America’s Next Great Restaurant Recap: David Rees on Chipotle and Kale City

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Yup, that's a Chipotle. Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

Welcome to Week 3 of America’s Next Great Restaurant (ANGR).

First of all, to everyone who yelled at me for bestowing two honorary doctorates on ANGR’s Steve Ells, accusing me of selling out to the man who “sold out to McDonald’s”:

1. McDonald’s completely divested from Chipotle in 2006.

2. Don’t make me ANGR; you wouldn’t like me when I’m ANGR.

We only have six weeks until ANGR’s winning restaurant opens in two major American cities and one minor American city! Like Steve Miller sang on drugs, “Time keeps on slipping into the future,” although he repeats “slipping” too many times, as if to emphasize how high he was when he had his revelation about time.

Anyway, our episode begins with the contestants being corralled into a Chipotle restaurant like a reluctant herd of Soylent Green. They are welcomed by Steve Ells, a.k.a. Dr. Chipotle, Ph.D., a.k.a. Fly Ricky the Wine Taster, who says what only he can say: “Welcome to one of my Chipotle restaurants.”

We’re then treated to an oral history of Chipotle, a fuller account of which can be found on its exhaustive Wikipedia page, the high- and lowlights of which I have committed to memory, much to the future delight of anybody I corner at a cocktail party.

Sandy (Limbo) is inspired by the Chipotle story. Sudhir (Tiffin Box) “adores” what Ells did with Chipotle. The use of “adores” in this context rankles me, and I make a mental note to dial down my man-crush on Sudhir by .05 percent. The contestants are about to embark on a trial by fire; they must handle the “real-life lunch crowd” at Chipotle.

Steve Ells looks worried about turning his baby (more like one of his 1,000 babies) over to the contestants. After all, some of these people — like Eric (Meltworks) — have never actually worked at a restaurant! Sure enough, problems bloom early. Somebody makes “weird-looking” burritos. There is a lack of clear communication.

The doors are scheduled to open at noon. The hour comes; the doors remain closed. Customers on a suspiciously long line peer through the glass. We’re now seven minutes past opening, and our hapless gang is running around like a bunch of chicken burritos with their heads cut off.

I should mention that, in a subtle critique of America’s post-9/11 surveillance society, the contestants are being monitored on closed-circuit cameras by the judges, who spare no opportunity to critique their performance. Steve “wants to see leadership”; he finds none. Bobby Flay taunts Ells: “This is your $4 billion business!” Ells turns a sprightly shade of greenish-beige.

Finally, at eleven minutes past noon, the customers pour in.

Chaos. It’s like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, but with guacamole. The contestants are overwhelmed. Orders are botched. Customers are not receiving satisfaction. Joey (Saucy Balls) screams about needing a lid, which I think is drug slang.

Steve Ells strikes a melancholy note: “There are no smiles on their faces.” Ummm … is this the first of his Chipotles he’s ever observed? It’s not an orgasm-machine-testing facility, buddy. There are a few bright spots: Stephenie, working the cash register, is warm and welcoming. Alex also looks like maybe he knows what he’s doing. And Sandy “has obviously worked in a restaurant.”

But my man Sudhir is BUSTED. He’s caught lollygagging in the back, wandering around, messing with what look to be the least important items in the restaurant. Curtis Stone diagnosis Sudhir via CCTV: “He’s trying to be busy doing nothing.” I once worked at a restaurant, and I invented that game, and Sudhir is not winning it.

At the opposite extreme, Jamawn is overexcited on the front line, shouting motivational phrases, which Steve Ells finds “inappropriate.” He’s not the only one; a customer nods to Jamawn and says, “That guy likes to yell. There’s not a lot of yelling at Chipotle.”

You know what? Maybe that’s Chipotle’s problem.

FIRST COMMERCIAL BREAK:

Let’s review some of the great Kale City logos submitted by readers:
kale city kale city

Readers DM and MT get an honorable mention for basically slapping the words Kale City onto Alex’s original logo for “Hot ‘n’ Cold Taco Bar Which Consumes All Cuisines, Ideas, and Rivals,” or whatever the original name of his restaurant was.
kale city
Reader DH goes the highway-sign route. Fibrously elegant.

BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:

Steve Ells, unable to watch his precious baby further mutilated at the hands of our savage contestants, has entered the fray. He dons an apron; he trashes some tortillas after realizing that Marissa was trying to warm them in a cold tortilla warmer, which shows “bad judgment.”

Why subject our contestants to this nightmare? (1) to see if the experience “affects the way you think about your concept,” and (2) to see “how you work under pressure.”

The verdict is in: EPIC FAIL. Our friends only put out half the amount of food typical for this Chipotle restaurant. (Though, if you look at the calorie count for the standard Chipotle burrito, as I have done on Wikipedia, this EPIC FAIL might actually qualify as a covert public-health service.)

Sudhir is called out for being a chicken-shit. He smiles sheepishly. Stephenie is praised for how well she handled her easy-ass job. “Steph, you can work for me anytime,” murmurs Bobby Flay.

Suddenly, we are in the rarified world of branding. The results from last week’s challenge are in: Meltworks and Saucy Balls had the most popular names. They can keep their names.

But everyone else needs new names! Also, contestants must develop a philosophy and slogan to “convey their intention” to customers! Then they have to build a new dish around their slogan and present it to a bunch of people in a food court! To which I say to the judges: Wouldn’t you be better off just investing all your money in Kale City?

While everyone works on their slogan that will never be as good as my slogan, we get some side drama about Sudhir and his chef from last week. Steve Ells wants Sudhir to dump his chef. Sudhir immediately agrees. He calls his chef on speakerphone. (I guess that’s a reality-show convention, but it seems gauche.) His chef is a model of righteous indignation: “I don’t understand; you’re calling me in the middle of the night telling me you have to replace me?”

That’s cold, Sudhir. You’re losing me. You need to check ya Tiffin Box before you wreck ya Tiffin Box.

SECOND COMMERCIAL BREAK:
kale city
Reader DD’s Kale City logo takes a whimsical route. (I think the font is “Helvetica Meth.”) Bonus points for the antenna, which is no doubt broadcasting a steady stream of Operation Ivy bootlegs.
kale city
Reader KP ups the “skyline” ante, with a full city block made of nothing but kale! The apocalyptic font makes this look like a horror movie for carnivores.

BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:

We’re back in the kitchen. It’s time to create signature dishes based on slogans.

Sudhir will be his own head chef. Marissa wants to do something with tofu that will be “rock solid,” and when her chef says, “We’ll do the best we can,” she says, “I don’t want the ‘best we can,’ I want the best.” Her chef is appropriately freaked.

Taco bad boy Alex says Marrissa’s peanut sauce is too hot. He’s trying to psych out her chef: “Unless you put [Marissa] in a cheerleader’s outfit, I’m not sure what she’s bringing to the table.” I didn’t think you could stuff misogyny into a taco, but Alex pulled it off.

The judges saunter in for a big announcement: Bobby Flay has “hired” some of the country’s top ad executives to review their food and their slogans. This is exciting, but not as exciting as what happens next.

Something catches Dr. Chipotle’s eye, and then he utters the one word every chef dreads; the one word you’re not allowed to yell in a crowded theatre, lest it cause panic:

“Subtitles.”

Actually, no, the word is “Fire.” Marissa’s wok is on fire.

This is resolved and we’re suddenly in restaurant row. Flay welcomes the crowd of advertising bigwigs.

Sudhir’s magnificent Tiffin Box is now called Spice Coast, which sounds too much like Space Ghost. (My notes: “BOO!”) His slogan? “Eat flavorfully.” (See previous note.) He serves grilled samosas with mango and avocado. And just like that, Sudhir is redeemed. I love samosas! Bobby Flay doubts Sudhir’s intentions: Does he plan to start his restaurant only to pass it off to someone else? Sudhir reassures the judges by admitting he turned down a job with a $4 million salary to appear on ANGR.

(This is the kind of thing that is so beyond my comprehension and personal experience that I have no comment.)

Marissa’s Chao (formerly Wok) is slammed for “not much depth of flavor." Curtis Stone weighs in: “The concept is solid, if it can work … the problem is the food. I don’t think you understand stir-fry enough.” The judges truly loathe Marissa’s stir-fry. There are like 50 cutaways to her despondent chef. Poor guy. Maybe he should have spent less time laughing at Alex’s sexist jokes and more time sufficiently understanding stir-fry.

THIRD COMMERCIAL BREAK:
kale city
Reader TF brings it. This logo has three Statues of Liberty, two Ferris wheels, and a beautiful leaf of kale! This is a strong contender.

BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:

Alex has renamed his taco restaurant Revolution Tacos. Its slogan? “Explore. Discover. Indulge,” which sounds suspiciously like President Obama’s foreign policy. Curtis Stone likes the slogan: “It takes you on a journey,” which makes me think Curtis Stone is a cheap date. Alex offers an Asian-inspired taco. Is this a shot across Marissa’s bow? Curtis Stone doesn’t like it: “The problem is, [Alex’s] tacos are disgusting.” Curtis Stone is growing on me.

Sandy’s Limbo is now called Sinners & Saints. This is a massive improvement. Her slogan is “Food for your mood.” She serves two kinds of meatloaf. An ad guy raves about it, and because I don’t like the guy’s face, I assume it’s horrible.

Working-class hero Jamawn has transformed W3’s into Soul Daddy. This is about as radical an improvement one can make to a restaurant name, other than renaming “Ugly Gruel Shards” into “Three Michelin Stars & Free Beer, Inc.” I smell money. Jamawn has prepared a soul-food feast. Steve Ells loves “the concept of soul food.” Part of me thinks everyone should just chill about concepts and maybe focus on stuffing their faces, because Jamawn’s food looks delicious. His slogan is “Cooking with heart and soul,” and again I see nothing but blue skies for our friend from Detroit.

Eric was allowed to keep the name Meltworks. Bobby Flay: “Don’t go overboard with your stupid sandwiches.” (Approximate quote.) Sure enough, we cut to an ad exec who just wanted a regular grilled cheese, not “all this fancy-schmancy stuff!” Okay, buddy, we get it: You’re authentic and down-to-earth. Now get back to figuring out how to sell sugar-water to babies.

Greg and Krystal have transformed Hick’s, which was a good, simple (slightly offensive) name featuring a classic corn-cob apostrophe, into Grill’Billies, whose logo looks like a bunch of burnt ghosts trying to haunt a hibachi. Now they’re talking about flank steak with grilled pulled pork or something. Here’s where I admit that I don’t understand cuts of meat or grilling or any of that stuff men are supposed to know about. (One of many reasons my time working at Maxim magazine was fraught with anxiety.) Curtis Stone is about to flip: “Are you serving barbecue or not? The more you talk, the more confused I get!” There follows an awkward conversation about grilling vs. barbecuing vs. smoking, which to my ears might as well be about St. Thomas Aquinas’s early works and how they relate to Samoan grasshopper racing. Curtis Stone finally explodes: “Stop it, stop it, stop it! I don’t think you know what you’re talking about!” Curtis Stone is taking no prisoners this evening, and I love it.

FOURTH COMMERCIAL BREAK:
kale city
I admit it: I made this one. I just wanted to see how excited it would make me. Answer: Very.

BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:

Joey serves turkey meatballs with gorgonzola sauce. The crowd loves ’em. Saucy Balls’ slogan is “Italian home cooking, fresh and fast.” Bobby Flay waxes hyperbolic: “It’s a nice slogan.” The saucy balls jokes are in mercifully short supply.

Stephenie has kept her name: Compleat. Her slogan: “Flavor you can count on,” as in, “count the calories of.” She offers chicken skewers on healthy stuff. Stephenie is accused of being too safe: “Safe doesn’t move a nation to come to your restaurant.” (This strikes me as a romantic assessment of America’s appetite for danger and exotica when considering fast-food options, but whatever.)

The tasting is over. The concept with the most silver coins is: Jamawn! Marissa, Greg and Krystal, and Stephenie must report to the judges; they all have “concept problems.”

Stephenie’s up first. Is she as serious about taste as she is about health? As much as she talks about making healthy food that tastes delicious, the judges only ever see her with her “calorie-counting book.” (This image makes me unaccountably sad.) Also her restaurant name “completely” sucks. Bobby Flay throws up his hands: “I’ll tell you right now — I’m over it.” Something about the way Bobby Flay says this — so exasperated, so curt — makes me fall in love with him for the first time. Mr. Flay, I will now accept your kind invitation to eat at all your restaurants for free, for life, with free limousine service to the whorehouses of my choice.

Greg and Krystal once again try to clarify their Grill’Billies concept: “It’s a fun, southern-based concept with a California twist to it.” (My notes: “These kids have no fucking idea what they’re doing.”)
FIFTH COMMERCIAL BREAK:
kale city
I think we have a winner! This last-minute entry from MC incorporates one of my least favorite fonts AND drop shadow. However, it also features the mayor of Kale City (1) holding a blunderbuss, (2) wearing a sash, and (3) brandishing the dripping kale flesh of some kale foe he vanquished in his rise to power! Guys, meet the Ronald McDonald of the 21st Century. I’m about to get rich. (And colon-healthy.)

BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:

Marissa’s the last to stand before the judges — I’m sorry, “investors.” They want to know why she’s hanging on to her chef. And why she’s messing around with Asian cuisine if she doesn’t understand the nuances of keeping woks from exploding in flames.

Marissa is undaunted: “I know I will get there; trial and error, I will get there.” This is actually a good motto for living your life, as long as the “error” part doesn’t involve burning down a bunch of buildings with your hell-wok.

The investors plot their endgame. Bobby Flay says he “likes Marissa.” This shocks me. My new hero Curtis Stone calls BS on all this Marissa love: “I get that she has a bubbly personality but c’mon — we need to make money!” Curtis Stone isn’t a millionaire like Dr. Chipotle and Bobby Flay, and doesn’t have the financial means to just throw money at crappy restaurant ideas as a lark.

Everyone agrees that Stephenie is “very, very smart.” Dr. Chipotle further notes her “passion for serving healthy food,” which, after hearing about her “calorie-counting book,” is starting to sound less like a passion and more like one of those eating almost-disorders that camouflages itself with constant healthy-talk.

Curtis Stone is still gobsmacked by Greg and Krystal’s inability to understand their own concept. I think this might be the most befuddling thing ever to befall Mr. Curtis Stone, other than the principle of buttoning one’s shirt. I imagine him waking in the middle of the night, moaning, “How can they not understand their own concept?” However he still thinks “it’s a great concept” (?!?) so he wants them to stay.

The contestants are led back in.

Greg and Krystal are chided for not understanding their “goddamn fucking concept”; Stephenie is reprimanded for not having a concept; Marissa is praised: “We like your concept.” (I swear to God this is the most references to concepts I’ve heard on a reality show since season three of Donald Trump’s ‘Celebrity Epistemologist.’)

Finally, Bobby Flay slices through all the swirling concept talk with his sword of hardheadedness: “Marissa, we will not be investing in your restaurant.” He adds with a sneer: “I trust you understand that concept?” (Joke.)

Marissa is choked up. Back in the contestants’ holding pen, Alex tries to make nice, inviting her to call him whenever she wants to be teased. Ummm, homeboy? It’s not happening.

Chao’s light is turned off, and in its fleeting afterglow, I finally understand the great hidden joke that was staring me in the face the entire night — a ghostly semaphore that gives the lie to all this high-minded talk of ideas and concepts ...

Dear friends, “Chao” is pronounced “chow.”

That’s it for this week. Thanks to everyone who submitted a logo, especially the guy who just took my logo and added an exclamation point; I was sure that was gonna win. I’ll have more exciting news about Kale City next week!

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.