America’s Next Great Restaurant Recap: David Rees on the Premiere

They swear they're investing their own actual money.
They swear they’re investing their own actual money. Photo: NBC

America is crazy about food. Some of us eat it every day. Others of us have conversations like, “Have you tried that amazing new kind of toast?” and, “Last weekend at the farmers’ market we watched a goat give birth to a jar of marmalade.” Because America cannot love something without turning it into a reality show, we’re enjoying a superabundance of cooking-related TV. NBC has decided to dive into this simmering goulash of food shows with America’s Next Great Restaurant which promises, at the end of its nine-week run, to give America its next great restaurant. So now you know: Any restaurant that opens between now and the conclusion of this show will not be great. It will suck. You have NBC’s word on that. I happened to watch the premiere of America’s Next Great Restaurant at a dinner party (I invited myself; I’m an incorrigible freeloader). The hostess was kind enough to lend me some earphones I plugged into the TV so I wouldn’t bother the other guests.

“It starts with a dream.” The show begins with a history of restaurant franchises:

In 1952, a madman known only as “Colonel Sanders” drove across America stealing farmers’ chickens, murdering them, and then selling their fried carcasses back to the farmers at a 500 percent mark-up. Turns out “KFC” stands for “Kill some Fucking Chickens.”

In 1965, the first Subway sandwich opens. I like Subway: My little town has probably the nicest Subway in the country. It has atmospheric lighting and exposed brick (fake, but still). If you had ten bucks and two hours, you could probably seduce a woman in it. It’s that nice. Plus, Subway will sell you a linear foot of sandwich for five dollars. Subway rules. Sbarro, on the other hand, should change its name to “Garbage in a Box at the Airport.”

Jump to 1993: Chipotle Mexican Grill hits the ground running. It now boasts $1.5 billion annual revenue. This is important because the man who invented Chipotle, Steve Ells, is one of the hosts of “America’s Next Great Restaurant.” According to NBC’s website, “Ells and Chipotle are leading a revolution to make great food affordable and accessible so everyone can eat better.” I support that, and I hereby bestow an HONORARY DOCTORATE on Steve Ells. From now on, I will refer to him as “Dr. Chipotle.”

That’s the end of our tour of America’s history of franchise restaurants. There was no mention of Kennedy Fried Chicken, alas.

Oh, here’s something cool: The winner of America’s Next Great Restaurant will open three franchises: One in L.A., one in New York, and one in Minneapolis right next to the famous Replacements-themed restaurant called “Drunk ‘N’ Sloppy’s House of Warm Waffles.”

ALSO: Our judges will personally invest in the winning restaurant idea! We’ve already met Dr. Chipotle; the other judges include a guy named Bobby Flay who brags that he owns “six high-end restaurants that gross millions of dollars.” Is this the guy who runs a famous steakhouse in Chicago? I think my brother ate there once. I should call him and ask. (Also, Bobby Flay sounds like the character “E” on Entourage, which irks me to my very core.)

Lorena Garcia is one of our premiere Latina chefs, a woman whose “dynamic appeal has been recognized by global brands.” (Quick: Who do you think wrote that, me or the NBC website? Take a wild guess.) She seems like a nice lady.

Speaking of nice, Curtis Stone is an Australian hunk who made his fortune in London cooking food. He’s wearing a handsome suit, but he forgot to wear a tie and also he forgot to button most of his shirt.

I whipped off my headphones and checked in with the dinner party. I grabbed some white-bean dip (delicious!) while answering people’s questions about America’s Next Great Restaurant: “It seems pretty cool. They’re gonna open a real restaurant.” Before I knew it, the commercial for Kraft’s cheese was ending and I took up my position in front of the TV.

The contestants work in the kitchen, enjoying the comfort and elegance of LG appliances and some special kind of pan I probably should’ve written down the name of. Why are they in a kitchen? They each have to present a signature dish from their restaurant concept as part of their initial pitch to the judges.

I think there was a fire in the kitchen, as well as some sexual tension, but I can’t be sure because I had to remove my headphones so my hostess could step in front of the TV to turn on some disco-dancing music for the dinner party.

Before you know it, it’s time for the judge’s presentation. What are the judges looking for? Dr. Chipotle seeks “food I want to eat regularly and that’s affordable.” That sounds reasonable to me.

Sarah is up first, with her vision of What’s Good Café. Things do not go well for her; in her words, “panic is completely setting over [me].” Her sample dish? Mac and cheese with fruit in it, duh! Dr. Chipotle channels Don Rickles: “This mac and cheese has the texture of a bag.” (And he doesn’t mean a mac-and-cheese-flavored bag, either, folks! He means a regular ol’ bag.) And then, something amazing happens — Bobby Flay kicks Sarah off the show immediately: “I’m afraid we will not be investing in your restaurant.” REJECTED. No forewarning; no big reality-show build-up. That was a brutal surprise. Sarah is crying. She turns her back to the camera. And then … she walks away. At this point, I thought, Okay this show is gonna be off the hook. That was a genuinely surprising moment.

Aimee is next, with SoupZ. She proffers spicy vegetable mix signature soup. The panelists are disgusted! Bobby Flay says her soup “tastes like you took nacho cheese chips and pureed it,” as if that wouldn’t be the most delicious thing in the world. (I’m starting to think this Bobby Flay guy is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, if I may employ a kitchen metaphor that also relates tangentially to his surname.) There’s some discussion about how soup restaurants would fare in warm-weather states, but I can’t focus on that because I’m fantasizing about the nacho-cheese-chips-puree-flavored soup that goddamn Bobby Flay just prevented me from ever eating. Because, you see, Aimee has been REJECTED.

Fran’s up next, with a sports- and fitness-themed restaurant called the Sports Wrap. Apparently the customer will be high-fived when they enter the restaurant. There will be scoreboards everywhere. And you will build your own wrap. What vision of hell is this? Fran serves a sample of her Championship Chicken wrap. And what’s this? A complimentary fitness tip printed on an oversize fortune-cookie slip. The judges are starstruck. Dr. Chipotle: “Fran, I think you’re a born leader.” Bobby Flay: “I think (Fran) is really terrific.” Fran is our first entry into the final ten! She has been ACCEPTED. The battle is joined.

I grabbed a glass of red wine (my favorite) and ate some more white-bean dip. The ads I saw out of the corner of my eye were: a T-Mobile ad that looks kind of like those Apple ads; a jokey ad about some guy who buried his money in a hole instead of investing in a bank like all the smart people do; a high-energy ad for Bob’s Furniture which now features Italian lacquer; and a promo for Minute to Win It, a show about whose host I harbor strong feelings.

A nice guy named Eric shares his vision for Meltworks, featuring “grown-up grilled cheese.” Eric wants to provide for his family. (His wife is with child.) The judges want to know why Eric’s grilled cheese is better than a homemade grilled cheese. Curtis Stone brags: “I can make a damn good grilled cheese sandwich at home.” Maybe Curtis should spend less time making his amazing cheese sandwiches and more time buttoning his shirt, but maybe that’s just me. (I’m a bit of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to sartorial issues.) The judges worry that grilled cheese won’t work in a “fast casual” environment. (“Fast casual” is the name for the type of restaurant we’re seeking here.) Eric’s fate is UNCERTAIN.

Next is Brianne, who wants to start a restaurant called Café Creativi, whose name features some typographical high jinks beyond the capabilities of my word processor. Café Creativi will feature a “left brain menu” and a “right brain menu,” to ensure that everyone who enters its doors is driven insane. One nice thing about Brianne’s presentation is that she brought in an inflatable bubble room that has nothing to do with her restaurant, which is a winning strategy for any job interview: “The reason you should hire me for your IT department is that I just walked in here with a freakin’ homemade bubble-room. Can I have this job or what?” Unfortunately, our judges are not impressed and Brianne is given the ax, i.e., she is REJECTED. Now her inflatable bubble room looks forlorn, if something can look fully inflated and forlorn at the same time.

By the way, here’s a photo my friend took of me standing in front of the America’s Next Great Restaurant display at Grand Central Station:

A gentleman whose name I didn’t catch proposes a “Persian sliders” restaurant. (“Sliders” are those tiny burgers you can eat without chewing; you just fling them down your gullet like dropping grenades into a foxhole.) The judges are concerned: “Will this idea appeal to America?” There follows a twenty-minute disquisition on American cultural hegemony and the paradox of postcolonial chauvinism. (Joke.) In any event, we will never taste Persian sliders because the idea is REJECTED.

Two Asian gentlemen propose NAM NAM, which will feature … waiters. Dr. Chipotle pounces: “I wasn’t aware fast-casual restaurants have waiters.” They are summarily REJECTED.

Next up, an idea I like: POT BELLY, a restaurant whose menu consists exclusively of potpies, including: a cheeseburger potpie. May I suggest a motto for POT BELLY? Here it is: “Hello Jesus, I’m glad I believed in you all my life, because I am obviously now in heaven, because I am eating a potpie made out of a cheeseburger.” Alas, our godless panel of judges can think only of the calories: How many calories are in this potpie? My scientific answer: Who gives a shit? Shove a cheeseburger into a potpie; let’s make some money! But no, POT BELLY is immediately REJECTED.

Curtis Stone despairs to himself: “These people don’t understand restaurants, what am I doing?” Remember, he has to invest his own actual money into the winning idea! He’s scared.

And then we meet Joey, whose broad face and bright stars we all recognize from America’s Next Great Restaurant’s promos. Joey is a gentleman of Italian extraction, and as such is proposing a meatball-based, for-profit gastronomic ecosystem called SAUCY BALLS. There’s some tittering about this. The judges and producers are totally shameless, milking all .004 grams of LOLs to be had from the phrase “saucy balls.” Dude, we’re not children. Just call your restaurant “Testicles ‘N’ Such” and be done with it, okay? We’ll eat there. Or call it “Mama Mia’s Spicy Orbs of Semen,” or “International House of Testiclecakes,” or whatever. But don’t play on the whole “meatballs-are-kinda-like-THOSE-OTHER-type-of-balls” thing, okay? The judges like Joey’s sample dish. Curtis Stone can’t help himself: “I love your balls.” Enough with the giggles about balls! Joey is excited about SAUCY BALLS: “This is the song in my heart.” Joey is ACCEPTED into the final ten.

I ate some cheese while Nationwide Insurance, Yoplait yogurt, and something called The Event tried to make me interested in them.

Just so you know where I’m coming from, here’s a list of my favorite foods:

1. Salad bars
2. Popcorn with nutritional yeast flakes and flaxseed oil
3. Nachos
4. Indian buffets
5. Jalapeño poppers (named after the British philosopher of science Karl Popper)
6. Kale (more about this miracle food later)
7. Aunt Ruby’s Country Style Gourmet Peanuts (North Carolina’s peanuts are the best, all other peanut-producing states can suck a dick)
8. Bananas
9. Mussels with garlic
10. Raisins (golden or purple, it’s all good)

Krystal and Greg, who used to date but are now just friends, propose HICK’S, which serves southern-inspired comfort food, tapas-style. (I actually like this idea.) They insist they are “celebrating the American redneck”; their logo features a man who looks like a shot his own face with a Ragu-stuffed twelve-guage. The panel asks: “Are you concerned about offending people?” (Maybe Thomas Frank is submitting questions from an adjacent room?) Anyway, the panel enjoys Krystal and Greg’s banana-cream pie with real banana chips on top. The verdict is in: HICK’S is a “solid idea.” It is ACCEPTED! Greg’s analysis of his post-victory emotional state wins quote of the night: It feels like “getting punched in the face really hard, in a good way.” To which I can only say, “If you like getting punched in the face really hard, you might be a redneck.”

There were more restaurant pitches and commercials, but I got distracted with my own visions of franchise immortality …

I’ve got an idea for a restaurant: KALE CITY. Basically, what we do is, we serve kale. Lots of kale. You like steamed kale? We got that. You like fried kale? Kale City’s got you covered. Feel like some kale chips? Head on down to Kale City. How about kale-steamed kale in creamed-kale sauce with a side of kale? Kale City’s all over that. Our motto is, “Life’s too short not to eat kale every five minutes.” We’ll have mad crazy amounts of T-shirts with that motto and we’ll be handing them out at all the hottest baseball games and kale-related activities in your community. And I’ll be the head chef and CEO and I’ll make a lot of money and I’ll get so rich that in a Weezy-inspired fit of indulgence I will literally chop up a bunch of hundred-dollar bills and steam them and then serve them to my friends, yelling, “Who wants steamed kale?”

I’m also fond of walnuts. I’m working on a walnut-themed restaurant that features casual, walnut-based dining in a family friendly atmosphere — it’s called T.G.I. WALNUTS. The mascot is a partially lobotomized hamster. Why? Because walnuts look like dried-up hamster cerebellums, that’s why.

I’ve got a million ideas — why aren’t I on this show?

McFrondald’s: It’s like McDonald’s but it serves batter-fried fern fronds.
Meta-Burger King: It serves reheated hamburgers from Burger King.
The Shrek-Sheikh Shock Shake Shack: It’s kinda like the Shake Shack, but the food is served by real Sheikhs dressed as Shrek and you have to lick a nine-volt battery before getting your food.
Cheez Panisse: Locally-sourced Cheez-Its. $75 per person during the week, $90 on weekends. 2,000 percent gratuity not included.

A gentleman of some distinction proposes THE TIFFIN BOX, “a true alternative to the fast-casual environment.” A “Tiffin Box” sounds like a nineteenth-century tickle-torture machine for sexual deviants, but it’s actually even better: It’s a restaurant chain that will serve healthy Southern Indian food. Yes. I love this idea. I love Southern Indian food. Gotta give a shout-out to Rangoli restaurant in Allston, Massachusetts. I did serious damage to dosas in there. I’m already thinking about how much food I’m gonna eat at the Tiffin Box. I love this guy. (My notes: “LOVE THIS GUY!!!!”) But there’s a problem: THE TIFFIN BOX’s menu will “lean heavily towards vegetarian.” The judges are disgusted with this naked display of idealism. One of them asks, What percentage of Americans are vegetarian? “About 15 percent.” Then the judges make some weird calculations, like since only 15 percent Americans are vegetarian, only 15 percent of Americans would ever eat at the Tiffin Box. This makes no sense: I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ll eat at the Tiffin Box at least twice a week! “Where’s David?” “Oh you know him; he’s down at the ol’ Tiffin Box, eating the shit out of everything.” “I didn’t know David was vegetarian.” “I KNOW, IT’S SO CRAZY THAT SOMEBODY WHO EATS CHEESEBURGERS WOULD EVER NOT WANT TO EAT A CHEESEBURGER.” The judges go into Concern Troll Mode; they’re worried about “variety,” i.e., you better put some meat on your menu so you’re not just serving brown rice all day. The Tiffin Box guy immediately sells out and says he’ll offer meat. His idea is thereby ACCEPTED. Somewhere, Ingrid Newkirk throws a shoe at her TV.

A guy named Alex pitches a taco restaurant with, like, 70 different kinds of tacos and “dozens of ingredients and combinations.” It’s so vague, all this talk of ingredients and combinations and choices, that part of me thinks he just wants to open a grocery store. Alex’s menu is complicated, but after he promises to fix it “for all the dumbasses out there in the flyover states” (JOKE) he is ACCEPTED.

A woman named Stephenie pitches COMPLEAT. It will offer “food within fixed calorie ranges for busy professionals.” For some reason this makes me depressed; I imagine a busy professional asking his assistant to grab him some lunch: “I want 500 calories of chicken-salad muffins from Compleat; I still have 250 homes to foreclose on before end of day.” But the judges are enraptured, intoxicated: “You might have a real winner on your hands.” Stephenie is ACCEPTED.

Would you like to eat a restaurant where “heaven and hell collide?” Are you a fan of William Blake? Then you’ll love LIMBO, featuring healthy food (the “heaven” side) and decadent food (the “hell” side). This is Sandy’s idea. Sandy looks a little butch and I bet she’d be really fun to drink 100 beers with. (My notes: “I love Sandy.”) Her mom owned a fast-food restaurant. Sandy is ACCEPTED. See you in hell.

I ate more tiny pickles. The mysterious pizza chain known only as “Domino’s” ran an ad. There was a trailer for a movie called SuckerPunch, which I am 55 years too old to see — and I’m only 38 years old. Yet another promo for the soul-curdling Celebrity Apprentice, hosted by professional clown and Republican presidential hopeful(?) Donald Trump. (Can I ask a question? Why was Donald Trump a featured speaker at the recent CPAC conference? What was that about?) Donald Trump is a man so obstinately devoid of taste that I wonder if he promised the devil to make the world as ugly as possible before he dies, just to spite God. I remember a show where the host toured Donald Trump’s apartment; it was so tacky it made Spencer’s Gifts look Amish.

The producers manufactured some drama about whether Eric could make grilled-cheese sandwiches with sufficient haste to satisfy fast-food customers, while Jason (a burger guy) was chided for not cooking a nice buffalo wing(?). Anyway, these two guys have one last chance to prove themselves and join the final ten.

At this point, I admit I was spending more time thinking about all the food I was missing at the dinner party, than I was thinking about whether Eric or Jason would win the final challenge.

All the finalists are lined up; Eric and Jason are called out of the line to fill the one spot. We finally get a long, tension-heavy build-up with music and camera angles and whatnot. Jason is REJECTED. Eric is ACCEPTED.

Ladies and gentlemen, our ten finalists have been chosen! In just nine weeks one of them will be the winner, and we will all be able to dine at his or her restaurant — America’s Next Great Restaurant! We’ll rent a bus. I’m emotionally and physically bereft, and that was just the premiere episode! I’m gonna get so invested in this show that when I finally eat at America’s Next Great Restaurant, I will have either an orgasm or a nervous breakdown.

A final grace note for the evening’s program: The assembled finalists look up and see illuminated signs with the names of their restaurants spelled out in Helvetica bold (or is it Arial bold? I better get it right, or else a bunch of font nerds will scream at me). Everyone is excited to see their restaurant names up in lights. The group collapses into an orgy of congratulations, hugging and shaking hands and sucking each other’s private parts. (JOKE.)

At this point I closed my laptop and joined the dinner party. I ate pea soup, green salad, and fresh-baked bread.

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.