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Chef Robert Irvine cooks up a live performance at the Garde

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published December 27. 2012 4:00AM
Chef Robert Irvine cooks up a live performance

Get this high-concept concoction: Chef Robert Irvine says the challenges in his live stage show are like "Restaurant: Impossible," "Worst Cooks in America" and "Survivor" all wrapped into one.

And, in this case, much of the power is in the hands of the audience members. They pick the food that Irvine will have to use, and they determine what challenge he'll have to face. A driving force in creating this show was, after all, to be guest-interactive.

So when you go to Saturday's performance at the Garde Arts Center - which is the last of a string of about 20 performances that Irvine has done this year - be prepared.

"There's food in (the show), there's lots of running, lots of fun, lots of screaming," says Irvine, who brings onstage a "worst" cook from the crowd.

Much of the live program was inspired by what fans have asked about, so there are elements that viewers don't see and hear on TV - pictures of Irvine when he was a kid, for instance, and a little history of his background.

"They see a very different side of me - what I stand for, what I believe in. And that's kids and their future and education and fitness ... and the military," he says, noting that a portion of the merchandise sold at the performances goes to the Gary Sinise Foundation that serves veterans, first responders, their families and those in need.

Then, after the show, Irvine hangs around to meet theatergoers and take pictures with them.

Irvine is best-known for hosting "Restaurant: Impossible" on The Food Network (among the restaurants given a makeover was Mystic's Flood Tide), as well as for his work on "Dinner: Impossible" (where he makes meals under difficult conditions), "Worst Cooks in America" and "The Next Iron Chef."

Irvine has said that all the recipes in his cookbooks are "creative mistakes." When working on a recipe, he says, "when it makes a mess, you break down where the mess was, and sometimes it works, despite your own failures. That's the fun part. When it works - 'Oh my God, I was going to do this, but I created this instead and this is way better.'"

During a live show two weeks ago, Irvine says, the audience handed him Italian sausage and smoked whitefish with which he had to create a dish. He took a cue from the "Iron Chef" episode set in a baseball stadium where he created a "hotburg," a hamburger and hotdog ground together. He did the same with the Italian sausage and the smoked whitefish, and he says it turned out "amazing."

"What is it they say? Necessity is the mother invention. It's amazing what you can do when you don't think you can do it," he says.

Irvine grew up in England and joined the British Royal Navy when he was 15. He had been a sea captain - which is the equivalent of America's sea scout - for many years by that point.

"I wasn't very good at school. When I took the exam and they said, 'You're good enough to be a cook,' my fighter pilot vision went out, and I became a cook. I loved it. And here I am later, still cooking," he says.

His appreciation for members of the military remains strong. He visits with them often, including stops to see patients at the Walter Reed Medical Center.

When Irvine was in southeastern Connecticut this past January for the Mohegan Sun Winefest, he visited the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and met the Navy's culinary specialists.

"I'm coming back there the day before the (Garde) show. I promised I would go back and see them again," he says. "The military is the reason we can do what we do every day because we do live in a free land and we're not oppressed by people."

Irvine will return to Connecticut in January to participate, once again, in the Mohegan Sun Winefest. On Jan. 26, he will do a demonstration at the Grand Tasting and host a station at the Celebrity Chef Dine Around event.

"The Food and Winefest at Mohegan Sun is one of my all-time favorite times, for many, many years," he says. "I love that you get a chance to meet a lot of my great friends, chef-wise. They do such a good job with education there. Ultimately, my job is to educate people."

Robert Irvine Live! 8 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $25-$38; there will be a pre-show Bozrah "Pop-Up" Farmers Market at 6:30 p.m., with a food drive by the Gemma E. Moran United Way Labor Food Center; non-perishable items can be dropped off at the Garde from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.

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