High Definition

If You Can’t Take the Heat

hd: restaurant shows social

TV’s affection for restaurant shows is nothing new, but the subgenre of restaurant fixing shows is an odd (and addictive) addition to the cable television rotation.

I may have mentioned this before, but I both do and don’t watch “a lot” of TV, relative to my work on a TV column. Making videos and writing columns and news items means I do most of my work from home, and just for background noise the TV is usually on — just not on anything I actually want to watch attentively. My “want to watch” shows tend to happen on DVR, whereas for worktime air-filler I prefer news or, failing that, stuff that’s just formulaic enough that I can drop in and out in-between eyeball rotations, especially programming in that mold that basic cable likes to run in giant extended clumps (Law & Order, House, CSI, you get the idea).

It’s in this capacity that I discovered (and discovered my affection for) a weirdly booming subgenre of TV that doesn’t seem to have a name. Restaurant fixing shows, wherein a blustering bully of a host swoops in to teach people who’ve somehow come to run a fairly complicated business the equivalent of a middle-school civic and economics. It feels like there’s a new one of these things every week, most of them descending in an unbroken genetic line from the UK’s Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares but a few adding high-tech flourishes like countdowns and hidden cameras.

Here’s a sampling of what I’m talking about — should anyone care to try them on and join me in this most recent junk-TV hobby:

This is essentially Food Network’s prototypical lift of the Kitchen Nightmares concept, goosed-up with countdown gimmick and a secondary-emphasis on Trading Spaces-style home repair issues. It’s a spin-off of a previous series, Dinner Impossible, in which celebrity chef Robert Irvine was tasked each episode to prepare a large-scale dinner under strategically-handicapped circumstances.

In Restaurant, Irvine is dispatched to failing eateries on a mission to whip the businesses into shape. It makes a certain amount of sense: in addition to his culinary career, Irvine is a Royal Navy veteran, so he has a believable look and temperament when barking orders at underlings and giving “hard truths” to seemingly clueless restaurateurs. He’s good enough at this schtick, in fact, that you might occasionally forget to notice that the ticking-clock countdown and arbitrary spending restrictions (he’s typically only “given” two days and $10,000 to complete his task) ported over from Dinner don’t make a lot of sense in context — okay, so Irvine will “lose” the challenge… and these people will be left with a half-rebuilt business?

The signature moments to watch out for each episode are the tasting (Irvine typically orders up a sampling of an entire menu, picks through it like some kind of finicky T-Rex and explains in detail why it all sucks) and the all-but-mandatory scene wherein one or more of the owners has a teary breakdown over this or that crushing issue and the cameras just so happen to be on-hand for Irvine to put on his stoic-yet-sensitive hat. There’s a patrician, vaguely conservative feel to this entire genre (stern father figures being the Last Best Hope of silly-billies who can’t help themselves), but Irvine has a well-practiced balanced to his British-buzzcut persona that puts a slightly different angle on it.

This one runs on Spike TV. It’s largely the same show as Restaurant: Impossible but with a less interesting host (food industry consultant John Taffer) and a bar/pub/nightclub focus.

The main “hook” of this series, honestly, is that it doesn’t seem to be very good at accomplishing its basic premise: Taffer’s “rescues” often involve a total rebranding and renaming, and an amusing number of the show’s more elaborate transformation projects have wound up reverting back to what they were previously. Most notorious was a Season Two episode about Taffer’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to get a cheesy pirate-themed joint to wake up to the fact that more money was to be made as an upscale bar aimed at the corporate highrises nearby — a “storyline” that turned out to be phony even by reality TV standards.

Here’s one you’d think would’ve gotten old really quick: Rather than focusing on food or aesthetics, Stakeout is laser-focused on staff problems. Its stock in trade tends to be operations that would be running just fine (at least according to the “reality” of the editing) if only a lazy/dishonest/inexperienced staff wasn’t constantly screwing things up.

And… that’s it. That’s literally every episode of this show.

But what Restaurant Stakeout lacks in tension or originality it makes up for in personality. Its star is William Jack “Willie” Degel, a NY-area steakhouse entrepreneur whose Noo-Yawk Tuff-Guy affectation plays like self-caricature elevated to an art form. He’s a blustery bully straight out of a central casting, but at least you “buy it” when he’s laying into incompetent employees and browbeating soft-hearted owners into making the necessary disciplinary staff-trimmings. All the while, he’s bragging about his “secret weapon” for employee management: Lots and lots of security cameras, which Degel treats as though he’s mastered some sort of dark magic secret to all but him.

This one is actually my favorite, just for the low-key absurdity of it all. It’s trying the most of any show in the “genre” to appear unstaged and “real,” which only serves to highlight how cheeky the results are.

The basic pitch is that it’s Restaurant Stakeout with the “stakeout” part taken much more literally. Rather than talking over security-camera feeds from a Food Network studio, host Charles Stiles (who looks more like a cop than anyone not a cop has ever looked) sets up a “command center” in an adjacent location complete with monitors, blueprints and bulletin boards so that he and the restaurateur of the week can watch as undercover fake-customers and new-hires trick misbehaving employees into getting themselves fired.

Despite the lo-fi approach (the “stakeout room” looks like a very 1980s cop-show vision of itself), the show finds extreme scenarios wherever it can — at least two episodes have involved conspiracies by waiters/bartenders to run their own “secret menu” businesses inside their places of business, which seems oddly over-complicated to me as far as criminal plots go.


About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.