Chef Robert Irvine walked out of his tent on a breezy Wednesday afternoon, coffee in hand, dressed in two thick shirts with a sprinkling of sawdust on one shoulder.
“What do you think of Calhoun and Gordon County so far,” a reporter asked Irvine, the host of Restaurant Impossible, a Food Network show that was filming an episode at The Fork Diner in Calhoun this week.
“Cold and cold,” he said with a smile.
Irvine is nothing if not honest — at times brutally so.
He was raised in Wiltshire, England and was once in the British Royal Navy. He’s tough minded and tough on the restaurant owners he helps keep from going under. That’s the premise of the show: saving failing restaurants and turning them into success stories.
He and his crew came to Calhoun on Monday with a daunting task: overhaul The Fork in 36-hours with a budget of $10,000. It wasn’t easy, but it’s what they do. This week’s event was the 106th episode Restaurant Impossible has filmed, Irvine said. It was the first such filming in the state of Georgia.
The Fork owners, who signed non-disclosure agreements with the show and cannot be interviewed by the press until the episode airs some time in spring or summer, applied to be on the program. A panel of Food Network employees chose them for the show and Irvine came to town not knowing anything about The Fork.
By Wednesday, he had a good idea about what he had found.
“This restaurant is a two-and-a-half year-old restaurant that moved from a different location,” he said. “They’ve never made money and they have $375,000 in the restaurant and are losing $12,000 a month. They’re in debt with the IRS to the tune of about $18,000. (They owe) $10,000 to suppliers and the staff hasn’t been paid since January. So you can imagine a little animosity. There are three owners and each has put a certain amount in … and there is a lot of stress. I think something is going to blow up.”
So did anything blow up? You’ll have to wait until the show airs to find out. Very few details were given about what went on inside. Volunteers were also asked to sign disclosure agreements and the set was closed to the public and the press.
Irvine said Wednesday afternoon that the build was a little behind schedule, but guests to the grand opening that evening confirmed that everything was completed on time.
Calhoun resident Leslie McDougle, who volunteered with the build, said she had a great time and was treated well.
“It was definitely a thrilling experience,” McDougle said. “It was different from anything I have ever experienced. My reasoning behind doing it was that it was a community restaurant hoping to better their position in the business community. Also, the owners graciously opened their doors on a Sunday to accommodate my father’s birthday, which you don’t get with chain restaurant. So it was my way of saying thank you.”
McDougle said she had eaten at the restaurant before and thought it could use some work.
“The food was kind of hit or miss, not always consistent,” she said. “But kudos to them for trying to do better. I got there early and surveyed the scene. It was controlled chaos. When I walked into the restaurant, it was completely gutted. The floors were in and that was it. By the time we finished working, it was a decorated operating restaurant.”
McDougle said that workers stayed as late as 3 a.m. working on the project. It was truly a 36-hour blitz build and Irvine was the ringmaster.
Irvine is known for his confrontational style, which is something he doesn’t apologize about. He and his staff have a short time and limited budget to remake a restaurant and he needs things to be done right, he said.
“Restaurant Impossible is a real show,” Irvine, 49, said. “We have an 80 percent success rate because people listen. These are real people with real problems and we give real solutions. If they listen they can make money… we have 36-hours of real time to change somebody’s life. That could involve their kids, home and savings. Where people’s lives and livelihoods are concerned, I take that very seriously. That’s why I’m tough on the owners, tough on my builders, tough on the volunteers. You can ask any of them, I treat them just like I treat my staff. At the end of the day, when we give this restaurant back and they cry and are successful, then we’ve done something good.”
For Irvine, the show is more than just a medium through which people are entertained. Turning these restaurants around is a calling, he said.
“God gives us all a gift,” Irvine said. “Whether you’re in media, television, newspapers, Internet, whatever—it’s our job to use our gift to help those less fortunate.”
McDougle vouched for Irvine’s sentiment.
“There may be cameras and lights and celebrities, but it’s so much more than that,” she said. “He is a big personality but a really a good, caring individual that cares about the people he helps and the job he does.”
Irvine said he travels 150 days a year with actor Gary Sinise, visiting veterans and children facing cancer.
“This is an extension of my work life,” he said. “My real life is giving back.”
Leaving a positive footprint in Calhoun and Gordon County was important to Irvine as well, he said.
“We have a crew of 30 production (members) so it’s hotels and food,” he said. “People come to The Fork to dine, so it’s a real boost to the community. I tell them I can do magic and miracles in 36 hours, but it has to come from you. It’s your town, your community, so make sure you spend your money here.”
So what can residents expect from The Fork going forward?
“A brand new restaurant, a brand new menu and a brand new attitude,” Irvine said. “We’ll see what the rest brings. We never give a restaurant back until it’s perfect, the way I would want it as my restaurant.”
The Fork is located at 474 Red Bud Road NE in Calhoun. You can call them at 706-383-7603.
Restaurant Impossible’s website is: www.foodnetwork.com/shows/restaurant-impossible.html. The show regularly airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.