Last night's America's Next Great Restaurant episode put contestants in the restaurant business, literally. As a group, contestants ran one of judge Steve Ells's Chipotle restaurants. It was a total disaster. The judges watched what was going on in and out of the kitchen on a TV in another room. You couldn't help feel sorry for the guy as he watched the group of aspiring restauranteurs dismantle the restaurant he built. After awhile he said, "I just couldn't take it anymore."
We saw that, Steve, we saw that. The judges claimed that the Chipotle challenge was their chance to look for leadership abilities among the group. What they saw instead were droplets of salsa dangerously close to the sour cream and a dysfunctional kitchen with some contestants yelling incessantly and others hiding from the chaos. Ells eventually actually jumped in on the line himself to help out and to correct some of the more egregious mistakes -- like Marisa serving up cold burritos at the burrito station.
Luckily, that was only the beginning of the show. The judges told most of the contestants that the names of their restaurants were not good enough and encouraged them to rethink and to come up with a restaurant slogan, like Chipotle's "Food with Integrity". Additionally, they had to create a dish they would serve at their restaurant that embodied their new slogan. They served their food to the public and the person whose food was most liked by the tasters won the challenge.
The judges came around and gave feedback to contestants individually. Some contestants adopted what the judges said wholeheartedly with positive results, others stood their ground, and others adopted judges' advice to the peril of their own vision. Case and point, The Grill 'billies, formerly Hick's. While no one doubts that they have a fantastic idea -- serving Southern-inspired fast casual food -- Bobby Flay's advice to grill (fast method of cooking) instead of barbecue (slow method of cooking) seemed to utterly confuse them. They dropped their original barbecue idea, but then couldn't stop talking about it. It was like watching a bad relationship! They hadn't moved on yet. The three weakest performances, who went to judges' table for potential elimination were the Grill 'billies, Compleat, and Chao.
Compleat creator Stephanie decided to keep her lifeless restaurant name (her concept is to serve flavorful meals at particular calorie counts) against Bobby Flay's strong suggestion that she change it. She's an interesting contestant to watch because the judges seem to really like her, especially Lorena Garcia, who gives her impassioned advice and regularly calls her "girl" in a collegial sisterhood way. The judges seem to want her to succeed, but there appears to be a key element about the restaurant business she is not getting: passion about food, not passion for calculating calories! Bobby Flay voiced how fed up he was with seeing her with her calorie book in the kitchen. Her approach is the difference between food science and cooking from the heart. We'll see if Stephanie can tap into the passion for flavor the judges are looking for in future episodes.
In the end Jamawn's Soul Daddy (formerly W3's -- Wood's Waffles and Wings) won the challenge. People just loved the food and the new restaurant name. With a menu that features gumbo and collard greens, buttered cornbread, and grits with Parmesan and nutmeg, customers knew what they were getting and loved the taste of the results. Judges said they just wanted to curl up and eat the Soul Daddy food.
Chao (formerly Wok, a fast casual stir fry idea) creator Marisa, did not fair as well. She kept a chef that didn't serve her well previously and was criticized by the judges for not understanding stir fry enough. (Why did she go on the show with a concept based on stir fry and not learn more about it beforehand?) Perhaps Ells was still bitter about her serving cold burritos (why didn't she realize the burritos were cold?). In the end, there were too many questions about her judgment calls and the investors didn't have confidence in her ability to make sound decisions.
Interestingly, when faced with the same predicament, Sudhir, (whose South Indian concept Tiffin Box became Spice Coast), fired his chef and took on executive cooking duties himself. His risk paid off and after serving a grilled samosa with mango and avocado relish, he advanced to the next round along with the creators of Saucy Balls (Italian meatballs concept), Saints and Sinners (formerly LIMBO, healthy and not-so-healthy options, ex: bacon cheddar meatloaf and turkey meatloaf), Meltworks (grilled cheese place), Soul Daddy, Compleat, and Grill 'billies. Revolution tacos (formerly Hard and Soft tacos) - creator Alex, also advanced. One good thing about Marisa's departure is hopefully we won't have to hear Alex's cruel mind manipulation of her and her chef. It looked like he just thought she was cute, but the whole thing was ridiculous to watch. Hope he doesn't pick out another victim as the season continues...
For last week's recap, click here.