Celebrity chef Robert Irvine blew into town two years ago with the panache of royalty, the ego of a TV star and a plan to turn St. Petersburg into "the next Monaco."
He was about to launch a show on the Food Network, Dinner: Impossible, and was writing a cookbook. Soon the muscle-bound Brit was downing oysters, clinking glasses and telling incredible tales.
He was a knight. He owned a castle in Scotland. He had cooked for presidents and royalty and was pals with Prince Charles.
Robert Irvine's magnum opus - side-by-side restaurants called Ooze and Schmooze - was supposed to redefine upscale dining.
The restaurants would open with 7,000 square feet at the base of a sparkling condominium tower at 400 Beach Drive, a crepe toss from sailboats lolling on Vinoy Basin. He promised chef's tasting menus, polished personal service and 100 wines.
Everyone bought it.
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It is now three months past the planned opening. Look through those windows, past the giant posters of chef Robert Irvine, and you'll see a dirt floor, exposed pipes, lonely ladders.
Irvine's relationships have soured like month-old milk. His Web site consultant claims he owes her thousands. His restaurant designer has backed out. His interior decorator is suing him.
Another woman, St. Petersburg socialite Wendy LaTorre, says Irvine owes her more than $100,000 for marketing and promotions and for helping him find property.
She met him at a 2006 charity auction, and was taken with the big man with the British accent. She introduced Irvine to an elite circle who saw financial opportunity in his rising celebrity.
Early in their friendship, she asked how he wished to be introduced.
"He said, 'Sir Robert Irvine, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order,'" she recalled. "He said there were five levels of knights, and KCVO is the highest level of knight you could be. The queen handpicks you."
Irvine repeated the claim several times. No one questioned it.
The St. Petersburg Times photographed him in June surrounded by swooning women, with the headline "Knight moves."
Some of his moves were odd.
"We went out one night and hit several restaurants," said Paul Guillaume, of Professional Restaurants in Sarasota. "He was flat-out rude. At one of the restaurants, he told the waiter, 'That was absolutely horrible! Get me the chef! What is this?'"
At Salt Rock Grill in Indian Rocks, Irvine ordered oysters and asked for a mignonette sauce. When the waiter couldn't produce it, Irvine ordered the ingredients brought to the table, and prepared the sauce himself.
In early 2007, LaTorre heard that Irvine had been asking for financing for the restaurants. She thought he had plenty of money.
"I asked him why he was asking ... for money, and he said, 'It's none of your freaking business,'" she recalled. "He was upset. ... And then the house of cards began to fall."
By December, Irvine had canceled his lease on his St. Pete Beach condo. He had stopped returning phone calls, several of his contacts said. And he was scarcely seen in St. Petersburg.
What had happened? Who was Sir Robert Irvine?
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Robert Irvine's tales are difficult to verify.
Here is what is known:
He is an excellent chef.
He is the star of Dinner: Impossible, a hit show in its second season on the Food Network.
HarperCollins published his cookbook and biography, Mission: Cook!, in 2007.
He lives in Abescon, N.J., in a modestly priced house with his wife and two children.
Beyond that, it's hard to separate truth from fiction.
Reached on the phone, Irvine said he only had a few minutes. He said he was angry.
Irvine's bio on his own Web page lists a B.S. degree in food and nutrition from the University of Leeds.
"That was a program set up through the Royal Navy," Irvine said. Then he paused. "We don't call it a bachelor's of science."
Sarah Spiller, a press officer at the University of Leeds: "We cannot find any connection in our records between Robert and the university."
Irvine claims in his book to have worked on the wedding cake for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a claim he repeated to a number of locals.
"It was an English fruitcake that weighed over 360 pounds," he told the Toronto Sun. "I worked on these elaborate side panels, which told the history of the royal Windsor and Spencer families - in icing!"
"I was at the school when that was happening," he said. "They made the cake at the school where I was."
Did he help make it?
"Picking fruit and things like that."
And his table manners?
"I have never berated a chef in my life," Irvine said. "If somebody asked me what you liked and what you didn't like, I'd tell them. Not to belittle anybody, but to make it better."
What about that knighthood?
Jenn Stebbing, press officer at Buckingham Palace: "He is not a KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) and he wasn't given a castle by the queen of England."
Irvine admits that.
"When I first came down there and I met people down there with all this money, it was like trying to keep up with the Joneses. I was sitting in a bar one night and that came out. It was stupid."
He said he tried to stop the story from spreading.
Nevertheless, Irvine's restaurant designer, Paul Guillaume says Irvine asked him to create a shadow box to display his royal uniform, which looked like a Three Musketeers costume.
Irvine's resume notes he has received a Five Star Diamond Award (not to be confused with AAA's five diamonds or Mobil's five stars) from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences for several consecutive years. But as Radar magazine pointed out last year, the "academy" is housed in a Manhattan apartment, and recipients pay for the honor.
As a trustee of the award, Irvine has given out several. He tried to award one to Walter Scheib, the White House executive chef from 1994 to 2005. Scheib refused.
"His award seems to be available to anyone willing to post it on the wall," Scheib wrote in an e-mail to the Times.
Irvine has been identified in several newspapers as a White House chef.
Scheib: "Irvine's ONLY connection with the White House is through the Navy Mess facility in the West Wing ... never in the period from 4/4/94 until 2/4/05 did he have ANYTHING to do with the preparation, planning, or service of any State Dinner or any other White House Executive Residence food function, public or private."
Asked to explain, Irvine said he trained military cooks at the White House.
Did he also serve presidents and heads of state, as several of his bios note?
"I cannot talk about that," he said. "I can't talk about it because it's the White House."
He is not friends with Prince Charles.
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Irvine's business partner, J. Randall Williams, said the misinformation "has nothing to do with him opening a restaurant. All of these elements are unfortunate and irrelevant, but they're just noise."
What's not is a lawsuit filed by Susan Nice, a St. Petersburg interior decorator. Nice claims Irvine breached a contract when he opted to use another interior designer after hiring her.
Late last year, after LaTorre confronted Irvine, he stopped returning calls to acquaintances.
That includes Monica Taylor, who helped plan his Web site. She says Irvine owes her and her partner about $10,000.
Paul Guillaume, the designer, has been paid, but dropped the project when others were not. "When I see people going down this route, I back out."
Irvine's business partner wouldn't talk about Nice's lawsuit. "Everybody ... involved in the restaurant is up to date," Williams said. "Robert is not interested in avoiding any obligations at all. What I'm trying to do is gather all of these claims and figure out what's real and what's not real, and it's difficult because everyone is claiming to have agreements with Robert."
Irvine says he was pressured into starting the restaurants by LaTorre. He says he wanted a much smaller restaurant, and could have afforded a smaller place without financial backers.
"Wendy is a very, very intense woman. She'll say things and I'll go yeah, yeah, yeah, and then she'd just go with it."
Irvine says LaTorre was working on her own and he never expected to pay her until she demanded a cut.
"It's almost like I'm being held hostage," Irvine said. "I get a pain in my gut any time I hear this woman's name."
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The sign in front of the empty restaurants suggests Ooze and Schmooze will open this spring, though experts say it will take at least six months.
Irvine has found a new backer, Orion Communities in Clearwater. But he also has had second thoughts.
"I just don't want to go into a negative environment," he said. "To me it's sad that I'm trying to do something good for the area."
LaTorre still has two of Irvine's white chef jackets in a closet. In her desk is a resume she made for him. At the bottom, in bold letters, is a quote from Irvine:
My passion is to reach beyond inspiration - to be spectacularly creative.
Researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writers Janet Keeler and Laura Reiley contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.