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Everybody's a (Food) Critic
May 4, 2011  | By David Sicilia
 

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At a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and countless others clutch their jobs in white-knuckled insecurity, must Charles Darwin script every reality show?

So it seems. The same ruthless culling-from-the-herd that now gives us our pop singers, our weight losers, our island survivors, clothes designers and homemaker entrepreneurs will now produce a restaurateur. Ten will begin America's Next Great Restaurant, but only one NBC competitor will win the financial backing to open a mini-chain with outlets in New York, Minneapolis and Hollywood.

So the standard elements are there, every one of them (but there is some redemption, if you'll stick with me to the end). Each contender must run the season's obstacle course from concept to full execution -- advised, rushed, judged, winnowed, and backdropped with the same god-awful bum...ba-bum soundtrack that throbs through every reality show.

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In the premiere Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC, the wannabes design logos, interview and select chefs, and compete for customers from among the thousands who flood Hollywood's Universal CityWalk at lunchtime. Hey, over here! Try mine! A restaurateur must be part huckster, no doubt abowdit.

That's how one of the contendas talks, the one seemingly swiped from Jersey Shore. The coiffed hair, the biceps, the accent, the 'tude. Naturally, the pool of competitors must present annual-report-photo diversity: women, African Americans, Asians, probably a gay guy, even a guy from India. "The gloves are off," warns Mr. Jersey Shore, after telling us his favorite movie is Scarface. His brand name? Saucy Balls.

Am I, as an Italian American, offended by this zillionth TV repetition of the stereotype? It depends how good his meatballs taste.

The primary role he plays, of course, is not Jersey but the guy who, sloshing in the Darwinian soup, is over-the-top competitive, not to be trusted, and -- as we cheer on -- voted out. Except we want to keep scratching the itch, bring him back. With, count 'em, seven executive producers, little wonder the show is utterly formulaic.

What redeems Next Great Restaurant is, first, that we all love to discover new restaurants. But more than that, it's the judges. We aren't told much about Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone and Lorena Garcia, other than that they are investors, though some viewers may recognize them as celebrity TV chefs. They certainly know their stuff, foodwise and businesswise. Through them we gain valuable glimpses into what is arguably the world's least glamorous glamour industry, getting to vicariously taste, smell, prod, judge the artwork, the presentation, the kitchen logistics. When eating out, everyone's a critic; these folks make us better ones.

The fourth judge is the star: Steve Ells, founder of the Chipotle juggernaut. This is no hefty apron-wrapped kitchen jockey. Ells has the lean, soft-spoken intensity of a financial analyst (which perhaps he is, and which might mostly explain his chain's great success). The genre on trial here, we learn from Ells, is "fast casual." When he tells one of the hopefuls that his food is "awful," we sigh with relief. We have our Simon Cowell.

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So it's fun to watch, especially if you're hungry. (I was.) Whether NBC's Restaurant continues to offer a realistic view of the grueling world of commercial food preparation and service, we'll see. Like others who spent some years in the business, I'll be looking for evidence of those endless double shifts, of the manager washing dishes when the lowest paid worker fails to show, of customer grousing -- and of the sweet paternal satisfaction of serving, and pleasing, a room full of strangers who amid the haze of sampled wine suddenly feel like family.

But is this how new restaurant chains are born? Let's return to our contestant from India (Sudhir Kandula, pictured at right). On the show, his food was panned. Yet the investors and firms positioned to launch a new chain -- which has more to do with the rapid deployment of dedicated construction crews, structured finance and low-wage labor management -- may take notice.

Immigration from India began to surge after the passage of a milestone immigration law in 1965, and the pace has quickened in recent years, making South Asians one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America. They bring education and assets. They eat out. Meanwhile, other Americans are being exposed to and acquiring a taste for these magically spiced creations. There are as yet no chains serving "fast casual" Indian food. Do we need another Italian joint, Mr. Jersey Shore? No disrespect to your mother, of course.

A giant corporation is sure to step in. Not because the Indian contestant and his borrowed chef did or did not serve a tasty curry rice dish to tourists hungry after their tour of Universal Studios. They'll step in because the demographics are there. Who knows, maybe one of them will steal the idea from this season premiere. I, for one, am rooting for the nice man and his Tiffin Box dream.

 
 
 
 
 
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