'America's Next Great Restaurant' serves up fun fare


While most people know they could not win "So You Think You Can Dance," far more are deluded enough to think they could be the next "American Idol."

And even more will think they could succeed on NBC's "America's Next Great Restaurant," which premieres Sunday, March 6.

They should think again.

The nine-episode show has a deceptively simple premise and potentially lucrative payoff: Devise a great idea for a fast casual restaurant, and four established chefs will bankroll it. The winner will be given the foundation for a chain of restaurants with branches in New York, Hollywood and Minneapolis.

The chefs/investors also judge. They are Bobby Flay, who with this program has five shows on TV and owns 11 restaurants; Lorena Garcia, an executive chef opening a new sort of airport restaurant; Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle; and Curtis Stone, a chef and TV personality.

"People are really concerned about what they're eating, and this notion of a fast casual restaurant is something that's different than fast food," Ells says at a press conference. "Fast food is about cheap ingredients. It's about, you know, convenience. It's about marketing gimmicks."

"Fast casual brings real food and real cooking (together)," Ells says. "It just happens to be convenient. So I think there's a lot of interest because not everybody has access to high-end restaurants or really expensive grocery stores to get great ingredients. So the notion of a fast casual restaurant that becomes a chain to really feed people not only food that's delicious but also is something that you want to eat every day, that you feel good about because it's good for you, I think, is really becoming more and more relevant to Americans."

Each chef keenly recalls starting with a notion that required vision, hard work and money. The celebrity chefs help refine contestants' ideas and hire experts including chefs to perfect recipes and graphics designers to create a logo.

"I think of it as fulfilling somebody's lifelong dream," Flay says. "I just feel like we are all in it. We are not just judging and sending someone home on a whim. We are investing our money. The panel is an interesting grouping of people. The fact that we are able to fulfill somebody's lifelong dream -- what's better than that?"

In the pilot, people make their pitches, and the chefs select the top 21 candidates. From the beginning, it's clear which ideas are fresh. Does the world need another wing or burger joint?

Though those with the concept need not be great chefs, they must have an understanding of food. Nearly a year after the pilot was shot, the judges still shudder as they recall one woman's soup as one of the nastiest things they've tasted.

Concepts can be gimmicky, such as contestant Fran's notion for a sports-themed make-your-own wrap establishment. Though why it would be attractive to have to do kitchen work is not made clear.

Hopeful Eric dreams of making a chain of restaurants based on grilled cheese sandwiches -- not American pasteurized cheese and white bread, but with imported cheeses and fresh-baked breads. Joey wants a business based on his grandma's meatball recipe and calls the chain "Saucy Balls."

"This is the song in my heart," Joey says. "If I die tomorrow without doing a restaurant, I will not have lived my life."

Among the compelling concepts is Stephenie's, called Compleat. This restaurant would offer fixed-calorie, healthy fast food aimed at busy professionals. A Harvard-trained lawyer, she says she's not passionate about the law but is about this.

For Garcia, passion is key.

"I try to find the passion and the focus that these people need to have," she says. "It's one thing is to win, and the other is to maintain it. The other thing is investing. I need to see the passion that these people have, the passion and commitment and endurance."

Anyone who has organized, shopped and cooked for a dinner party at home knows endurance is a necessity, but restaurants take it to a new level.

"We ended up with a group of people who would die for their concepts," Stone says.

He's looking for someone "with the same qualities I look for in people to work in my kitchen -- somebody who has an incredible attitude," he says. "There are so many reasons to quit or say it can't be done. The things that set successful restaurants apart is that ability to say I know I can't make it happen, but I am going to.

"There is an interesting mix in a restaurant: part practical, part creative," Stone continues. "You need to be able to dream and aim for the stars, and also need to be practical on how many square feet you need for a dish-wash area."

As with other unscripted shows, this has challenges. In the second episode, the would-be entrepreneurs cook for 1,000 people. Additional challenges include designing uniforms and menus.

The overriding idea "is to get a restaurant to where it needs to be," Flay says.

The winner will have "a great concept, a commitment, passion, the ability to communicate, and one of the most important things is the vision the owner has," Garcia says.

Flay, who knows what ingredients a successful show needs, says he can see "America's Next Great Restaurant" having its own franchise -- multiple seasons.

"I think it is endless," Flay says. "The restaurant business is really intriguing to so many people, and a lot of people will see themselves in this show."

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World