard-perfect view, but Robert doesn't have time to notice. He's busy meeting up with George and David, his regular sous chefs, and a few other assistants thrown in by the producers: local pirate performers named Leatherback, Scarlett and Deadeye. The Jack Sparrow look-alikes don't appear to have much culinary training. "They probably won't have the skill," Robert says. Nevertheless, he and his team devise a preliminary menu and head off to shop.
The team stocks up.
We arrive at an Albertsons supermarket and barely have time to park before Robert and his crew dash inside. Other shoppers—who clearly weren't expecting their Monday-morning grocery run to be ambushed by Dinner: Impossible—whip out camera phones. "This is my favorite show," one customer tells me, framing a shot on his iPhone. "This is awesome!"
Robert's grabbing everything in sight, loading one cart after another. "I pick up a lot of things along the way," he says. "I might drop something or ruin something. If that happens, we need another menu item on the fly." Production assistants are running full carts over to the registers while Robert keeps shopping. After the 45-minute supermarket sweep, the food—including two crates of lobsters, several pounds of fresh turtle meat and a whole pig—is piled into two vans. The grocery bill: $3,351.08. (Producers had budgeted about $3,000 for this mission.)
Robert gets cooking.
Back at the kitchen, Robert swings into full cooking mode. And Scarlett and the other pirate assistants are doing a good job. Earlier, the chef explained how he approaches his aides: "People think I'm hard on these guys, but what we do is so intense. If you had to cook for 4,000 people in eight hours and then move the food three miles, set up another kitchen and finish the meal there, would you say to your assistants, 'Please, could you move the salt, please?' I go into General mode."
When Robert is cooking, producers hover right behind the cameramen, asking him questions and prodding for on-camera explanations. "I try to facilitate the producers' wishes," he tells me later. "But sometimes I forget that we're shooting a show. I always say, 'There's no truck backing up and dumping cooked food.' If I don't make it, there's no food."
During the final hour of the challenge, Robert focuses intently on finishing the dishes, and as the clock ticks down, producers get nervous, too. Marc Summers confides that the guests are the part he worries about most. (Producers put out an open call to "pirates" in town for Key West's annual pirate festival.)
"My biggest fear is that nobody shows up to eat this food. If we were in a mall or something, and I just needed warm bodies, I could grab them," he says. "But where am I going to find 150 pirates? If only 23 show up, we're in trouble."
Even after the pirates arrive and dinner is served, the stress isn't over for the chef. Two days later, he'll hop on a plane, fly to a new mission and start all over again. He doesn't know it yet, but a crew member tells me Robert's going to a town in New Mexico where the minus-six-degree low is a far cry from Key West's forecast of 85 and sunny. It's a good thing Robert packed a sweater, after all.