America's Next Great Restaurant: "Universal Appeal"
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America's Next Great Restaurant: "Universal Appeal"

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America's Next Great Restaurant

"Universal Appeal"

Season 1, Episode 2

What I like about the central idea of America’s Next Great Restaurant is that it isn’t, “Who can cook the best food?” The central idea is, “Who can come up with a place you’d want to eat at every day?” Granted, I doubt I’d eat at any of these 10 restaurants every day, but at least eight of them strike me as places I’d definitely sample. The question, then, is going to be about pulling all of this together, coming up with a place that has good food AND works as a place of business. It’s that aspect—the entrepreneurial one—that has me most fascinated with the show. Tonight’s episode sees a healthy dose of both aspects of the show, as the contestants pick the chef they’re going to use for the competition and design the logo that will sit atop their restaurant. In the end, they’ve got to feed roughly 1,000 people at Universal CityWalk, which could prove disastrous.

The least interesting portion of the episode involves the selection of the chefs. There are a couple of minor scrapes, as Joseph clashes with Greg and Crystal over a chef named Brandon, who can cook both barbecue AND Italian, while Fran and Alex fight over a chef who works with Gordon Ramsey (a fact that Alex knows, while Fran does not). The group decides to let the chefs decide where they’d rather be, since, y’know, having your dream restaurant would never involve fighting for anything ever. Brandon chooses Greg and Crystal after a lengthy segment of Joseph trying to badger him into going with Saucy Balls for a large variety of mostly superficial reasons. “His favorite movie is Scarface!” Joseph comments, as though that solves everything. Brandon mostly seems freaked out by the attention. Ramsey chef, meanwhile, goes with Alex, who apparently holds some sort of Rumplestiltskin-esque sway over her after having guessed her true nature. (Or maybe she’s just really excited to turn every kind of food there is into a taco.) 

This segment was less interesting than the others, simply because the contestants seem determined on backing away from conflict, and there wasn’t much to it. On the other hand, I enjoy that the Tiffin Box is going to get a Swedish chef, and I liked the way all of the chefs seemed completely blasé about whatever the contestants would throw at them. I especially liked the one guy who, after a contestant tossed him a list of demands, just said, basically, “Yeah, whatever, I went to culinary school for decades. I can probably handle jalapeno poppers.” From there, the contestants headed off to meet with a group of graphic designers to discuss logo concepts.

I’m half convinced this was one of the shittiest collections of graphic designers ever assembled. Some of the logos turned out pretty cool—particularly when the contestants were primarily working with text (unlike the investors, I was pretty fond of the Compleat logo)—but unless the contestant had some sort of concept coming in, the graphic designers were either so bad or had so little time that the logos came out half-assed. As an example, Jamawn’s logo for W3’s (which probably needs a name change, since it sounds like a horrifying sequel to the tax form everybody dreads) was meant to evoke football, since Jamawn is a football player or something. And, yeah, it was a football field with a football right in the center of it, but it was also a shapeless collection of random colors. Purple and green? All right. Absolutely nothing about this screams “Eat here.” Instead, it suggests something a tired Josten’s representative would try to force on the local high school yearbook committee at the end of a long day traveling the back roads of the Midwest. “Fuck it, kids. JUST TAKE PURPLE AND GREEN!”

Also strangely horrifying was Joseph’s logo for Saucy Balls. I actually kind of like the idea here, since cartoon sketches of beloved family members have worked before in chain restaurant land (though given the constant financial travails of Wendy’s, I don’t know that they’ve worked that WELL), but the designer clearly needed more time with the drawing of Joseph’s grandma, since the one that Joseph goes with kind of makes her look like a cave troll. It’s such a rough sketch, plopped up next to some words, seemingly at random, that it’s hard not to be a little turned off by it. Can you imagine walking down the street, seeing that hideous visage, and saying, “Man, I could go for some meatballs”? To that end, the best logos were probably for The Wok and MeltWorks (though the investors didn’t like the one for MeltWorks because they’ve always gotta find something to criticize—I can relate, Ells!), but both of those had had extensive work done BEFORE entering the design room. All in all, this segment was kind of a wash, but I liked it in spite of myself, due to all of the hilariously bad logos.

From here, it’s time for the final challenge, which involves serving lots of folks at Universal CityWalk. Here, the biggest problem with the show is exposed: Unlike on Top Chef, it’s hard to get a feel for how this food tastes. The investors and the random public give us brief hints as to what it tastes like, but it’s hard for US to know in the audience. Top Chef had that problem sometimes in the early going, too, so I’m sure the show will figure out a way around this issue, but for now, it’s a problem. On the other hand, since so much of the show’s focus is on business stuff, it doesn’t matter. The public is fed, and they vote with their silver coins, and the vote comes in for Eric. Honestly, while I don’t know that I would eat at MeltWorks daily, I know a lot of people who probably would, and I think any time there’s going to be a “public voting” competition, Eric’s going to win. His concept is that strong, and it’s hard to fuck up a grilled cheese (though my wife would tell you I do). If I’m rooting for someone, it’s probably Sudhir and his Tiffin Box, mostly because I like Indian food and obscure names that will baffle most Americans, but also because I want a buddy comedy about a Swedish chef and the Indian-American entrepreneur who plucks him from obscurity.

The show also decides the contestants that are going to be its villains. It’s kind of weird, because the vast majority of the show seems to be trying out six or seven different contestants as villains, but by the end, it seems to have settled firmly on Alex—who’s a very stereotypical SoCal douchebag who thinks he knows better than everyone and loves antagonizing people—and Greg and Krystal—who seem to have basically no idea of what they’re doing but are convinced of their own awesomeness anyway. This being a Magical Elves productions, there are the usual annoying misdirects. I could do without a reality show plot where the editing tries to convince you someone has made a grievous error, only to have them rebound miraculously at the end (as the show tried to pull with Jamawn tonight). But the final elimination is just. Fran’s sports wrap concept is really nebulous, and she’s always seemed far more into the trappings of the restaurant than anything else. (Her logo looks like a couple of the Angry Birds poking their heads out of a burrito.) And then she has the temerity to challenge the investors on whether dry chicken is or is not a “bad thing.” She’s dismissed with talk about how she’s not a scrub, and that’s that. One down; nine to go.

Stray observations:

  • I’ve never written about a reality show before. I have a screener for next week’s episode and enjoy the series, so we’ll keep this going as long as you guys maintain interest. Magical Elves stuff is always at least competent, and I think this could grow into something good. In the meantime, since this is all new for me, what sorts of things would you like to read more about?
  • Reality show item that needs to go as soon as possible: the little series of shots of the contestants walking in to face the investors, complete with close-ups of them and the judges. EVERY reality show does this, and I’m not sure why everybody still is, aside from the fact that Survivor did it 10 years ago and was a big hit. (Really, reality shows are even more hidebound than the most hidebound crime procedural or multi-camera sitcom.)
  • I like the basic idea behind Limbo, but Sandra seems to have little to no idea how to make it work, and the logo was a confusing mess. She’ll be gone before long, which is too bad.
  • The show may have had trouble making the delicious food look good, but that tater tot casserole looked incredibly disgusting. So props for that, I guess?
  • Stealth contender for the win: Stephenie, who’s getting a fairly traditional reality show arc about someone who was too timid to live their dream getting the chance to do it on a national scale. The judges also seem really taken with the idea of healthy eating, even though the American public proves time and again it doesn’t give a shit about healthy eating chains.
  • I found this thread at Chowhound on some of the auditioning process interesting.
  • I do miss Soupz inspired by soups.
  • "I'm not feeling like the green is as fresh as romaine lettuce."
  • "It's like an ice cream cone with meat!"
  • "So maybe no wings, maybe tacos."