TORONTO - It's not easy to run a restaurant.
And tough-love "Restaurant: Impossible" host Robert Irvine says many people go into the dining business with little knowledge, which can lead to losing their home and savings along with plenty of emotional angst.
"There's never a shortage of bad restaurants. I think some people think that this business is easy and then they decide to either get an inheritance and start one or buy a restaurant with no knowledge," Irvine said ahead of the Aug. 30 premiere of the show's fourth season. It airs on Food Network Canada Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET.
"What's more sort of intriguing to me are the relationships that happen during that time and what happens to them relationships as money and failure sets in."
The premise of "Restaurant: Impossible" is that chef Irvine and his team go into a failing restaurant and attempt to turn it around in two days. Irvine explores every nook and cranny of the place, including its business practices, how the food is prepared and how the staff works together — or doesn't — and becomes both a mediator and drill sergeant.
As he revamps the menu and kitchen — in some cases this involves removing a layer of filth — a design team works on the decor, replacing dated curtains, dusty Christmas decorations, worn carpets and ugly furniture with a more modern sensibility, including fresh paint, better lighting and artwork — or perhaps a hip coffee bar.
At the end of the two days, the space is revealed to the owner and family, and the doors are thrown open to the public for a taste test of the new menu.
Irvine, 47, who was in Toronto to serve as a judge on the upcoming season of "Top Chef Canada," said nothing is hidden from the cameras.
"When the show was originally created it was about fixing restaurants and doing new menus and I think that has changed dramatically to more of a 'Dr. Phil'-esque type show of not only fixing the restaurants and redoing them but also working on relationships and personal skills to make sure that, when I do leave, these restaurants don't go back to the same way," he said.
"Because without the people running the restaurants on the straight and narrow and having good vibes with their families and everything else they're never going to be able to hold their staff accountable and run a business."
Irvine, who previously hosted "Dinner: Impossible," which tested his culinary skills as he tried to create a meal with little time, said the series is true reality TV.
"I choose not to know anything about the family, anything about their restaurant. Because I think that if I do that I prejudge them and we've kept this show so clean because of that. I think TV is best done at its moment. There's not much reality TV on television anymore except I can tell you 'Restaurant: Impossible' is."
Owners of restaurants apply through the show's website, explaining why they need help.
"What they tell a producer is very different to what they tell me when I'm stood in front of them. When they do the preliminary visits and they say 'we're half a million or $700,000 in debt,' you can pretty much guarantee it's a lot more than that.
"By the time I finish 25 minutes getting into the story I find out pretty much the truth about everything that's going on in that restaurant. Just like an investigator, you can figure out who the bad people are, who you think is doing what and you form an impression very early on and then you got to figure it out."
The production company ponies up the $10,000 budget for each overhaul.
"The restaurants don't pay anything except the first eight hours of grief and me," Irvine said, pointing out that nobody likes to be told they're doing things wrong.
"They want to fight me, they hate me. They call you all the names under the sun. But after about eight hours, when they start to realize it isn't really about television but about fixing them and their business, once they understand that it's amazing the transformation," he added.
The first show of the fourth season is titled "Behind the Impossible" and looks at the success or failure over the long term of restaurants they've portrayed on the show and also candidly shows how the people who produce the show feel about Irvine.
People watch "Restaurant: Impossible" as much for its human interest — families battered by the economy — as for the food aspect, said Irvine, who has also written "Mission: Cook!" and "Impossible to Easy."
"I think it resonates with them — no money and hard times. Some people watch it because they like to see me get upset. Some people watch it because of the design elements. Some people watch it for food. Each person gets a different thing from the show."
Irvine is touring the U.S. this summer and fall with "Robert Irvine Live 2012," which takes the live cooking demo to another level by incorporating challenges, audience interaction and high-tech video projection. A Toronto date is being planned.
Irvine recently married professional wrestler Gail Kim, who is from Toronto. "It's hilarious. She keeps me fit and keeps me on the straight and narrow, bless her. We love Canada."
Robert Irvine, chefirvine.com
Food Network Canada, www.foodnetwork.ca