NBC's America's Next Great Restaurant may just be another competitive reality show. It may clearly be the love child of Top Chef meets Project Runway. In other words, we've seen it before ... sort of. But I don't care. The idea that celeb chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay, celeb chef Curtis Stone, Miami restaurateur and chef Lorena Garcia, and Chipotle founder Steve Ells are going to find and invest in the next delicious fast casual restaurant kinda makes my mouth water.
On tonight's series premiere, we got to see 20 contestants vie for the top 10 spots by cooking up their concept's signature dish, then delivering an elevator pitch and a taste to Flay, Stone, Garcia, and Ells ...
Seems like Bobby Flay, in addition to putting on his usual Throwdown-style cocky-tude, is attempting to channel Simon Cowell with snarky blasts of the competitors. Lorena's kind of like the Nina Garcia of the bunch, Curtis is the pretty boy, and then we've got nerdy-but-brilliant Steve ...
As much as the judges want to talk about how they're looking for a completely new concept, it's clear that what they REALLY want is the next Chipotle. None of these judges (not even Burger Palace owner Bobby Flay) and not really anyone else in the food world has managed to do what Steve has. And that's why every single one of the competitors tonight wants to be him in nine weeks.
Off the bat, we saw a few of them hit the bricks -- with good reason. There was a guy from L.A. named Joe, who owns a local chicken wings chain called Big Wangs (ugh). While the original 20 competitors prepared their dishes, Joe was making racist, jackass comments. Thank goodness no one on the panel seemed to think "Wangs" was a viable concept. The 10 other competitors who were told "thanks, but no thanks" were too wishy-washy, overreaching, or had ideas that lacked mass appeal.
I did wonder why there seemed to be so damn many people who wanted to start chicken wing joints! That was what was really odd. Wings have been done. There's Buffalo Wild Wings, Hooters, and a ton of similar places. No one cares. Get over it. I'm glad the judges pretty much nixed all the wingers.
As for the 10 keepers ... Well, there was a guy from Brooklyn who had the stereotypical Sopranos shtick goin' on, and his concept is called Saucy Balls (named by his 7-year-old daughter, which makes it cuter than crude, I guess). It's his grandma's meatballs and macaroni. Although it did look delish, I just don't see how that's a fast casual concept, but the judges liked his passion, I think, so they kept him around.
There was also a guy/gal duo (exes, now friends) who want to start a place called Hick's -- Southern BBQ done tapas (small bites) style that "celebrate the American redneck." Kinda hilarious ... could see that working, if done right.
A couple other notables included a chicken-and-waffles guy from Detroit, a former WNBA player who wants to do healthy wrap sandwiches in a sporty atmosphere, and my favorite so far, a bartender named Sandra from Kansas City, who pitched a restaurant called Limbo, which would offer two types of menus in one -- devilish (decadent) and angelic (healthy). You can go one way or the other, or mix-and-match. Sounds like a dream come true to this 80 percent healthy/20 percent indulgent foodie. I could see a lot of people being on board with eating out that way, too, so I'm rooting for her big time so far.
Speaking of dreams, there's been some talk lately that with the Great Recession, it's harder than ever to achieve the American dream. For that reason, I totally get why this show and why now. What do Americans love more than food and seeing the underdog make it big as an entrepreneur? Pretty much nothing. If only for that reason, America's Next Great Restaurant is looking like it'll satiate viewers' appetites.
What do you think about America's Next Great Restaurant? Will you be watching?
Image via NBC.com