A wise man once said, “A journey of a thousand miles ends with a single step.” And so it has come to pass: We have reached the final episode of America’s Next Great Restaurant, and Osama bin Laden has been killed. (I’m glad President Obama had the decency to delay his announcement of Bin Laden’s death until after the ANGR finale; I guess he does read all those faxes I send him.)
Our three finalists are called into the Investors’ Suite. Bobby Flay reminds them of the stakes: “One of you three guys is going to open America’s next great restaurant.” He adds: “It’s not common that a person with little to no restaurant experience gets to do that.” Joey (Brooklyn Meatball Company) starts crying. Bobby Flay looks disdainful as he asks, “You okay? What’s the matter?” Joey admits to being overwhelmed. Bobby Flay musters a little compassion, admitting: “It’s emotional for us as well,” which is probably what the men in the helicopters thought as they flew toward a city north of Islamabad, Pakistan.
Our heroes are invited to enter their unadorned restaurant interiors. The spaces are empty, ghostlike. This doesn’t stop our friends from rubbing the spotless counters with awed affection. “Unbelievable,” says Joey, adding, “I keep sayin’ that.” Sudhir (Spice Coast) is moved as well: “As a newly minted American citizen ... it’s the embodiment of the American dream.”
Back in the contestants’ office, Bobby Flay introduces two architects who will help design the restaurants: Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. (Joke.) Joey tells the architects that he pictures a customer walking in off the street and smelling garlic and oil. I applaud Joey’s vision of a culinary home away from home, but I’ve never been convinced that Italian home cooking is something people want to experience in a fast-casual environment. Jamawn (Soul Daddy) wants a Motown theme with lots of Motown music. Bobby Flay, reaching inside my head and stealing a thought, declares he “doesn’t want (Soul Daddy) to be the Hard Rock Café of Motown.” Jamawn concedes, “I kinda feel him on that.” Sudhir wants to make “exotic things accessible,” which is why I stand by my decision to make him the public face of 120 Days of Skadom, my erotic ska band. It’s the embodiment of the Skamerican dream.
It’s time to build out the restaurant interiors, and — ladies and gentlemen, BREAKING NEWS! Momentous world event! We never thought this day would come: The mysterious rockabilly contractor from episode four is BACK! We see him only for a flash, but his pompadour remains a Gibraltar of all-American defiance.
With 36 hours until the soft open, Joey dips into his Treasury of Subversive Provocations and declares: “I gotta bring my A-game like never before.” Joey’s chef, meanwhile, wants to play it safe and stick to the basics — the “three essential meatballs,” which according to Corinthians 13:13 are faith, hope, and love. Jamawn wants to keep his menu “balanced and healthy.” He has truly internalized the investors’ suggestions, which is why he’s about 40 minutes away from winning this thing. Sudhir admits that his goal is to make the Indian version of Chipotle. (In Hollywood, this type of thinking is called “high concept” — “It’s Knocked Up meets Grizzly Man" — and usually results in a huge payday.) Sudhir’s menu will feature tacos and quesadillas, in an Indian style. Is Sudhir being too overt in his Chipotle-obsequiousness? I ponder this question like a team of special-ops forces approaching a fortified compound.
FIRST COMMERCIAL BREAK:
I got this shirt on Canal Street shortly after 9/11. I’ve never worn it until today. Terrorism suck. Justice never fail.
BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:
The investors — who have never revealed how much of their money they’re investing, and are probably hoping that some kind of history-making news event will distract people from asking — show up to help the contestants cook. Curtis Stone puts on a pinstripe apron and commences schooling folks with impeccable style and panache. Are there too many fried items on Jamawn’s menu? Dr. Chipotle really wants Jamawn to help people eat better in this country: “I’m sick of Michael Pollan getting all the credit!” (Joke.)
Our friends are hiring staff one day before their opening. (Why didn’t they use the staff from the Las Vegas challenge? Would they have been too competent?) Joey thinks so far outside the box, he actually thinks outside the box that the box came in and decides to use table service: “I like my food to be brought to me; I don’t like walking around with a tray.” Is Joey intent on shattering every paradigm of fast-casual dining? Does he want to use valet parking, as well? Sommeliers? In fairness to Joey, there is something kinda demeaning about walking around with a tray — and I’m saying this as someone whose favorite food is salad bars! (Shout-out to the K&W; cafeteria behind University Mall in Chapel Hill; I’ll always carry your trays with pride.)
Against his chef’s wishes, Jamawn takes fried chicken off his menu. He decides to serve baked chicken instead — however, he draws the line at serving pieces of Melba toast with chickens drawn on them.
The new restaurant signs are installed. Overwhelmed by the moment’s momentousness, Jamawn starts weeping. The producers, adhering to their contempt for the maudlin and their love of understatement, deploy the kind of piano music that makes you think every character on a soap opera is about to be diagnosed with cancer simultaneously.
SECOND COMMERCIAL BREAK:
My friend opines that the three finalists are all living up to familiar cultural stereotypes: Joey (Italian) makes good food but is “unorganized” (“Just like Italy,” per my friend); Sudhir (Indian) is played up as technocratic and disciplined, but lacking passion (“Just wait til you see him in my ska band,” I say); Jamawn (African-American) is portrayed as instinctive, emotional — a kindhearted giant. For all the talk about “concepts” on ANGR, it seems to me that the cleanest, strongest concepts were actually embodied by the contestants, and not their restaurants. Go figure.
BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:
It’s the day of the soft opening. The dining rooms are set up. The restaurants’ counters and service area are low-rent industrial chic, à la Chipotle. (Would it kill Steve Ells to throw a sombrero on a wall? Eating at Chipotle sometimes feels like dining in an abandoned OfficeMax.) Soul Daddy has chosen a lurid shade of purple that brings to mind Prince’s underwear, assuming he wears any. Spice Coast has cushions like one would find at a real Indian restaurant, i.e., an Indian restaurant that is not trying to pass as a Mexican restaurant.
Suddenly Jamawn cries: “Get the hell out of here!” His family has been flown in for the opening. (Jamawn isn’t actually telling them to leave; that would be awkward.) We meet his fiancée, Tyrah, his father (a.k.a. “the perfect man”), and his kids. They seem like a happy, lovely family, and I grudgingly admit that I have been successfully manipulated into hoping Jamawn wins ANGR. (Which of course he will: Good thing ANGR’s producers weren’t in charge of killing bin Laden; he would’ve seen that shit coming from a mile away.)
Joey’s wife(?) and kids show up, too. When Joey’s adorable daughter leaps into his arms, he remains stone-faced, unemotional, a cypher. (Joke.) Sure enough, when Joey says, “It couldn’t have been a better surprise for this moment; I gotta tell ya, it really took the edge off,” he is not referring to a bag of heroin he palmed from Curtis Stone, he is referring to his family’s visit.
Sudhir shrieks with pleasure as well — his sister and two of his “dearest friends” have arrived. As I ponder the mysteries of Sudhir’s personal life, he admits: “That was the closest I’ve come to fainting on the show.” Sudhir explains his Indian tacos and quesadillas to his sister, who is his “biggest fan.” Nevertheless she accuses him of “selling out 5,000 years of culinary history” and storms off in a huff. (Joke.)
Sudhir tells his staff to prioritize “quality and accuracy over speed,” which is probably what President Obama told the Special Forces before sending them on their lethal mission. Joey tastes his pasta sauce and asks his chef: “Does it need anything?” His chef answers with a “NO!” that suggests Joey has been asking him this question constantly for the past 100 hours.
Joey decides to run a dress rehearsal and orders a meal from Brooklyn Meatball Company, an act of meatball-based recursiveness that would make Tom Stoppard’s mouth water. Things run off the rails immediately, as somebody mis-abbreviates “marinara sauce.” Joey waits at a table, impatient: “90 seconds! Where’s my food, chef?” Ninety seconds turns into three minutes, then four minutes! “This food better be good,” barks Joey. Meanwhile Joey’s staff bitches sotto voce about the kitchen’s inability to understand their newfangled marinara abbreviations. Guys, I smell something, and it’s not spaghetti sauce — it’s TROUBLE. (I hope Bin Laden said that to his bodyguards as the first shots rang out.)
THIRD COMMERCIAL BREAK:
I’m eating leftover party food and drinking white wine, one of the best kinds of wine. Have you ever eaten faro? One of my friends is obsessed with it, and I think it’s rubbing off on me.
BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:
Bobby Flay, in his final address to an assembly of ANGR diners, tells them to “consider the food, service, and environment” of the proto-restaurants. An old lady calls out: “I’m sick of you telling us what to do!” (Joke.) The diners eagerly fan out like the freeloaders they are. Curtis Stone ponders the significance of the occasion: It’s “the first time all the elements are being brought together: design, furnishing, food, service ” (deep breath) “ and the death of a terrorist mastermind." (Joke.)
Sudhir walks around greeting diners. He describes Spice Coast as a “redheaded stepchild,” which disappoints me: Surely a man of Sudhir’s intelligence and cultural savvy should have referred to Spice Coast as a “henna-headed stepchild”?
There are long lines at all three restaurants. The investors, moving for once as a single pack, walk into Spice Coast. The menu is praised for being “easy to read.” (It would’ve been funny if Sudhir had printed it in Vedic Sanskrit, just to fuck with them.) Sudhir greets the investors as they wait in line. They commence to yakkin’. Bobby Flay: “My concern is you’re turning this into a Mexican restaurant.” Sudhir just wants to make Indian food accessible; he’s willing to rename his dishes once he’s hooked America on his spices. Curtis Stone has had enough: “We’ve been here seven minutes; the line’s not moving. Instead of giving us a political discussion, get back there [behind the counter]!”
Did Curtis Stone and Sudhir have a falling out? Does Curtis resent Sudhir’s constant genuflection to Bobby Flay and Dr. Chipotle? Curtis, to Ells: “Chiptole, Chipotle, Chipotle: You got into his head!” Ells seems genuinely wounded: “Oh, come on, that’s not fair!” My heart swells for Steve Ells one last time — he is truly a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a tortilla. It’s true, though: Sudhir even compares Spice Coast’s wait time to Chipotle’s, telling a customer: “It’ll take about five minutes, like Chipotle.” What kind of hand soap does Spice Coast use in its restrooms, Sudhir? IT BETTER BE JUST LIKE CHIPOTLE!
Joey and his chef are bristling in the midst of G.M.B. (general meatball disorder): Apparently there are two missing orders for children’s rigatoni. Joey: “How did this happen?” Staff-member Melissa is screwing up orders, simply writing “pasta” — what kind of pasta? Joey laments: “The day is not going the way I envisioned it going,” which we can only imagine was Osama bin Laden’s final thought on this earth.
The investors visit Soul Daddy, where the customers are all smiles. Bobby Flay likes the vibe: “It’s relaxed.” He further commends the staff for being “well-versed.” As if on cue, the staff gathers on the floor to recite Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” from memory. (Joke.) The judges agree: Jamawn’s biscuits are good. (My friend remarked on the delicious-looking-ness of the biscuits every time they were shown, to the point where I almost said, “If you love Jamawn’s biscuits so much, why don’t you marry them,” before remembering that’s still illegal in most states.) Bobby Flay misses the fried chicken, but Curtis Stone thinks the menu is rich enough already. Lorena worries about the menu: She couldn’t see herself eating at Soul Daddy twice a week, and this “worries her tremendously.” Bobby Flay: “These greens are good, I could eat this all day.” (The greens are collard, not kale; Jamawn knows not to mess with Kale City.) Dr. Chipotle doesn’t like the Soul Daddy interior: “The purple doesn’t say anything about food,” which seems like an odd complaint to make about a color. Jamawn’s chef, who’s been with him the whole time, is emotional because Jamawn’s family is here. (My notes: She seems like a good person and has a nice, trusting relationship with Jamawn.)
The Brooklyn Meatball Company remains a Hieronymus Bosch–like vision of chaos. Melissa still isn’t writing clearly; her inscrutable chicken-scratch is monkey-wrenching the meatballs! (Was she secretly hired by Sudhir to kneecap the competition?) Joey pleads with her: “Please write clearly!” One customer has been waiting for 45 minutes, which is about as long as it takes to kill Osama bin Laden in a firefight. Joey pleads with his chef, with his staff, with his unforgiving God: “Get me out of this disaster.”
FOURTH COMMERCIAL BREAK:
It’s interesting to consider what the ANGR investors and producers thought was important in opening a restaurant chain: design, logos, “concepts,” etc. Very little attention was paid to finances, and (no big surprise, I guess) there was no discussion of business ethics or paying employees a decent wage. I suppose, in a country where McDonalds’ hiring 50,000 employees in one day is heralded as an economic boom, we can’t expect much. Still, for all of Dr. Chipotle’s proclamations about “changing food culture” and the Way Americans Eat, it would’ve been cool for somebody to pipe up and remind everyone that it’s easier to eat well when you have a little money in your pocket.
BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:
The ANGR doomsday clock is now a single word: TOMORROW!
The judges are not enjoying their time at Brooklyn Meatball Company; Dr. Chipotle complains about the line: “Three and a half minutes and we’re taking our first step.” (In a weird moment in the background, Bobby Flay sniffs a Styrofoam cup after it’s handed to him. Any theories, guys?) The diners sit in awkward, stiff-backed rows. Bobby Flay: “Dude, it’s like a nightmare.” Lorena comments on the lack of energy: “Where is the love and passion?” “It’s here,” I finally cry out, “It’s here, Lorena, just waiting for you! Come to me!” When the food arrives, though, it’s good. Ells likes his veggie sandwich. Joey looks depleted, but Bobby Flay gives him the ol’ shoulder slap and tells him to hang in there, and it’s actually a convincing display of fellow feeling from Mr. Flay, and I decide that I will intern for him whether he knows it or not.
In the contestants’ green room, our finalists reflect on their ANGR experience. Sudhir: “My biggest realization was how many dimensions you have to get right.” In competing on ANGR, he gave up his software career and “pivoted towards happiness,” which sounds like a Manitowoc crane translating Oprah. Jamawn says he’s “living closer to my dream than I’ve ever been before in my life.” Joey, meanwhile, says his goal has always been to “make a meatball so big I can have sex with it.” (Joke.)
FIFTH COMMERCIAL BREAK:
A message to all haters.
BACK FROM COMMERCIAL:
Judges on Sudhir: “Good organizer, seems to inspire people he works with.” They’re excited about his flavors, but his food is “going in the wrong direction.”
Judges on Joey: They like the food. Curtis Stone: “He makes fantastic meatballs,” but the service was a huge problem. Lorena: “He doesn’t think on his feet.”
Judges on Jamawn: “He’s come a long way.” Curtis Stone: “He wears his heart on his sleeve.” Lorena hated the purple, but thought he showed good leadership. Bobby Flay is still peeved that the other judges pressured Jamawn to abandon his beloved fried chicken, but admits, “the baked chicken was amazing.”
It’s decision time. Lorena: “I’m shaking, to be honest.” Dr. Chipotle admits he wants “a food revolution in this country, and revolution is never easy.” Careful, Dr. C: I know of another mastermind who longed for revolution in America, and last I checked he’s been buried at sea with a bullet through his eye.
The guys are brought into the Investors' Suite one last time. The judges are dressed up, though Curtis Stone still can’t be bothered to wear a tie. Bobby Flay says, “All of America would be proud of your concepts.” DING! I almost thought we were going to make it through this episode without hearing the “C”-word, but I was wrong. Everybody drink.
To the show’s credit, there is almost no climactic build-up. Bobby Flay just comes out and says it: “America’s next great restaurant is Soul Daddy.” This is the second-most-astonishing announcement of the night, surpassed only by President Obama’s remarks minutes later. Jamawn says it’s the “biggest moment of my life.” Jamawn lifts Lorena five feet off the ground. This, finally, is the passion she’s been waiting for! Jamawn is giddy: “I can’t wait to get to work.”
Joey is disappointed, but "[Brooklyn Meatball Company] is something I will continue to nurture; it’s too beautiful to die on the vine.” This is a moment of poetry from Joey, and it’s well-earned. Sudhir is disappointed: “Let’s not mince words about this.” If Sudhir jettisons all the faux-Mexican stuff from Spice Coast and gets back to his original vision of Indian street food, he’ll make money in metropolitan markets. We all know this. Get to it, Sudhir. I’m hungry for dosas.
A title flashes onscreen: TEN MONTHS LATER. Wait a minute — this all happened ten months ago? What manner of tomfoolery be this? Friends, we’ve been hornswoggled! Oh hell, who cares? Bobby Flay and Jamawn enter the Hollywood branch of Soul Daddy for the first time. (My notes: Where are the other judges? / Jamawn has new ultracool beard.) Jamawn loves it: “I’m a very blessed man.” Jamawn’s family is back as well. His father, Lyman Woods, chokes up as he talks about how proud he is of his son. Bobby Flay is “thrilled to death [Jamawn] deserves it.” He goes on, “I mean, the guy cried on cue for two months straight; that ain’t easy.” (Joke.)
Am I disappointed that Kale City didn’t win ANGR in some sort of reality-show write-in coup? Of course I am. But as a wise man once said, “When God closes a door, he opens a secret bank account in your name and it’s just a matter of hacking the PIN so you can withdraw as much money as you want.” That’s what I aim to do — I’m off to find investors. (Joke. But seriously, thanks to everyone for their kind support of Kale City. It was a nice concept while it lasted.)
Dear reader, our time together has come to an end. Another chapter in our nation’s history has been written. As we reflect on the death of an evil man and the end of the adventure that was America's Next Great Restaurant — a show that combined America’s fondness for entrepreneurial capitalism with its love of food culture to exhilarating and bewildering effect — one question lingers in the air, unresolved, unrepentant, unanswerable:
“WHO WANTS A SPORT WRAP?”
May God bless you and may God bless the United States of America’s Next Great Restaurant.
The show may be over, but David Rees will be back next week to give us his take on Soul Daddy.