Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

America's Next Great Restaurant: "Food With Integrity"

Illustration for article titled America's Next Great Restaurant: "Food With Integrity"

I think it’s pretty obvious after this episode that the winner of America’s Next Great Restaurant is going to be Chipotle founder Steve Ells. Did you see the way he stepped up and took charge at that Chipotle challenge? Did you see the way he then ripped everyone a new one for how utterly they had failed him? And did you see the way that he just calmly pointed at a wok that had just BURST INTO FLAMES and quietly said, “Fire,” like he was enjoying a Sunday stroll through America’s Test Kitchen and wanted to note many of its interesting landmarks? I saw a lot of you saying Steve was your least favorite of the investors last week, but I just cannot abide by that, no sir. Steve—with his complete and utter contempt for all of the contestants and perhaps humanity itself—is the soul of this show. Steve, frankly, gets shit done when everybody else—even Bobby Flay!—is running around like it’s the apocalypse. In fact, if this WAS the apocalypse, Steve would be the one holding the shotgun, keeping the door shut, making sure no rabble-rousing scavengers got into the shelter with his assiduously chosen and demographically friendly fellow survivors. I have seen what America needs, friends, and what America needs is Steve Ells. (Imagine how quickly he’d fix this whole Libya situation!)

Anyway, the theme of tonight’s episode—“Food With Integrity”—ended up being (surprise, surprise) integrity. The question became whether the individual contestants would take the investors’ advice based on their performance last week or stick to their guns and plunge ahead with what they had always been planning on. Normally, a reality show will mix this sort of thing up. Someone will say, “I’m going to stick to my guns!” and will prove the judges wrong, or the judges will tell someone to make a certain change, and it will be one of the worst ideas ever. This wasn’t the case with America’s Next Great Restaurant, where the only people who seemed to suffer from taking advice from the judges were Greg and Krystal, who, honestly, are already too stupid to live (I will save my contempt for them for a future paragraph). The two contestants who notably stuck to their guns—Marissa and Stephenie—landed in the bottom three, with Marissa going home. So much for integrity, eh, Ells? (Steve Ells, sitting in the corner and feasting on a rare ibex he hand-slaughtered himself, shakes his head and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “These bastards wouldn’t know integrity if it was served to them on silver platter like JOHN THE BAPTIST’S HEAD!” he shouts, the firelight adding an eerie gleam to his eye.)

The best part of this episode involved the contestants all being forced to work a low-wage job at a Chipotle and utterly failing. Stephenie did all right because she kept smiling, while Alex and Sandra seemed to have a vague idea of what a kitchen was, but everybody else—tasked with making burritos on an assembly line—utterly fell apart in a myriad of ways that may have singlehandedly destroyed Chipotle’s business in the southland for generations. Every so often, a Chipotle worker who knew what was up would wander through and bark at everyone about how they were terrible, and Ells—who else?!—eventually stepped in and got things under control. But before that, this was one of the most excruciating reality show moments I’ve seen, a solid 10 minutes of people failing and then failing again and then failing even harder. It was ghoulishly gruesome and weirdly fun to watch. (This, really, is what Undercover Boss SHOULD be: people who have no experience with minimum wage work stepping into those jobs and being utterly unable to perform.)

The rest of the episode, then, focused on the contestants trying to refine and hone their concepts and change their names and/or chefs. MeltWorks and Saucy Balls were allowed to skate on through, so one assumes Eric and Joseph spent the rest of the day drawing dinosaurs fighting jet planes while their fellow contestants fretted, attempting to turn the investors’ notes into something like a shift in focus. Some of these folks did a pretty good job: Jamawn went from the very “This is my first idea of a restaurant name!” W3’s to the much catchier Soul Daddy, while Sandra refined her “healthy and decadent” concept more without really nailing it. Some of them either ignored what the investors said—Stephenie—or ignored some of what they said and then made other changes that were terrible. In particular, we have Marissa, who refused to fire her chef after last week’s debacle, then changed her name from “Wok” to “Chao.” Which. What? “Chao”? The hell does that mean? OK, yeah, it’s a form of stir frying, but are people going to have any clue about that fact without Google? It’s as bad as Tiffin Box was!

Speaking of Sudhir, though, he proved himself most worthy of wearing Steve Ells nerdy spectacles by taking the judges’ advice about getting rid of that Swedish chef of his and then doing so in “the middle of the night.” Now, this probably just means he did it at 10 p.m. or something, but I like to imagine that he did it at 3 a.m., just to keep his former comrade on his toes. THEN, he hired a new chef but mostly just had him do prep work, while he took the lead chef position, because he didn’t trust anyone else with his Indian food. Plus, he changed his name to “Spice Coast,” which doesn’t sound all that bad-ass until you realize that the Spice Coast is infested with PIRATES (at least the one in my head is). Not bad for a guy who spent most of the opening challenge hiding in the back room.

If there’s a flaw to this show, it’s that the final challenge seems to keep boiling down to the same thing, just pitched at a different audience. Where a show like Top Chef can alter what the makeup of the final challenge is, here, it pretty much comes down to, “Improve your concept slightly, then hope the new audience likes what you’ve done.” This means there’s less room for the contestants to save themselves through sheer ingenuity than there would be in other creative-based reality shows. It also gives the investors far more sway and influence than other judges might have. Marissa goes home, and I can’t say that she shouldn’t have—she seemed oblivious about a lot of what she was doing—but for a show that’s ostensibly not all about food, it seems like almost everything is coming down to food. That’s going to be a problem going forward, if the show is going to figure out a way to be entertaining on a weekly basis and not just repeat itself over and over.


Stray observations:

  • OK, the promised Greg and Krystal rant: I really dislike these guys. They seem like a couple of people who were sitting down at a bar, talking about how fun it would be to own a restaurant and how much it would help them work through all of their psychological issues stemming from growing up in the South, then realized there was a restaurant reality show audition going on across the street. I never once get the sense that they have any passion for this, beyond some sort of hip, ironic way of working through their own pasts, and it feels like they haven’t realized that you can’t cook food by aiming ironic detachment at it. Plus, they have utterly no communication skills, and they seem unable to just sit down and nail down what it is they want to do. I don’t like Adam whatsoever, but at least he understands he’s a villain and plays to that template. Greg and Krystal give off the air of people who think they’re geniuses but are really just rehashing their own shit through some sort of weird hipster remix vibe. I try not to use the word “hipster” as an insult, since it has no meaning, but Greg and Krystal pretty clearly encompass all of the terrible things people mean when they say, “hipsters.” Also, WHO MESSES UP A GRILLING CONCEPT? WHO DOESN'T UNDERSTAND GRILLING? STOP SAYING PULLED PORK.
  • I have to agree with the advertising executives JUST a little bit in that I’d like to see Eric try a straightforward grilled cheese sandwich. That’s going to be the test of whether his concept succeeds or fails, and he’s been dancing around it just a bit.
  • Stephenie is pretty clearly being set up for a storyline where she seems like she can’t ever come up with something beyond “Fuck it! Salads!” and then has the amazing brainstorm at 4 in the morning that wins her the whole thing. (My wife and I speculated that she might just steal the wok concept, since she’d certainly do a better job with it than Marissa would.) I do think the investors are right that people don’t care about calories THAT MUCH. If she can make tasty, healthy food, she’ll attract a certain clientele straight off.
  • I was surprised Jamawn won but, then, I’ve never much cared for grits.
  • Of all of the contestants, Sandra is just sort of skating along, attracting little to no attention. This either means she’ll unexpectedly turn into a threat or abruptly be eliminated some week. Probably the latter.
  • "There's not a lot of yelling at Chipotle."
  • "Love is in the balls."
  • "The problem is his tacos are disgusting."