Restaurant Impossible’s Robert Irvine a Great Cognitive Therapist

If you want to better understand the concept of cognitive therapy, tune in to an unlikely source: Chef Robert Irvine’s Food Network series, Restaurant Impossible.

Food Network’s website describes the show as follows: ‘Turning around a failing restaurant is a daunting challenge under the best of circumstances. Attempting to do it in just two days with only $10,000 may be impossible. But Chef Robert Irvine is ready to take on the challenge. He’ll channel MacGyver and use a lot of muscle to rescue these desperate places from complete collapse. Can one man, in two days, with just $10,000, turn the tide of a failing restaurant and pave the road to a successful future?’

That may be the company line, but a surprising benefit of this show is witnessing human psychology in action. Irvine proves to be not only a great chef, but also someone who understands the importance of communication, relationships and—best of all—cognition.

Interestingly, the great majority of failing restaurants are family-run, and dysfunction and disorder are at the core of what’s driving the business into failure. In show after show, Robert tells his clients, ‘If you don’t fix what’s wrong in your family relationship—nothing else we do here will matter.’

It’s true, of course. But what’s even more interesting is how Irvine goes about fixing the problems that are beyond the menu and the physical condition of the restaurant. In one recent episode, he tried to help a feuding mother and daughter with a failing restaurant in Smyrna, Delaware. After calling them on the obvious tension between them, he told each to go home and write down what the other was doing wrong, and report on it the next day. In the same episode, he asked the owner/mother to write down the reasons for keeping an unconventional item on the menu, while he wrote down the reasons for dropping it. They posted the reasons on a board and considered the options.

Irvine does this sort of thing on the show all the time. A lot of the restaurant problems involve poor relations between management and staff, and the staff often mirrors the family dysfunctions. In creative exercises, he gets the owners and staff together. They write down anonymous replies to questions such as, ‘Who is the main problem in this restaurant, and what is he/she doing wrong?’ By getting everyone together to think about and point out a common problem contributing to the restaurant’s failure, he emotionally invests them in the business and motivates them to work better and harder for their own sake, i.e., more business means more tips for them, etc.

The common denominator in these exercises is not just communication. It’s thought. If the underlying attitude of Irvine’s approach could speak, it would say: ‘Think, think, think.’ In fact, he tells people this all the time. He tells them to think, identify the thoughts lurking beneath their vague, irrational and/or contradictory emotions, and then to start acting in a way consistent with reality and common sense. Whether it ultimately works over time is of course up to the particular owner. But Irvine, like any good cognitive psychotherapist, grasps that thinking (and subsequent follow-through with action) is the only way to resolve any human problem.

Irvine, with his muscular stature, presents an almost comic-book hero image of the good tough guy. However, he’s less brawn and more brain than you’d think as he seeks out and identifies errors and contradictions in people’s thinking—and then calls them on those contradictions. He doesn’t do so in a mean way, but he’s always direct. It’s remarkable how many people, even highly defensive or touchy ones, will respond to the truth when delivered in a direct and honest way. Irvine understands that the human mind cannot sustain contradictions; nor can anything based on teamwork and cooperation, like a restaurant, stay in business in the midst of contradictions, hidden agendas or passive-aggressive/inconsistent behaviors.

Of course the dramatic refurbishing of the restaurant’s physical setting and menu doesn’t hurt, either. Follow-up reports on FoodTV’s website indicate that some of the restaurants actually go on to be success stories, while others have a momentary spark of success, then fall back into their old habits and fail anyway. But there’s no question that Irvine gives them many of the tools required, including the psychological ones.

There’s no psychobabble on Restaurant Impossible, because none is needed. It’s simple, straight-ahead cognitive psychology, correctly understood and rationally applied. Irvine is not necessarily right all the time, but he’s always objective and thoughtful in his quest to help people better use their brains to achieve of a very difficult goal.


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