Robert Irvine was attending a 2018 United Service Organizations (USO) dinner honoring military chefs in Washington, D.C. – something he’s done dozens of times – when he struck up a conversation with a team from Coca-Cola. They immediately bonded over a shared passion for, and commitment to, the troops and their families.

“The next thing I know, I’m flying out to Charlotte to Grand Marshall the (2018) Coca-Cola 600,” the host of the hit Food Network show Restaurant: Impossible recalls, referring to the annual Memorial Day NASCAR race honoring the military.

Chef Irvine returned to Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend, this time as the official ambassador of NASCAR Salutes by Coca-Cola. There, he collaborated with chefs from all branches of the U.S. military to prepare dinner at Taste of the Coca-Cola 600 for 300 guests, and the next morning, Chef Irvine prepared a trackside brunch for Gold Star families who have lost loved ones in service.

The celebrity chef, who has been designated Honorary Chief Petty Officer by the U.S. Navy and awarded the Bob Hope Award for Excellence in Entertainment and Support of our Service Members by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, opened Chef Robert Irvine’s Fresh Kitchen at the Pentagon in 2016. The Robert Irvine Foundation supports military personnel and families in need.

We spoke with Chef Irvine a few days before the race to learn more about his partnership with Coca-Cola and his longstanding dedication to the armed services and America’s heroes.

Why did you want to partner with Coca-Cola?

Coke’s rich history of serving and supporting men and women who wear the cloth of our nation – through 78 years of support of the USO –  is personally meaningful to me. When I visit the White House as part of their guest chef program, they give me a bottle of Coke with the White House seal.I’m from England and served in the British Navy, and I’m a U.S. citizen. I know what it’s like to be in a war zone and receive a care package from loved ones. For many troops, these care packages include Coca-Cola – a familiar taste of home.

Tell us about what you have planned in Charlotte.

I’ll be joining military chefs and Gold Star Families at a special Taste of Coca-Cola event, where we’ll serve dishes prepared with Coke beverages and watch the race together. It’s an honor to serve those who serve us, and to work with and teach some of our great military chefs. All coalition forces service members share a bond… it’s a very special brotherhood.We trade cooking secrets and techniques. For me, food opens doors to meeting people with the same passions. I want my food to provide a shared experience and empower people. It’s exciting to spend time with family, and Coca-Cola is family. It’s American as apple pie.

Are you a NASCAR fan?

I am! I was always a Formula 1 guy, coming from Europe, but NASCAR has become my new favorite over the last five years of so. I love going to the races and scream and shout.

What will you be cooking in Charlotte?

At the Food & Wine Festival in Miami earlier this year, I had the chance to try the new Orange Vanilla Coke and immediately fell in love with the taste. I think I drank five of them that day. So I’ll be making a lamb dish braised with Orange Vanilla Coke with carrots and a micro apple salad. It’s an incredible dish.

What qualities do military chefs bring to the culinary industry as they transition to civilian life?

Well, I want to start by making an important correction. Military chefs are first and foremost soldiers, sailors, airmen – and leaders. When I got out of the military, the leadership skills I gained during my service – not cooking skills – benefited me the most. They taught me how to run a successful business. Cooking is secondary. These chefs are running platoons, driving tanks, flying planes, captaining ships and operating missile silos. The knowledge they gain translates seamlessly into the civilian world. They’re trained to lead with purpose and to achieve goals.

The Coke 600 takes place over Memorial Day weekend. Why is the timing special?

It’s humbling to be part of the Coca-Cola 600. It’s a time to celebrate those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service of our country. Yes, it’s a NASCAR race. But it honors those who wear that uniform with pride. Thousands of people who have never served, but who are there to celebrate those who have served, serve today or will serve, is very special. It’s a time to reflect on the freedoms we all have thanks to these men and women. The buzz and excitement is great – members from all the armed forces are there, along with the drivers, military families, fans and more. It’s a date on my calendar I’ll never change.