No Ooze or Schmooze for celebrity chef Irvine

ST. PETERSBURG — Celebrity chef Robert Irvine, who was caught fibbing about his education, culinary experience, British royal relationships and assorted bits of his life, will not open two highly anticipated restaurants in St. Petersburg's downtown.

A statement jointly released by the landlord and Irvine's business partner said "the timing is not exactly right" and Irvine "cannot commit to spending at least four days a week" at the restaurant, as he had planned. Irvine's recent break with Home Shopping Network means he no longer will spend much time in the Tampa Bay area.

The project had been planned for 400 Beach Drive, the new 29-story condominium tower at Fifth Avenue N.

Irvine, known for his popular Food Network show, Dinner: Impossible, was going to call his first restaurants Ooze and Schmooze.

Ooze was to be a casual, tapas-style spot; Schmooze was to offer fine dining. The restaurants were to occupy 7,000 square feet on the ground floor of the Beach Drive tower.

John Hamilton of Beach Drive Retail, which owns the 8,000-square-foot space that would have been Irvine's, said all parties came to an amicable end of the lease terms, but he would not specify details of the arrangements. He said he and partner Bob Churuti did not force Irvine out.

"I still to this day think Robert is a vibrant personality," Hamilton said. "In a lot of ways, I wish we still had him as a restaurateur."

Hamilton said a new tenant for the restaurant space has not been identified. But after finding out Monday that Irvine would not open the restaurants, Hamilton said he can re-engage with those who have inquired.

"Now we can actually pursue a restaurant," he said. "It's just a matter of finding the best fit."

Hamilton said he has had calls from potential restaurateurs from the Tampa Bay area and out of state.

"It's a great location and somebody's going to want it" he said. "But Tampa Bay's a large area and there's a lot of opportunity."

Irvine's restaurants and life story began unraveling last month after a St. Petersburg Times article revealed he had fabricated large parts of his resume. The British chef claimed to be a knight, tapped by Queen Elizabeth II, and said he should correctly be announced as 'Sir Robert Irvine, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.''

He owned a castle in Scotland, he said, and was a chum of Prince Charles. He also claimed to have worked on the many-tiered wedding cake for the prince's wedding to Princess Diana.

Local Anglophiles were enchanted by the tales that revealed at least one solid truth as proclaimed on his resume: "My passion is to reach beyond inspiration — to be spectacularly creative.''

When his lies became public, some of those in business relationships with the celebrity chef began damage control. The Food Network announced it was looking for a new host for his show. HarperCollins, publishers of his cookbook and biography, Mission: Cook!, promised to make corrections.

The Home Shopping Network, which had sold eight different Robert Irvine products on its Web site, including cookware, knives and a mandoline slicer, stopped promoting the products.

Irvine has since apologized for his misrepresentations.

"I was wrong to exaggerate in statements related to my experiences regarding the royal family. I am proud of my work while serving in the Royal Navy and on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, also as part of the guest chef program in the White House with the United States Navy, in addition to my culinary accomplishments. I should have stood on those accomplishments alone, without embellishment,'' he said in part.

Friday, the signs that had hung on the windows trumpeting the upscale restaurants' arrival had disappeared. There's no telling what will become of the custom furniture and kitchen that his business partner, J. Randall Williams, said were being built for the gathering spots. Williams did not respond immediately to phone calls.

Wendy LaTorre coordinated work on the kitchen and interior for Ooze and Schmooze and led marketing and promotions for the Irvine effort. She helped him find the Beach Drive property.

"It's unfortunate. I'm really sorry that happened," she said of the canceled plans.

But all is not lost. LaTorre, who says Irvine owes her more than $100,000 for marketing and promotions and for helping him find the property, said she has received queries from restaurateurs who have expressed interest in going into the space. She declined to name them.

"It's a great space, and I know we will have another fabulous restaurant there," she said.

Mary Jane Park contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727)892-2283.

No Ooze or Schmooze for celebrity chef Irvine 03/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 10, 2008 10:58pm]

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