This is no dinner party for eight. It's not a friendly barbecue or a bake-off or a how-to on feeding your family in 30 minutes, either. Rather, Dinner: Impossible — premiering tonight at 10 pm/ET with two back-to-back episodes — is the fiercest cooking mission Food Network has yet to deliver, and master chef Robert Irvine is up for the challenge. Thirty years after flirting with girls in home ec, Irvine has landed in kitchens all over the world and cooked for people we read about in the news, but he's nowhere near retiring his favored titanium knives. With a book ready to hit shelves, two restaurants preparing to open their doors and a fast-paced show that has him whipping up delectable meals on cattle drives, deserted islands and the like, Irvine shared with TVGuide.com about how he got to this point in his career, how he trusts complete strangers to help him in the kitchen, and whether some dinners really are impossible.
TVGuide.com: Are you excited about the premiere of Dinner: Impossible?
Robert Irvine: I am so excited and so pumped after doing the Today show [on Tuesday]. They gave me a challenge of doing pastries in 45 minutes!
TVGuide.com: That's crazy, and so is the new show. I just watched the first half-hour episode of the premiere, and I think Food Network lovers like me will really enjoy it. It has speed like Iron Chef, but it's also unique because you're in a different location preparing for different people and events.
The show is so different, because it's not really teaching you how to cook — although it gives you enough tips to take away — but it's real life, it is what it is. You see me intense, you see me funny, you see me in lots of different areas.
TVGuide.com: Yeah, and it's great that you work with these teams that you have never met before.
Irvine: Exactly, and as the show progresses, you'll see that I don't have my team all the time. I just did one [episode] on an island with two Survivor winners, Jenna Morasca (Survivor: The Amazon) and Ethan Zohn (Survivor: Africa), and another at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and other places where I don't have my team. So it's very interesting to take people from nowhere and turn them into chefs for the day.
TVGuide.com: Give us a preview of some of the kitchens we'll see you tackle this season. You mentioned an island, and I hear there's a train....
Irvine: There's a train. There's feeding a whole island off the coast of Maine. There's a desert island off the coast of the Bahamas. There's 17th-century cooking at [colonial] Williamsburg.... They're all so, so different.
TVGuide.com: Have you had a favorite episode so far?
Irvine: I've enjoyed them all. Williamsburg was incredible, the wedding [in the premiere] was incredible, and they get more intense from there. The most challenging one so far for me was the CIA, where I had seven master chefs create seven dishes from France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia, India, Vietnam and China, and [I had] 15 minutes to blind-taste them and then re-create them for 85 people within seven hours. And then they said to me, "By the way, you've got to come up with seven dishes, one from each country of your choice." So it's 14 dishes, 85 people, and seven hours to do it. By the time I got back into the kitchen after getting the food, we were four hours from serving. The job alone is so much pressure, but having seven master chefs critiquing you on their national dish?!
TVGuide.com: Wow. And the fact that shopping for the food is included in your time limit is even harder!
Irvine: It depends. We did a cattle drive in the middle of a field — the stakes are real, not only my reputation — and I have 500 people I need to feed. Or the Governor's Ball in Pennsylvania that we just did — feeding 4,000 people in under 24 hours. People are expecting to be fed, and I have to somehow produce that! [Laughs] It's like being a magician!
TVGuide.com: Will we see missions that are impossible?
Irvine: Absolutely. You will see mishaps, fires, cuts, you will see things that go wrong. The good thing about this — or at least I think it's good — is that you get a chance to see the reality of a chef. People do cut themselves, they do burn things, they do set fires. All those things that normal TV shows don't show you, you're getting to see, which I think is unique.
TVGuide.com: Are there times when you think, "This is crazy! What am I doing?"
Irvine: Absolutely. On a couple of missions, I'm like, "This is impossible."
TVGuide.com: When you hosted the TV show The Effortless Gourmet, is that when you started coming up with the idea for Dinner: Impossible?
Irvine: When I was doing The Effortless Gourmet, which I started, paid for and put on the air, I would get three or four thousand e-mails every Sunday evening, and I would help people with food questions. So I started to develop a couple of shows, one which was called Fit for a King with a writer called Brian O'Reilly, who cowrote my book with me, and it was based on my life. I met [Dinner: Impossible producer] Marc Summers when I was doing a live show with Paula Deen in New Jersey, and I asked Marc to come and watch me. He came all the way from California and said, "You have what it takes to do television." Marc took my and Brian's original [idea] to the Food Network, and it has evolved into Dinner: Impossible and not knowing where the challenge is, what the food is or how many people [there are to feed].
TVGuide.com: Your bio says you signed up for home-economics class at age 11 because of the girls. Is that true?
Irvine: That is true, I'm sorry to say.
TVGuide.com: But then you fell in love with cooking instead?
Irvine: When I couldn't get far with the girls, I really fell in love with how to cook quiche Lorraine and things like that. It mesmerized me, how you could create things from nothing.
TVGuide.com: And 30 years later, you've been cooking for people all around the world.
Irvine: I've cooked for presidents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Tony Blair, the Oscars, Grammys.... I've done most of what some chefs would consider a lifetime of work, and I've kind of done it in a reverse way — I didn't have a restaurant, I didn't have a book. I'm actually doing the book now.
TVGuide.com: When is it coming out?
Irvine: It will be called Robert, The First and it's an account of my life from 15 years old to where I am now, 41, with funny anecdotes and recipes and pictures, things that I've done in my past. The book is done, and we're shooting the cover in the next couple of weeks, so I'd imagine it will come out pretty soon.
TVGuide.com: And you're opening up two restaurants in St. Petersburg, Florida, this August?
Irvine: Yes — Ooze, and Schmooze.
TVGuide.com: Will you get to be there often?
Irvine: Absolutely. [When] I will be there depends on if the network picks up another season [of Dinner: Impossible]. My aspiration is to be like Bobby [Flay] or Emeril [Lagasse], but you never know. I just play it by ear.
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