Chef Robert Irvine Talks About Leadership, Life with Firefighters

March 4, 2024
Robert Irvine, host of Restaurant Impossible, shared his visions on leadership, personal growth and taking care of public safety and military members during CTEX.

Popular chef Robert Irvine, known for his no nonsense television shows where he works to get restaurants and businesses in better shape, spent an afternoon last week with the fire service, acknowledging them for their work, and highlighting some of the efforts that he is involved with to take care of public safety and military members.

In a casual chat with California State Firefighters' Association President, Eddie Sell, who is also a former military chef, the once Royal Navy chef talked about leadership, culture, entrepreneurship, and more importantly, the desire to be a better person day-in and day-out. 

"It’s important for me to give back to all of those firefighters, police, teachers...I put all those people in that one box, with the people of the cloth of the military," Irvine said, praising the work firefighters do.

Irvine said he did not grow up with much, but he focused on athletics.

"I was not a good school kid," Irvine said. "Dinner for me was two slices of bread, butter and sugar. That was it.”

Growing up, he wanted to be a firefighter, and considered a route in the military, joining a sea cadet program at age 11.

"I wanted to be a firefighter. I did hose drills and ladder drills at the towers," he said with animated excitement. 

His life took a turn when he signed up for a home economics class in school where he found his love for cooking.

“So, the three things I was good at were cooking, sports and drinking” Irvine said to laughs in the room, noting he spent time in UK pubs as a child.

Before he turned 16, he signed up to join the Royal Navy.

For two years while he was in the Royal Navy, his father didn't talk to him because he felt the role of a chef was subservient. 

After a career which included cooking for the royal family and the White House, he opened businesses, hosted shows on the Food Network and hosted efforts to support current and military members and public safety officials. 

Today, he owns 11 businesses and has 6,000 employees. He also spends close to 300 days a year on the road, tending to various commitments.

Feeding firefighters, military members

Irvine's passion for food continues, whether it's supplying the nation's first line of defensefirefighters and law enforcementwith affordable, or no-cost meals that are healthy. He's also working with the Department of Defense to change the way U.S. military members are fed, and what they consume. 

"The way we serve our military has not changed since World War I," he said. 

The process in which food is ordered, delivered, prepared and served has been the same for almost 100 years and he's working to streamline the process, allowing healthier food to put stronger, better nourished troops on the frontlines.

"One meal, two meals, or three meals a day was good but now I think that’s not good," Irvine said. "Athletes eat multiple times a day and I’m hoping the military members can eat every two hours.”

Irvine called for cities and the citizens they protect to pony up for their on-duty meals, noting that it shouldn't be left to firefighters, EMS and law enforcement to pay for their meals while they are protecting them. 

"If you’re paying for your own food while you're on duty, that’s disgusting."

He explained a pilot program with two FDNY fire stations in Brooklyn where he covers the cost of health-focused meals each year. His goal is for citizens, companies and other notable people to follow suit.

Addressing mental health

Irvine talked about mental health, calling for fire departments and the military to continue to provide support for members who are suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS). 

"We need to get them outside their four walls to get them to stop thinking about suicide," he said, talking about initiatives to get veterans and public safety officials talking with peers and resources that can help them.

"When you leave the service, you lose the sense of belonging to a team…and that’s what’s so important about making sure they feel they are still part of the team.”

The crowd grew quiet as Irvine shared the story of a veteran he met at a golf outing he was hosting. The man told Irvine that he was waiting to see how the outing turned out; he expected to take his own life if the event was helpful to him. The event provided that soldier with a second chance. 

“So, that’s a shock. You can’t be in the body of someone you don’t know," he warned. "PTS is not a disorder. We can change that with different methods."

Each year, to connect veterans and provide them with hope and a memorable experience, he hosts 900 veterans from around the world for the Scotland Cateran YOMP, a 52-mile walk through the Scottish Highlands in a 24-hour period.

"Every one to two miles, you’re talking with someone from another country who doesn’t have what we have,” Irvine said. Those conversations create new bonds and build friendships that ensure the veterans have a place to turn when they need peer support.

Finding hope in food

He called food, "the international language of hope and love." He added that is it "the quickest way to heal a person."

“I think it’s so important so you sit down (at meal time). The fire is the same as the military, he said adding that fun banter at the table is good for everyone to bond. "It is great for morale and teamwork and food is an essential part of that."

Through the Robert Irvine Foundation, he hosts an event called "Breaking Bread with Heroes" that brings veterans together to bond over meals, talk about their scars and find hope in healing them.

At events where he brings veterans together, Irvine said "I make eggs and hot dogs when I put them around the table. That’s what food is to me…it’s about the relationship with people and their kids."

“Food engages…no matter where you come from…take a moment and sit down. Not just here, it’s around the world. Look at every event in the world, what happens? The Last Supper was a good meal. Marriage, divorce, births, treaties…it drops a barrier and lets people in."

 There is an investment in you, and you, and you…and we forget the wear and tear is not on machine but on humans. You need to keep up with people

Lessons in success

Before taking the stage at CTEX, Irvine met Ontario, CA, dispatcher Tracy Gonzales' daughter, Lauren, asking her what the first thing she does daily after getting out of bed. 

Ivine suggested that she make her bed as soon as she gets up. "If you do that, you have already accomplished the first thing that day." He impressed upon he that housekeeping items can set you up for success until you go to bed that night.

I think there’s one thing that the fire service, the police service and military teach you and it’s teamwork.”

During basic training, Irvine was put in charge of other cadets in his barracks, and he said on the second night, at 2 a.m., he held an exercise to ensure the others were ready to commit to their mission.

"I turned everyone out of bed and turned the beds upside down and threw their belongings around," Irvine recalled. "We’re going to teach you how do to certain things like clean your room and make your bed."

He said they many of them were baffled by the early morning wakeup call and drill.

"You know what? They all graduated eight weeks later."

Lessons in leadership

Irvine outlined his four principles of leadership:

The first pillar is empathetic leadership, allowing a leader to connect with their team on a personal level by knowing them as people.

"We have to understand the people that work with us – we have to understand their day. I alter behavior based on listening to them."

Second, he focused on the important of trust within the group, whether it's you trusting your team, or them having trust in your abilities.

"You can’t go into a fire knowing that somebody isn’t behind you who you can trust."

The next area of leadership in Irvine's eyes was keeping your ego in check.

Finally, he told those gathered in Riverside for CTEX that they need to be authentic.

He said authenticity goes a long way in building trust, and creating a successful team moving for success in their goals. 

"If you can master all four of those things, you’ll be successful in any business your in," Irvine said. "Not just the corporate 500 but all careers."

Knowing your personnel 

Joining Irvine, and Sell, U.S. Army, Ranger, Michael Schlitz, who suffered devastating injuries in an IED explosion in Baghdad, shared a tip for leaders, whether it's in the office, or the field. 

Schlitz said leaders must know their people - what they like, what makes them tick and what may be casting a negative light on them.

“As a team player, you can achieve more things in the military," Irvine said. "It wasn’t about one, it was about all."

"I think there’s one thing that the fire service, the police service and military teach you and it’s teamwork.”

Comfort food

After taking questions from the audience, Irvine revealed his favorite meal.

As host of three Food Network television shows, "Dinner: Impossible," "Restaurant: Impossible" and "Worst Cooks in America," he's eaten memorable meals, and dishes he'd prefer to never remember.

For somebody who’s always tasting somebody else’s food, he said the simple dish of roasted chicken with potatoes is his go-to. 

Reflecting on his childhood, "Sitting down with Sunday roast, it made the family unit real."


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