But rehabbing restaurants is only part of what drives Irvine to devote so much of himself to the show. For the famously tough guy with the surprisingly tender heart, it's really about the folks behind the businesses whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with their eateries -- in this case, Woody's debt-ridden owner, Feather Burns, and her mom.
"I always wanted to do restaurant makeovers," Irvine says, "but at that time I don't think the businesses were ready to 'drop their trousers' and show you how much trouble they're in." As "Dinner" reached its eighth (and final) season, Irvine pitched "Restaurant" again, and "three seasons later, it's doing great!" As are the businesses the show has helped, which can move Irvine to tears.
"I choke up all the time!" he admits. "I may be a tough guy, but I have kids, too, and in this show you see a lot of emotions. You see the frustration; you see the joy; you see the goofiness. There's no script. We turn on the camera, and whatever happens happens.
"That's what I love about this -- this is reality TV in its truest form," he says. "There's nobody saying, 'Oh, Robert, can you stand over there and say this?' It's real. It's real people. Real emotions. And real endings."
Is anything too nasty to show on TV? "No, we show everything. If it's dirty, you get it. If it's rat-infested, you'll see it. There's one thing that we swore we would never do, and that's sugarcoat the show."
What happens to the stuff you strip out of a restaurant? "(For example) Rascals -- which is now called Beach Bums -- there were 11 tons of aluminum and stainless steel that we donated to charity. Not only are we coming in and cleaning things up, we're helping charities along the way."
What are you working on now? "A book called 'Fit Fuel.' "
When was the last vacation you took -- where and why? "I travel about 330 days a year right now. I love it. The only drawback is the air travel, because they fill the flights and then they cancel them. I feel like George Clooney (in 'Up in the Air'). If only I looked like him and had his money, that would be great. But I know secretly he wants to be Robert Irvine, too -- or at least cook like me."