Thursday, February 3, 2011

Restaurant Impossible

When I first moved back to my college town and spent a month and a half with a few still in college students who were slightly crazier than me (the wildest thing we did was steal a bunch of poop bags from a dog park on her old apartment) I got my first taste of BBC America programming and their love affair with Gordon Ramsay, specifically his Kitchen Nightmares.

The original episodes are a small twinkle of what Fox bought up and Americanized with lots of money sunk into redecorating, more bleeps per minute and a few donkey's for good measure. In the British version they focused more on getting to the deep problems of the restaurant showing how to get faith back from the public and even sent Ramsay back one, two sometimes even six months later to see how and if things changed.

I bring all this up because Food Network, having run out of cake challenges involving giant sugar sculptures that can fly has decided to throw their hat into the Restaurant Makeover ring.

A few years back, though it may have been a fevered dream, showing in the dead zone of tv programming my husband and I caught what we thought would be Food Networks first attempt to make Kitchen Nightmares their own. They had Bobby Flay air dropped into a pizza place in NYC, give a few pointless bits of advice, load everyone on a bus and send them on a field trip around to see other successful New York restaurants. It all ended with a reopening party where they didn't even serve the public and Flay was on screen for a total of 10 minutes.

We never saw another episode, figuring that FN had realized the error of their ways but given time and an uncreative head of programming here comes Robert Irvine their favorite resume fabricator and his Impossible crew.

I've seen two episodes of this strange half mutated bastard version so far and it's leaving a rather rotten taste in my mouth.

It starts out much like any Kitchen Nightmare, a British chef appears like magic in some strange hole in the wall, tastes the nasty food, digs through the kitchen and shuts everything down. (A big addition from the Americanization - very rarely did Ramsay shut any kitchens down in his British Nightmare) And because it's Robert he pulls out his giant memo pad and set of markers to get to work. This is where the show starts to go completely off the rails.

Food Network and HGTV are both owned by the same parent company. Generally the seams are kept mostly in check, you'll see Sandra Lee trying to design curtains for a holiday show occasionally but little to no more crossovers, but with Restaurant Impossible they found a chance to kill two networks with one stone.

Traveling with Robert is a woman named Tanya (or with his accent Irvine calls "Tanner") ripped from Designed to Sell who takes $10,000 and a horde of lackeys to turn a condemned hell hole into what looks like a restaurant designed for kindergartners with crazy crap they found on the roof and patio nailed to the wall. (Because it makes so much sense to have a chef who doesn't own any restaurants and a woman who doesn't design for any restaurants giving a failing one a complete makeover.)

When not fussing over design patterns or wall colors Irvine takes a few minutes to "teach" the owner/chef/who the hell cares how to make a few recipes. These have been frankly rather dull offerings such as brisket and crab cakes (I still have no idea who thinks ooh BBQ and seafood in the same place. Sign me up!), pizza and Bolognese Sauce. Funny, because last I checked a few new recipes does not a restaurant make.

Love him or hate him, you can't argue that Ramsay is one hell of a chef and his mantra of respecting the ingredients works well regardless of what level of skill the head cook has. He also takes time and will talk finance with the managers/owners as someone who has opened and also had fail tens of restaurants.

I'm sure Irvine would ask how in the hole the owners on his show are but he's too busy worrying about whether a wall will hide a soda machine or not (though come to think of it has Irvine owned any restaurants? Well ones he didn't make up in his head at least).

All of this focus on design and shock factor - Seriously the crab shack last night was so bad there were sixteen dead mice trapped under a fridge - means that the reopening, the entire point of it all is on screen for 5 minutes tops. You get a few shots of people saying food is good (because people will say anything if it gets them on TV) and Robert gently encouraging from the kitchen.

And then the credits roll.

It's like someone crashed Trading Spaces into an episode of Dinner Impossible and a rotten can of mushrooms. No one gives a shit about the people they filmed, changed around their dining space then left with a still failing business in a horrible economy. Who cares when there's a butt ugly steak house stuck in the 80's two states over they can sick Tanner on.

Oh Food Network, you tried to take Kitchen Nightmares and remove the venom to fit your family friendly idiom and sucked out all the heart instead. No one seems invested in anything outside the paycheck and challenge and it shows.

I wish I could say I won't be tuning in anymore but I'm fast running out of background channels (damn you History - you should cal yourselves Discover II and be done with it) so it may slip on every now and again but I won't hold any fond memories for Restaurant Impossible and I rather doubt it will for anyone else.

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