Robert Irvine Talks Grilling Tips And The Future Of His Fresh Kitchen Restaurant Chain - Exclusive Interview

Is anyone busier than Chef Robert Irvine? He has a restaurant in Las Vegas, a line of protein bars and powders, and two lines of craft spirits. But that's not what drives him. Chef Irvine is also deeply devoted to service and supporting servicemembers, both through fundraising and programming for active duty military and veterans with the Robert Irvine Foundation and with his passion for healthy food through Fresh Kitchen, a fast-casual restaurant at the Pentagon (with more locations on the way).

And if that isn't enough, he's also heading to the Bahamas: Irvine will be at Atlantis Paradise Island from March 13th to 17th, 2024 as part of the Nassau Paradise Island Wine and Food Festival, presented by Atlantis. Amidst his busy schedule, we spoke with Chef Irvine in an exclusive interview about what he has planned for the events he's hosting at the festival, must-know grilling tips, and the inside scoop on what is next for Fresh Kitchen.

The Nassau Paradise Island Wine & Food Festival

You're hosting three very different events at the Nassau Wine & Food Festival: A wine dinner on March 15th, the Jerk Jam with Wyclef Jean and JJ Johnson on March 16th, and a boot camp on March 17th. What can guests expect?

The wine dinner is really interesting because I'm really going all out. I worked in Jamaica for a year, [and] I worked across the Caribbean on a cruise line. So the menu [will be] very unique. That's number one. We're also going to be interacting with the guests. I'm not going to tell you how, but there's going to be a lot of "don't sit near the front" kind of thing, because I'm going to pick on you. I don't like a boring wine dinner. I want it to be interactive across the board, and we're known for that across the world. So that's going to be interesting.

And what's really interesting for me when we do the Jerk Jam with Wyclef Jean, so I did the Oscars with Wyclef, oh my God, many, many years ago for Children United Nations and with a bunch of chefs in Hollywood, which was the Triangle, which was the Vanity Fair, InStyle, and Children United Nations dinner. And Wyclef was one of the rappers at the show. So I don't know if he'll remember that, but I'm excited to reunite with him.

Absolutely. What's going to make this festival really unique?

Look, one thing about food and wine festivals, I want to make sure each one is in its own right and we never repeat the same thing twice, and that's one of my roles. So the dinners, food-wise, entertainment-wise, each is unique in its own way. But I mean, if you look at the lineup of chefs there — Duff Goldman, Alex Guarnaschelli, José Andrés, Martha Stewart, Nobu, Alon Shaya, Michael White, and Andrew Zimmern. I mean, forget me, that's the who's who of the food world, truly. I think it's going to be a very unique experience for sure. And by the way, hello, it's in The Bahamas.

What about the boot camp?

Well, I'm known for boot camps, literally. So we're going to have some fun there. You can get drunk the night before, but on that morning if you're going to work out, it's going to be a great workout on the beach. So it's going to be fun.

Robert Irvine on Caribbean grilling

Let's talk about Jerk Jam and Bahamian-style grilling.

[G]rilling is very unique based on the wood that you use or the charcoal you use. I lived in Jamaica for a year, so for me cooking on coals outside and making jerk chicken, bammies, codfish, ackee, I'm an English guy that can actually cook Jamaican, which is kind of unusual. So, the grilling stuff is going to be a lot of fun.

I'm not going to give you the menu because I believe in keeping that secret, but I will tell you that when you cook something, especially on a grill, it has to be marinated to impart flavor to it. I use very inexpensive cuts of meat but make them taste like five-star quality beef. And when I say I can take a flank steak and make it eat like an A5, I mean that based on how I season that, how I rub it, how I marinate it, whether dry rub or wet rub, and again, the wood that I use and the charcoal.

So, we're going to get a real Caribbean flavor, a real flare. ... [I]t's not just food, it's the experience of when you go on that beach and you're having that jam, you listen to the music, where does it take you? I want you to go on a journey not only because you're in The Bahamas, but I want the food to take you on a journey along with the music.

And I think that the two are the same, because if there's an unfinished score, the magic of the music doesn't happen. It's like if you leave an ingredient out of a recipe, the magic doesn't happen. So I'm very particular in the way I put things together and the spices and the herbs and the rubs that I use. You'll never experience them ever again in your life ... because I don't repeat things twice, ever. ... [And] listening to a Grammy-nominated rapper, I mean, hello. The music I know will be great. The food will be great. And we're going to focus on helping some of the local chefs get their name out too, which I think is a good thing.

Chef Irvine's secrets to a great steak at home

Speaking of an inexpensive cut like a flank steak, for someone who's grilling at home, what are some tips to help elevate it?

Number one, you need to put your meat or your fish or your chicken or your seafood out so it stays at room temperature for at least an hour before. There's nothing worse than putting something cold onto a hot grill because it steams and doesn't sear, just like a hot pan. So number one, it has to be out getting to room temperature for a minimum of an hour.

You have to warm the grill up, clean the grill with a brush, and then wipe it down with a rag. Why? Because whatever you cooked on it before, even though you heated it up, it's not burnt off. You'll still have the burnt flavor of whatever you cooked the time before. So make sure the grill is clean.

You can use grapeseed oil, but very little of it. You don't need to put a smearing of oil all over the meat. You only put the oil on the grill because if you've used a dry rub, it will burn the minute you put it onto the dry heat of the metal. So, you marinade it or you rub it. And if you do rub it — meaning dry rub with herbs and spices — then you need to use a rag and use the oil on the actual metal of the grill itself before you put the product on. You don't need to grease the meat, you grease the barbecue itself. And then once it's hot, you place the meat on it.

When the sugar comes out of the product, whether it be shrimp, chicken, beef, pork, it doesn't matter, that's when it will tell you to move it. It will lift off on its own. Men tend to squash [meat] down to try and cook it faster, and then they ruin it ... Meat will tell you when it's ready, so it means when the sugars come out, it caramelizes and you can pick it up with a pair of tongs and turn it over. That's when it's ready. Not before.

How do you make sure your protein is cooked through?

[W]e take something to a high temperature, [then] turn the temperature down because [high heat is] great to sear on the outside hot, but then it never gets cooked in the middle. So you start off with a high temperature, get it seared on both sides, and then we reduce the temperature and close the door. Don't keep opening and shutting the grill, you'll ruin the meat.

And then the last thing is, when you think you're at your desired temperature ... don't forget about carry-over cooking. If I take a piece of beef off, I should take that piece of beef off to be medium rare at 115 degrees [F] — or if you feel it like a chef does ... when you pinch the meat, it bounces back — you take it off, let it rest for 10 minutes because it continues to cook at 300, 400 degrees [F] when you take it off and let it rest. And it will taste a lot better when you cut into it because it won't bleed everywhere across your board or your plates.

Getting grilled fish and steak right

How do you prepare meat for grilling?

Don't season until you're about to cook it — unless you marinate it, of course. And if you're going to marinate a flank steak, I'll do it 24 hours in advance. I'll use salt, pepper, bay leaves, ground peppercorns, acid, meaning oranges, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, and lime juice. Why? Because it breaks down the protein. But before I put it onto the grill, I have to dry it, otherwise I've just lost my meat.

Fish is notoriously tricky on the grill. What do home cooks need to know?

The key to it is to take it out and make sure it is dry and warm — when warm I mean room temperature. The tricky piece is if you try to move it before it's ready. And if you put wet fish onto a roasting hot barbecue and you try to move, it will stick and disintegrate by the time you get it off. It's got to be room temperature. 

The grill has to be cleaned. And if you're going to do fish, beef, and pork, you'll always do fish first simply because if you put pork and whatnot, your fish is going to stick after it. The lighter product first and then the heavier product later. [And] I always keep the skin on fish — always — because it's the best piece of the fish if it's done right.

What are your go-to seasonings for meat and seafood?

I do not use kosher salt or iodized salt. I use sea salt that's freshly ground. The same with peppercorns. Remember, peppercorns are supposed to be heated before you use them [to bring] out the essential oils of the peppercorn, and it completely tastes different. So I use a coffee grinder, I grind up my peppercorns and then I use it fresh. That lasts about a week and then I grind fresh [again]. Don't go away and buy a pound of [ground] pepper and put it in your pantry for three years. It's no good after a week.

And I don't use olive oils. I use olive oils for dressings. I do not use it for cooking. I use grapeseed oil because of the higher [smoke point] and it has zero flavor. So, if I have cooked with fish or shrimp or scallops, all I taste is the scallops instead of the bitterness of the olive oil.

Handling the heat of hot peppers

Speaking of seasoning and Jerk Jam, jerk seasoning is incredibly spicy with the scotch bonnet peppers. How do you balance that heat?

Well, there is no balance. Let me tell you something. And I lived in Jamaica for a year, and this is a very true story. In the Renaissance Jamaica Grande Hotel, there was a young man named Jopi. Every Tuesday I used to do a Caribbean jerk, it was called a Jump Up festival. He would come in, wrap himself in plastic wrap from head to toe, a little slit for the mouth, a little slit for the eyes, and he would grind scotch bonnet peppers, 15 boxes of scotch bonnet peppers every day. You could not breathe in that kitchen. I had to evacuate people when he was about to do that. And it took 24 hours to clear just because of the residual spray.

It is very hard to balance. You have to understand peppers and especially the scotch bonnet because what Jamaicans don't think are hot, I mean they pop them and eat them and they get ulcers in their stomach and all that kind of stuff. You have to be very careful with that. You can balance out the heat with honey, low-sodium soy sauce, parsley. But you just have to be really careful using a scotch bonnet or any hot pepper for that matter. Look, I want you to enjoy the food with a hint of spice, not be killed by the spice in your mouth and not be able to taste the food. Otherwise, why have I cooked it?

So it's more about how much pepper you use in the first place?

Yes, absolutely. A lot of people think, "Oh, let's see how much I can eat. What's the Scoville on this?" I'm like, "No. Then I've just wasted the best piece of fish or meat you'll ever eat because you've killed it with spice and I can't eat that." Be very careful. Wear gloves, wear eye protection when you use hot peppers, because if you touch yourself afterward and you haven't worn gloves, believe me, you'll be screaming for about 20 hours. Eyes and anywhere else.

Robert Irvine's favorite cocktails

You'll be in the Bahamas for a few days. Are there any tropical cocktails you're looking forward to enjoying while you're there?

For me, food and alcohol are in the moment and the people I'm with. So if you say to me, "Oh, let's try a Bahama Breeze or a Pina Colada," I'm not into those fruity kinds of drinks. Give me a Tom Collins, give me a tequila on the rocks. I'm that typical guy. I can make anything with gin and vodka.

You have your own line of gin and vodka, Irvine Spirits. How do you like to enjoy them?

Personally, I'm very pure. So I want vodka with cranberry juice or I want it with a splash of orange, that's my drink. Or I want a gin and tonic. Remember, Irvine Gin is just very different. Instead of the gin being more juniper-forward, I took 13 botanicals that I use in the kitchen. I went to Sri Lanka to pick up the cinnamon because American cinnamon is not good. So, I literally flew to Sri Lanka to try the cinnamon and have it peeled, and I buy it from there specifically for our gin. Our vodka is very clean, it's corn-based. It's all GMO-free. It's really taking a blank slate and doing what Picasso would do. Here's the basis of it and you can do whatever you want. To me, the liquor is the plate and then what I put into it and create with it is what makes it exciting.

Serving servicemembers at Fresh Kitchen

In addition to your liquor line and your restaurants, you have Fresh Kitchen at the Pentagon and a new location coming to Joint Base Andrews. Can you talk to us about the concepts?

One is in the Pentagon [and] has been there for seven years. It's the only full-size sit-down restaurant in the Pentagon itself, focused on all healthy food. I am helping the military across the joint force modernize their food offerings.

The first one that's going into Joint Base Andrews is very unique because it's all sous-vide products. I'm partnered with AAFE, Army Air Force Exchange. It will be the first of its kind, I can operate a restaurant and feed as many people as you want with a couple of people, meaning healthy food done fast with very little overhead.

[W]e've [also] just opened another version of Fresh Kitchen called Victory Fresh at Fort Jackson, which is a grab-and-go concept, which is healthy food, salads, roasted chicken, specials of the day, sandwiches, etcetera. ... [to really] highlight the health and wellness, the H2F (Holistic Health and Fitness) system that the Army has started. I'm the expert in that space, helping them modernize the force.

So what I'm excited about is giving our men and women who wear the cloth of our nation, our first responders, healthier food because we're asking them to be athletes. We can buy all the tanks and planes and trains you want. It doesn't work without us humans, unfortunately. So I'm really excited about that. And Joint Base Andrews is the beginning of the change, along with Fort Jackson, the Pentagon, and a lot of other things that you'll see coming up very soon. So yeah, really excited about that.

How will the new Joint Base Andrews location work?

Things are already prepared. There is no manual labor except for putting the product together. [Everything comes] from a central kitchen. So if you have a poke bowl, a salad, it will already be pre-washed, pre-cut by us ourselves, but it works off like a commissary kitchen. And that will happen in every location once I've tested this pilot, hopefully around the United States and around the world.

All you have to do is put it together the way I tell you to put it together. Obviously, there's training involved in that. But not actually cooking, cooking, cooking. It is the restaurant of the future is what it's called. So I'm really excited about that. It's taken us a couple of years to develop it. There's nothing like it out in the world, that I will tell you.

Robert Irvine on the importance of service

Service is a core part of what you do, both personally and professionally. What does Fresh Kitchen mean to you in the context of service?

Number one, the men and women who wear the cloth of our nation and our first responders, firefighters, police officers — and I'm going to include doctors, nurses, and teachers — deserve the best we can give them. And Fresh Kitchen to me is giving the best possible food to the men and women who need it the most, who we asked to stand watch every day, whether it be in Afghanistan, Iraq, Poland, Spain, or Kentucky in a hospital.

I was just in LA with firefighters. It's appalling to me that firefighters have to pay for their own meals while they're saving people's lives. I want to change that, but that's what Fresh Kitchen is to me. Giving people the best quality food, the most consistent food so they can go and do what they do best and that's serve other people. And that's what I'm on this planet for.

My life is about service to others other than myself. And that to me is very important. How do we take care of that 19-year-old kid that's never been out of Alabama or Kentucky or England or wherever? Who puts a uniform on and stands watch every day so we can go out on a Saturday night? Food is an integral part of life. Food is hope. Food allows us to talk about the toughest things in life, especially in our military, those who have suffered loss, families that have suffered loss, kids who are going through stuff at school. You put a plate of food in front of somebody, it opens them up. And that's what I love about my job. I don't have a job. I have a passion for changing lives through food.

It doesn't cost money to help somebody, right? It means opening a car door, helping somebody across the road, and listening can save a life no matter what it is. What if every one of us — we all do good things for other people and people we know, but what about taking one person that you don't know every day and doing something good for them?

It could be a meal that you take to a neighbor. It could be a meal that you serve to a person on the street who doesn't want to be on the street but just can't help it. Everything we do in our business and with the Robert Irvine Foundation is based around that. That's the reason I live on this planet, is to help people through that organization.

The Nassau Paradise Island Wine and Food Festival, presented by Atlantis, takes place from March 13th to 17th, 2024 at Atlantis Paradise Island.

This interview has been edited for clarity.