America’s Next Great Restaurant debuts tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
America’s Next Great Restaurant is a terrific example of how producers can make a solid reality show that probably no one will watch because it’s constructed out of the bits and pieces of many other failed, solid reality shows and entering a subgenre that doesn’t especially need another entrant. There are dozens of food-based reality shows on the air—above and beyond the traditional cooking shows that populate the weekend airwaves of PBS and daytime space on the Food Network and Cooking Channel—and there’s no good reason to think that what the reality show fans of America are requesting is yet another one. As with most reality shows, this likely isn’t a recipe for disaster, since this was likely pretty cheap to produce, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for the restaurant chain spun off from the series to wildly succeed once the show ends.
And yet if you’re a fan of reality TV or food shows or just restaurants in general, America’s Next Great Restaurant is worth a look, particularly if you’re watching nothing else at the time it’s on. It’s a solidly constructed show, with most of its DNA cribbed from ABC’s little-watched but fascinating Shark Tank (itself cribbed entirely from overseas series like Dragon’s Den), and in its first two episodes, it sets up a fun group of contestants and an interesting series of challenges. It’s not essential TV, and it never builds to a level beyond “pleasant viewing experience,” but of the glut of reality shows debuting in early March, this is one of the best, if not the best.
The concept of the show is a straight-up ripoff of Shark Tank, at least in the first episode. In tonight’s premiere, 21 finalists (chosen, presumably, from hundreds of submission videos we don’t get to see, as the show has spared us, mercifully, from an “auditions” episode) pitch their restaurant concepts to restaurateur and TV chef Bobby Flay, Chipotle founder Steve Ells, chef Curtis Stone, and chef Lorena Garcia. They’re expected not just to know what their restaurant would serve but to have a mock-up of a full menu and a rough idea of what the layout of the restaurant would be, providing the judges with an image of what a typical visit to the restaurant would be like. Ells spends much of his time harping on the notion of fast-casual (a term the show probably does too little to define, but most people watching the show will have a good idea of what it is anyway), but in general, the judges know their stuff, and their cuts make sense, even if they seem brutal at times.
They’re also incredibly pragmatic, something that may rob the show of its drama. Many of the contestants cut in tonight’s episode were of the sort that the show might keep around solely to have conflict from week to week or to have someone to cut to for comic relief. The 10 contestants that survive of the 21 that walk in tonight all have 10 very good ideas for restaurants (save one, which we’ll get to in a minute), but they don’t necessarily jump to racist epithets solely to put people on edge or say really stupid and amusing things that the editors can cut to when in need of a quick laugh. And yet the judges’ pragmatism also means that the final challenge in tonight’s episode—asking one man how many of a certain item he can prepare within a certain time limit and another to prepare something there’s already enough of in the marketplace in such a way as to make them see why he’s embraced that food as his concept—has some genuine tension to it. They’re not idiots, and they’re not self-involved. These judges genuinely know the restaurant business and genuinely want to see the contestants succeed. After all, the judges’ money will be going into the franchise, too.
That’s the other nice twist about America’s Next Great Restaurant: The judges aren’t just judges; they’re investors and mentors and hosts as well. (Well, Flay takes primary hosting duties, but this breaks down more and more in the two episodes sent to critics.) This means that, hopefully, by the time the show reaches its end point, the judges will have made the new restaurant concept and execution so airtight that it would be able to succeed without a reality TV platform to use for its initial launch. In episode two, the first more straightforward competition episode with an elimination at the end, the judges challenge the various competitors to serve 1,000 people at Universal CityWalk and design an attractive logo. They get help—from chefs and graphic artists—but the core ideas have to come from them, and they have to have the courage of their convictions and believe in the strength of their ideas. By extending the Shark Tank model into something more like Top Chef or Survivor, the series creates an intriguing hybrid of all three other shows. It’s nothing new, but the pieces keep fitting together in unexpected ways.
Another nice touch: Some of the contestants have no idea how to cook but do have a good sense of the business world or PR savvy or just a really great idea. Does this put them at a disadvantage? Perhaps a small one, but it also allows the show to reveal how all of these people approach the question of what makes a good restaurant very differently. For some, if the food is good, everything else will follow. For others, the food’s important, but the whole experience needs to be something worth leaving the house for. The clash of these different personalities—of these different philosophies, really—is what drives the show in its first two episodes, and it’s fascinating to watch those who can’t cook try to keep up with those who can, delicately balancing their lack of culinary skills with their other strong points.
In the end, what makes this show work is the fact that all of the restaurants proposed just sound like good places to go and eat, backed by people who are clearly passionate about their dreams. Sure, you’ve got irritating contestants like the ex-redneck hipsters who seem more fascinated with patronizing the South in their décor than creating a good soul food chain or the guy whose every other line of dialogue is about how he can take any food and make it into a taco, but you’ve also got people who’ve clearly poured their hearts and souls into this, like a man who wants to mainstream Indian cuisine, a slightly ditzy girl who wants to open a restaurant called Soupz (inspired, she says, by soups), or a man who’s sweated every detail of a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant for years and now has his chance to make it all happen.
When competitive reality shows work, they work because they seem to be giving some nobody their shot at the American dream, be that dream a fashion contract or a recording career or $1 million won by outlasting over a dozen other people on a tropical island. America’s Next Great Restaurant certainly isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly nothing you haven’t seen before. (If you’ve ever watched a reality show, you’ll be able to predict virtually every beat of the second episode, just based on the editing rhythms.) But deep down, it works, and it works because the nobodies are compelling and the dreams are huge.
- I'm seriously considering covering this one week-to-week, if there's interest. The subject matter is compelling to me, and I've never written about a reality show before and would like to try it out. Check out the premiere and let me know if there's interest.