By Debby Woodin
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Celebrity chef Robert Irvine said that after seeing the tornado devastation in Joplin last year and working with local residents and volunteers, “it was like coming back home” this week to return for a segment of his “Restaurant: Impossible” cable network show.
“You have no idea,” he said of how seeing the devastation that took 161 lives affected him. “Joplin has made an indelible mark on my life.”
A holiday season version of Irvine’s show is being taped in Joplin as he and his crew renovate the kitchen at the Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Missouri. He said the labor is his way of thanking the volunteers who helped the club, and of showing his support for the people of Joplin.
“There’s a feel about Joplin, and it’s hard to describe in words,” said the chef of Food Network shows that include “Dinner: Impossible.”
Access to the club is being strictly controlled during the taping.
Irvine said he was in Joplin shortly after the May 22, 2011, tornado working with the American Red Cross. He said he committed then to return to do a project for Joplin’s rebuilding because of the resilience he saw in people. He said he persuaded the producers of “Restaurant: Impossible” to tape the show’s holiday special at a project for the Boys & Girls Club.
In the aftermath of the tornado, volunteers stayed at the club, and supplies were stored and distributed from there. Irvine said he saw the care that was given children enrolled at the club and that many of them were traumatized by the tornado.
Irvine said he couldn’t help but be moved by the suffering and loss he saw last year. “I always want to make sure we remember those who lost their lives,” he said. He said there are thousands of stories about the losses and about the heroic acts that took place to protect or save people. He specifically cited the loss of Chris Lucas, the 27-year-old manager of Pizza Hut who died trying to hold the cooler door shut to protect employees and customers.
“This says it all,” Irvine said, pulling off the blue bracelet distributed since the tornado that is imprinted with the phrase used by City Manager Mark Rohr to describe the selfless acts and determination of Joplin residents to recover: “The Miracle of the Human Spirit.”
“And you see that here in the people of Joplin and in the volunteers who came here,” Irvine said.
Rohr said he met with Irvine on Wednesday to discuss Joplin’s destruction and recovery.
“I was impressed with the sensitivity he demonstrated toward what Joplin had been through. I am thankful to him and the show for what they have done for Joplin and expressed that to them when we parted,” Rohr said in an email response to a Globe question about the meeting.
Irvine said he has renovated 54 failing eateries on the “Restaurant: Impossible” show. Projects have included a soup kitchen, a school, rebuilding a community center and planting a garden on a mission from Michelle Obama. “This, to me, is the most important,” he said of the Joplin show.
All of the restaurants helped by his show are thriving, he said. “‘Restaurant: Impossible’ for me is God’s work,” he said. “Is it tough love? Yes.”
But, the Boys & Girls Club is a different cause for him because the people thrive but the building is suffering from disrepair.
“The staff is great. The children are treated great,” he said. “The food is not so great, so we’re going to fix that.”
JOPLIN, SAID CHEF ROBERT IRVINE, is a place where he found the people to be resilient and appreciative despite the adversity of the 2011 tornado. “You can lose everything, but you can’t change people,” he said.