America’s Next Great Restaurant Recap: David Rees on Cubans vs. Italians

Hot food! Hot sun! Lots of asphalt! A big crowd! Fun!
Hot food! Hot sun! Lots of asphalt! A big crowd! Fun! Photo: NBC

No dinner party tonight. I dine alone. Or, rather, I dine in the company of four of the hottest chef-innovators in the world: Dr. Chipotle, Bobby Flay, and the two other ones. It’s good to be back.

This episode is all about branding, which starts with a logo. Kids, you gotta have a good logo if you want people to eat in your restaurant! If you don’t believe me, talk to the guy who sunk $500,000 into “Tony’s Comic Sans Steakhouse.” He’s poor now.

The contestants will work with graphic designers to create eye-catching, mouth-watering, pulse-quickening, mandible-masticating logos.

Also, they have to pick a chef for their restaurant. Actually, maybe we should do that first.

Joey (a.k.a. Mr. Saucy Balls; his Twitter account is @joeysaucyballs, if you’re interested) plays it a bit on the nose when he bounds in to the kitchen yelling “Who’s passionate about Italian food and loves Goodfellas?” But that’s our Joey, I guess.

Everybody interviews the chefs and eats their samples and talks about their dreams and desires vis-a-vis their restaurants.

For instance, Chef Brandon, who looks like the hippest guy in the restaurant industry, likes to cook southern food — this is perfect for Krystal and Greg (Hick’s); they like him. There’s just one little problem: Joey likes Brandon, too! After all, “His favorite movie is Scarface!” (Which I thought was about a Cuban, not an Italian, but I guess if it’s a celebration of violence and excess, we’re all good.) We soon see the darker side of the saucy ball as Joey realizes Team Hick’s might take away his chef; he turns sarcastic, and vaguely menacing: “You can’t kill this dream.”

Brandon has a Mohawk. He will decide which team to work with after the break.

I did a couple shots of apple-cider vinegar because somebody told me it’s a healthy thing that grandfathers do.

Super-chef Brandon makes his decision. He apologizes to Joey, thanking him for his vision of a meatball apocalypse that consumes all in its path, and then casts his lot with Hick’s. Joey looks angry. Let’s keep our eye on ol’ Joey.

One of the chefs was recognized by Alex as having worked with Gorgon Rampsy (sp?), who I guess is a famous chef. Alex needs a top-notch chef — after all, his goal is “to put any cuisine in the world into a taco shell.” Fran likes the chef, too, and tries to seduce her with the prospect of making “100,000 different wraps at my restaurant,” which, for a chef, is a lot like saying, “I have 100,000 different kinds of ball-peen hammers you can bash your own face with.” Unsurprisingly the chef chooses to work with Alex. Fran is disappointed. Alex gloats.

So we have established some preliminary social dynamics, thanks to these tussles over chefs. Now that the producers have shown us who hates whom, we can decide whom we hate, based on whether we hate whom they hate!

It’s logo time! We go to a graphic-design studio, which is exactly as glamorous as you’ve always thought it would be. Those people have some big-ass computer screens.

Eric (the grilled-cheese-for-grown-ups guy) already designed his logo. Remember, he’s been working on his idea for well nigh three years. His logo for Meltworks features a brown sprocket with stuff dripping off. It looks like the worst kind of industrial accident, if you know what I mean.

Remember Stephenie (Compleat), the lady who wants to help corporate bloodsuckers eat healthily so they’ll enjoy more years of crushing us under their Ferragamo boot-heels? She is presently a lawyer, a career she chose “out of embarrassment.” See, she finished the Peace Corps and then her friends pressured her into becoming an attorney — as if going to law school and passing the bar was like doing Jaegar shots on a Wednesday night. Anyway, the logo for Compleat is very clean, sans serif. It looks like every other logo designed in the last five years. She’s going to win this reality show.

Joey insists on incorporating a picture of his grandmother into his logo. The graphic designer agrees: “She’s adorable.” Alex dumps on Joey’s logo for its “lack of creativity.”

Alex then says the corn-corb apostrophe on Hick’s logo “doesn’t look like corn.” If Milton Glazer were on the show, Alex would probably say the heart in “I ♡ NY” doesn’t look like a heart. Because the corn-cob apostrophe TOTALLY looks like corn.

I’m starting to think that maybe the producers are setting up Alex as some kind of bad guy, but I won’t know for sure until he murders a swan and burns down an orphanage for having incorrect kerning on its letterhead.

All of a sudden we’re whisked from the graphic-design studio to some kind of calorie warehouse, where our contestants have one hour and $500 to buy food for 1,000 people. They return to the kitchen to prepare lunch.

My goodness, a surprise visit from Bobby Flay and Lorena Garcia! Bobby Flay puts the contestants at ease: “Smells delicious in here!” Lorena talks about passion a lot — its importance, her desire to witness it in the mien of each contestant, its centrality to the experience of preparing and enjoying food, etc.

Our contestants make various comments about their food. None of these comments are explosive or remotely controversial, except maybe Alex talking about his stupid goddamn tacos that he can put anything on earth inside of.

I skimmed an online article about a “power couple” in the art world who spend lots of money on the finest material possessions and fantasized about Gerard Manley Hopkins beating them over the head with a stale baguette.

Then, in solidarity with the contestants, I designed a logo for one of my restaurant ideas from last week:

The big day has arrived. We’re transported to someplace called Universal City Walkway, so I assume we’re in North Korea(?).

The new logos hang resplendent over the food stations; the chefs finish their preparations; inspirational music augments our emotional state …

And then the deluge. One thousand people flood into the Universal City Walkway. Bobby Flay, dressed as an 11-year-old dressed as a spy, takes the mike to greet the crowd. Dr. Chipotle looks like he is many thousands of miles away from where he wants to be.

Flay explains that each diner has a silver coin. The silver coins are for dropping in the box of whichever restaurant the diners prefer — they are instructed to consider the food; the logo; the concept; everything, basically. The restaurant with the most silver coins will be safe from elimination. The person with the fewest silver coins will have to eat all 1,000 silver coins. (Joke.)

An editorial aside: I’m really glad I was not one of the 1,000 diners participating in this mass feeding. The prospect of eating hot food on a vast expanse of asphalt while being jostled by other members of a crowd is … just … can you imagine eating a grilled-cheese sandwich in the hot sun? While standing in a huge crowd? Dear Lord.

We’re treated to a shot of Dr. Chipotle navigating his way through the sun-baked scrum of theoretical restaurants. The poor man looks like he’s in hell. I’m so touched I award him a SECOND HONORARY DOCTORATE. I will now refer to him as Dr. Chipotle, Ph.D.

Alex thinks his fundamental advantage over the other contestants is that “I can put any of their concepts in my tacos!” I don’t have much to say about this right now, except I know a concept-eating taco is probably a metaphor for something profound.

At Joey’s station, Curtis Stone finally cuts to the chase: Will people find the name Saucy Balls offensive? The crowd refuses to take offense, delighting instead in the multitudinous facets of our beloved English language.

My favorite contestant, Sudhir, holds down the fort at the Tiffin Box. The judges want to know, “What is a tiffin box?” I can’t figure out if Sudhir explained it. Sudhir’s chef is Swedish, so they kind of bungled the food. (I’m surprised; my early notes predicted “Sudhir is gonna crush this shit.”) Sudhir, ever empathetic, noted that, while the judges criticized the chicken, “my chef’s face was draining of blood.” I love Sudhir.

Over at Hick’s station, Greg is appropriately sleeveless. (My notes: “Greg has good biceps.”) Unfortunately, the food on offer from Hick’s is “greasy without being very satisfying,” which I have a hard time wrapping my head around, but there you go — I guess we can’t all be persnickety millionaire chefs who refuse to play Russian roulette with their precious cholesterol levels. Dr. Chipotle, Ph.D., won’t let up: Hick’s food is “awful;” it’s just “fat food.” (It should be noted that Dr. Chipotle looks very trim, and I wonder if he has succumbed to the siren song of veganism.)

I checked @JoeySaucyBalls’s Twitter account. He had updated it moments before the episode began: “OK, gonna sit down and watch, Go SAUCY BALLS! Wish me luck!”

I then proceeded to become his twentieth Twitter follower. I predict he’ll have thousands of followers by the end of the season. I also predict: Saucy Balls book deal/memoir; Saucy Balls T-shirts; Saucy Balls Ben Wa balls for your balls.

And I designed another logo:

Meltworks is serving Italian-inspired grilled cheese. I’m wary, but Lorena is impressed: “It’s not oily!” However, Lorena is concerned about the Meltworks logo: “It doesn’t make people hungry, unless they have a very particular, very unsanitary industrial fetish, which I don’t want to talk about.” (Joke.) She does make the point that the Meltworks logo seems to be “about machinery, not food,” to which Eric replies: “I wanted my logo to interrogate our reliance on industrial farming as a hidden cost of fast casual dining.” (Another joke.) Look, suffice it to say the current Meltworks logo is a mess.

The “O” in Wok’s logo is a wok! (That, right there, is a sentence with a lot of “O’s” in it.) Anyway, the judges are worried that the food Marissa is serving out of her wok isn’t real stir-fry. I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Oh boy, here we go: America’s new favorite cooking-related-reality-show bad boy, Alex, is hard at work on his hard ‘n’ soft tacos. He designed his logo himself: It features a heart with wings and a dagger and all that rock-and-roll junk you see on every shirt, sign, and lower spine in Los Angeles, which is why we’d all be better off if everyone if that city promised to stop producing any kind of culture at all.

Dr. Chipotle, Ph.D., is overwhelmed by Alex’s logo: “I see fire and wings and a dagger and I see a cultish font!” (These sound like the last words somebody says before eventually waking up in a basement.) Alex dismisses the judges’ skepticism, saying that a few diners overheard the judge’s critiques and told him, “They’re not cool enough to know that’s a cool logo.” Ouch! Logo Coolness Blindness is a harsh diagnosis indeed.

My notes: “The Sports Wrap logo is a fucking mess.” But Fran is confident. The genius of Fran’s model is that no customer will ever complain about her food, because each customer designs his or her own wrap, so if he/she doesn’t like it, he/she would have to confront a mountain of cognitive dissonance sufficiently impassable to render him/her mute. I admit, this strategy makes me like Fran. She’s wily, that Fran.

Next up? Compleat, featuring a pulled-pork salad and gazpacho. Dr. Chipotle, Ph.D., is stoked: “This is what I want to eat.” I think of all the contestants, Stephenie’s vision is closest to Dr. Chipotle’s taste and style. It’s all that healthy, vaguely upper-middle-class kind of fast food. Lorena likes Stephenie’s food so much, she takes off her sunglasses, thereby exposing her eyes to the sun in a weirdly intense moment that seems to signify much more than you or I could ever hope to understand.

Another logo:

WARNING: Staring at this logo for 30 seconds may result in a debilitating condition: a bachelor’s degree in semiotics

Jamawn, whom I neglected to mention last week, lost his job at an auto plant in Detroit (much to Scott Walker’s delight, no doubt) and is now trying to start W3’s (which stands for Wood’s Wings and Waffles). Wings and waffles are great, so why is he serving gumbo? Curtis Stone says the gumbo is better than wings and waffles. He asks, “What is this, soul food?” Bobby Flay likes Jamawn: He’s the first contestant to take a big risk and you will not be successful in the restaurant business without taking a risk. Jamawn is our “heart of gold” contestant. I expect to see much more of him in coming weeks.

The winner of the “feed a bunch of sweaty, surly tourists in a fake North Korea” challenge is … MELTWORKS. Eric’s vision of forcing people to eat weird grilled-cheese sandwiches in the blazing hot sun was a success!

The judges ask Fran for a word alone. Dr. Chipotle was disappointed in Fran’s wrap; he says the chicken was dry and underseasoned. Fran counters: “The taste was fine for me.” (Ah, the ol’ Solipsistic Phenomenology Defense!) Fran continues: “People like different things.” Fran is getting defensive. Dr. Chipotle’s eyes can’t believe what his ears are hearing, and bulge accordingly.

Fran delivers the coup de grace: “As a brand ambassador, I have one of the strongest profiles here. And I go hard.” (My notes: “WTF?”) The judges ponder this while the next underperformers are summoned.

Greg and Krystal (Hick’s) are shame-faced. The judges pounce: Where was the tapas-style food? Wasn’t the whole point to serve tapas-style southern food? Hello? Where was the tapas? Krystal pleads: “We mean well, we need your help.”

During this commercial break I devoted myself to wondering if I should I reheat my garbanzo/couscous mishmash, or just eat it cold.


(Can you make a better logo for Kale City, the restaurant I am totally going to open? Send it to kalecity@artisanalpencilsharpening.com, I will pick a winner next week. )

Next on the chopping block is Marissa (Wok). The judges ask Marissa why she should stay on the show. She says two things, one of which I know is not true and one of which is open to debate: “Everybody likes stir fry. I have the passion.” Passion or not, the judges think her food was “hands down the worst.” Ummm … maybe that’s because it was cooked in a wok? Honestly, sometimes I think I know more about food than all these so-called experts.

(Sartorial note: Three of the four at-risk contestants are wearing blue jeans, which seems disrespectful. Then again, the great Curtis Stone appears to have styled his hair with the Hadron supercollider and still hasn’t managed to button the top 50 percent of his shirt, so maybe it’s “casual Friday” every single day for these people.)

It’s decision time. The judges confer: On the one hand, Fran seems reluctant to take their advice, which is not a good sign for a future partnership.

On the other, more amazing hand, the judges wonder if Greg and Krystal screwed up because they don’t understand their own concept. That’s pretty heavy — it’s like theoretical physicists who can’t conceive what they’re researching: “I think I’m studying five-dimensional string theory in quasar fields, but sometimes my head hurts and I just press buttons on my calculator.”

If Hick’s is such an advanced restaurant concept that even its creators can’t understand it, what hope is there for the rest of us? For how can you franchise that which you cannot comprehend? Or, as Wittgenstein put it, “Whereof you cannot speak, thereof you must not make a restaurant.”

The judges forestall their philosophical inquiry and reach a verdict: Fran is ELIMINATED. Bobby Flay delivers the news via the show’s signature line: “Fuck your stupid restaurant.” (Joke.)

Frankly, Mr. Shankly, Fran is thunderstruck. She finds the verdict “very hard to believe.” Then Fran’s wounded pride compels her to say something that ALMOST makes me wish she were staying on the show, EVEN IF that would put our nation at greater risk for the emergence of sports-themed wrap restaurants: “If I was a scrub I’d say I was very happy to be here, but I’m not a scrub; I’m a star.”

I’d pay a million bucks to believe stuff like that about myself.

Anyway, back to Fran, a star whose light is already taking longer and longer to reach us. She deigns to hug her fellow contestants good-bye as she reflects on her vision. “I have thought about this concept [of a sports-themed wrap restaurant] forever,” Fran says. “I have to get over my shock and disbelief.” Maybe Fran’s right, and America truly is hungering for a sports-themed wrap restaurant, and someday her brief tenure on America’s Next Great Restaurant will be an ironic footnote in the otherwise unstoppable narrative of her ascendancy.

I really wish Dr. Chipotle had said, “Fran will be fine; she’s off to greener wraptures.” But he didn’t.

Friends, our story “wraps” up here. Next on NBC: The nadir of human expression that is Celebrity Apprentice, ably recapped by Tom Scharpling. May God have mercy on his soul.

David Rees is an artisanal pencil sharpener.

Episode 2