In early July, Chef Robert Irvine is in Arkansas with his Food Network makeover show “Restaurant Impossible,” and he’s not happy with what he sees.
“We’re at a restaurant called Whistle Stop Cafe,” he tells Zap2it. “We came in late last night, started this morning, and we’re just thinking out the restaurant.They’ve got a lot of problems — management, leadership, cleanliness, cooking, you name it. It’s all in there. It’s the perfect storm.”
One would think, with all sorts of state and local inspectors, it’d be tough to find a truly dirty kitchen in America.
But, says Irvine, not so much.
“It’s scary,” he says. “But we find them, and it’s not difficult to find them. That’s the worst part. There’s another one today.”
Asked what’s on the menu, Irvine says, “It’s a big, buffet-style restaurant, more Southern-style food than anything else — catfish, collard greens, fried chicken. That seems to be the staple here. We’re taking it out and refining that into what I think should go here and can be put out fast, on a consistent basis, with fresh food. Right now, it’s all frozen and canned.”
Irvine has had to become a bit of a psychologist during the time he’s worked on “Restaurant Impossible.”
“After the first eight hours, they’re doing great,” he says. “Nobody likes being told they’re messing up. We’re humans. We don’t like to be told we’re failing. They’re very proud, as we are, and it takes eight hours for them to realize that I’m trying to help them, that I’m trying to fix it, with them, and give them a chance.
“At the end of the two days, I can tell you, these people have gone through a journey.”
Unlike some restaurant-revamp shows that have a week or so to reinvent an eatery, Irvine works within strict limits.
“This is a unique show,” he says. “I look for things that can be easily cleaned, easily maintained and look beautiful with minimal work. Now, if there’s a concrete floor, prime the floor, stain the floor and seal the floor. Why do you need to cover a floor that’s beautiful?
“So I take all of that into account, especially because [we] only have two days and $10,000. We utilize, remake existing products, what we have here, so I don’t spend past that budget. I always spend the $10,000, but I can’t go over, because they don’t give me any more money, and there’s no more time.”
Also on the menu is lots of elbow grease for Irvine and his team.
“We do the work,” he says. “We have volunteers, and there’s Tom [Bury, the show’s general contractor] and the designer, and we do the work. I’m here until it’s finished.”
By the way, how did the Whistle Stop turn out?
Click here for a review by diner Elizabeth Smith, which opens with, “Yes, Restaurant Impossible DID the makeover last week and
they did great! My husband and I went on Saturday at around 2:30.
first thing you notice is the improved decor — modern mixed with some
rustic touches to match the Railroad Train Tracks outside and the name
of the place. They moved things around so it is much more spacious. More
lighting makes it brighter. Now the food — it is a lot better!”