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The restaurant was rather nondescript. It had a curious name -- eat! -- and was tucked in a corner at The Village at Wexford on Hilton Head Island. About two months ago, the man behind the upscale eatery put his name on it. It became known as Robert Irvine's eat!
Irvine is the host of the Food Network series, "Dinner: Impossible," where the buff former member of the British Royal Navy has to find a way to concoct a large meal in limiting situations -- cooking for history experts at Colonial Williamsburg using only methods and tools from the 1700s, for example.
Just a little more than a year ago, Irvine was in the middle of a foodie firestorm. He was off as host of his show, following accusations that he cooked up his resume. His plans for two restaurants in St. Petersburg, Fla., were scrapped, amid much fanfare of the celebrity chef's arrival in town.
But he survived the storm and quickly established himself again. He's back hosting his show. And, Irvine plans to duplicate the early success of his Hilton Head restaurant by opening 30 similar establishments across the country within two years.
The Robert Irvine brand has been re-energized, and it's happening on Hilton Head.
A PEACEFUL, QUIET PLACE
Irvine became familiar with the island like so many others -- he visited and decided to not leave.
After visiting relatives in Sun City Hilton Head, he bought a home on the island about two years ago, keeping another house in New Jersey. He estimates he's on the road about 300 days a year, filming his show or cooking for charity events.
When he's not elsewhere, he primarily stays on the island with his family, he said.
"It's a peaceful, quiet place, and I fell in love with it," he said. "The people are nice, not intrusive."
He got the idea for having a local restaurant when he dined at what was then known as Spice in The Village at Wexford. The Indian restaurant had struggled to find a niche on an island populated with seafood, steak and Italian food. Irvine and his business partner, Randall Williams, started eyeing the spot in July last year and bought it shortly after. They opened it just as eat! then renamed it Robert Irvine's eat! in February once business was running smoothly.
Irvine had been a chef for years before becoming a TV star. He cooked with the British Royal Navy, trained U.S. Navy chefs as a guest chef in the White House and cooked in Las Vegas hotels and casinos. A restaurant was a logical progression.
"People see you on TV," he said. "They want to taste what you make but they can't."
Irvine describes the menu at eat! as a concoction of flavors that typically might not go together, but work -- horseradish-crusted salmon, mint pesto, salt- and herb-encrusted ahi tuna.
The Hilton Head area is a constantly changing mosaic of restaurants with more than 200 on the island alone. Irvine and Williams knew the key is finding a following while also standing out from the crowd. The restaurant held events such as bimonthly cooking classes with Irvine and executive chef Lee Lucier. Irvine then lent his name to the awning to bring an element of celebrity.
"Hilton Head has such an array of restaurants, and they all have great chefs in their own right," he said. "I don't say we're the best or the worst. But I do think we fit in nicely."
Opening 30 other restaurants in two years might seem like an ambitious goal, especially in a down economy, but Irvine says it's possible. Williams said they're currently in negotiations on spots in Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., but he was reluctant to give a timeline on their opening.
Irvine's positive vision is in contrast to his public image a year before. He was off the television show he helped create. Two much-hyped restaurants were not going to open. As fast as things have rebounded this past year, they had just as quickly unraveled.
A MOMENT IN TIME
Irvine was the star of a soon-to-debut Food Network show when he came to St. Petersburg in 2006. He began work on two new restaurants, the casual Ooze and the upscale Schmooze. A local celebrity status soon followed. But by 2008, the restaurants still weren't open, and Irvine's face still hung on posters inside. Irvine and Williams announced in March 2008 that the restaurants' plans were scrapped. They said it no longer made sense as a business venture.
To make matters worse, allegations began to arise about Irvine's background. The St. Petersburg Times ran a story in February 2008 disputing many facts of his resume: his time in the White House, his relationship with the royal family, his claim that he received knighthood from the queen herself, among others.
More accusations swirled, and the Food Network replaced him as host of the show with Iron Chef Michael Symon, removing his bio from the celebrity chef sections from its Web site. He later was quoted in the Times and elsewhere apologizing for any exaggerations.
For several months, he was on what he calls "a mutual hiatus" from hosting the show. The Food Network released a statement noting his fan support and acknowledging the steps he made to clear the air about his past and rebuild the relationship with the network.
That winter, he was back filming episodes and a revised bio was posted online. The new season of "Dinner: Impossible" launched in April. They're filming 13 episodes this season, enough to be on the air through 2010, Irvine said.
He started a blog and posted a lengthy response to some of the allegations, including detailing his time with the Royal Family and quoting letters from high ranking U.S. government officials thanking him for his time as a guest chef. A letter from Michael Miller, director of the White House Military Office, is framed on the wall of his Hilton Head restaurant.
The major claim that Irvine regrets is saying that he had received knighthood in England. He now says it was a stupid comment made at a bar one night that soon became interpreted as truth.
Williams and Irvine now call that period "a moment in time," something they've learned from and moved past.
"Was it painful? Yes," said Williams. "Was it a lesson? Yes."
When Irvine came to Hilton Head, he used the opposite method employed in St. Petersburg. The celebrity and all the hype that came with it didn't come first. First came the restaurant. Then, once it was up and running, the celebrity behind it came out.
CREATING SOMETHING BETTER
Irvine's cooking classes are intimate affairs with about 30-40 people. A recent class lasted two hours with Irvine starting it off by taking guests outside to grill salmon pizza, scallops and swordfish. The chef on television is basically the same at the class -- a type-A personality who gets things done but still has time to make a joke.
The mood was casual, as Irvine ribbed some of the class regulars (one man had been there each of the five classes) and attendees peppered him with a smattering of questions. He ended by asking guests for prayers for loved ones.
He gave them his philosophy on cooking, carefully measuring each word to make sure he got it right.
"As chefs, our lives are devoted to giving pleasure to others," he said. "What we create is almost gone instantly. But there's always that chance you could create something better tomorrow."