Here are some stories from the New York Times about the first two episodes.
Cash. Fame. Pressure. And Garlic.
By WILLIAM GRIMES
FIFTY years ago, the finest restaurant in New York was Le Pavillon, and diners knew precisely three things about it: It was French, it was expensive, and the owner was Henri Soulé. It so happened that the restaurant employed some top-notch French chefs, notably Pierre Franey, who in turn hired a young fellow named Jacques Pépin. But in the 1950's, no one cared about chefs. They toiled anonymously below deck, like the stokers on a cruise line. The inner workings of Le Pavillon, for that matter, were of no more interest to the public than the goings-on at a pet shop or a tannery.
"The Restaurant," a six-episode reality series that begins tonight at 10 on NBC, accurately measures the distance that American diners have traveled in a couple of generations. It follows Rocco DiSpirito, a well-known New York chef, as he creates a new restaurant bearing his name in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. The project takes for granted that the average television viewer will find the very idea of a Manhattan restaurant fascinating and glamorous. It assumes an interest in the minutiae of food-service work, from the placement of forks on the table to the mechanics of running a kitchen. Finally, and quite accurately, it assumes that a restaurant has dramatic potential. Throw several dozen young people in close quarters, force them to work cooperatively at warp speed, and you get the full Shakespearean range of emotions: competitiveness, jealousy, anger, love and hate.
The show falls somewhere between a documentary and a stunt, and it's impossible to know when raw, uncensored reality encounters the shaping hand of the show's producers, a troika that includes Mark Burnett, the creator of "Survivor." Mr. DiSpirito, who made his reputation with Asian fusion cooking at Union Pacific, has a dream. He wants to open a restaurant devoted to the simple Italian food he grew up eating in Jamaica, Queens. I suspect that the dream took form just in time for "The Restaurant," but it's a nice dream.
Mr. DiSpirito's partner is Jeffrey Chodorow, the money man behind hot spots like China Grill, Hudson Cafeteria and Asia de Cuba. Their assignment is to find a location, create a restaurant, hire a staff and start serving customers in the space of seven weeks.
The absurd deadline lends tension to an already tense situation. Opening a restaurant in Manhattan requires enormous amounts of money (in this case, about $3 million). Satisfying the city's labyrinthine health and safety codes can make strong men weep. Rocco's, because it sits at the base of a residential building, must also please the building's owner, whose agent, a fussy, humorless man, cannot stand the idea that the tenants might catch a whiff of tomato sauce. To juice the drama, Mr. DiSpirito announces on radio appearances and on "The Today Show" that the restaurant will hold open casting sessions for cooks and waiters, an invitation that draws 2,000 prospects to East 22nd Street. Some have restaurant experience. Every one of them is dying to be on television.
Rocco's opens on schedule, but barely. Two hours before the opening, hammers are still pounding nails. Mr. DiSpirito, whose million-dollar smile and affable manner have made him a darling of the food press, sinks deep into depression as his vision threatens to become a nightmare. He begs Mr. Chodorow for another week. No dice.
"Rocco, you have a thousand reservations that week," Mr. Chodorow says. "Are you going to call a thousand people and tell them, `Sorry, we were only kidding'?"
Mr. DiSpirito looks crushed, but he also knows the score. Delay means lost money. Losing money at the outset digs a big financial hole that can swallow a new restaurant. In one of the show's most revealing shots, taken just before Rocco's opens its doors, Mr. DiSpirito runs some cold water over his face in the bathroom and stares hard into the mirror. His face is a study in exhaustion, fear, determination and professional pride. The show, such as it is, must go on, even if it's with temporary tables and waiters who aren't sure whether they're serving zucchini or zucchini flowers.
It does. The diners arrive, orders are placed, and in a thrilling montage, viewers see a name-brand New York kitchen go into high gear. There's something undeniably impressive about the well-oiled team effort that sends out food for a hundred hungry, demanding customers. It's a little like the stirring naval sequences in "Ben-Hur," when the kettle drums begin to pound, the slaves pick up their oars, and the triremes accelerate to battle speed.
It all falls apart very quickly. The new team cannot keep up with the incoming orders. The inexperienced waiters spend too much time chatting with guests and not enough time serving them. The camera, panning the tables, catches faces frozen in annoyance, irritation and suppressed rage. And this is an invited audience of Mr. DiSpirito's friends and relatives. "They gave our entrees to another table?" a woman asks incredulously. The answer seems to be yes.
Diners insult waiters. Waiters curse diners. Meanwhile, a fire has broken out in the kitchen, and a cloud of smoke spreads over the dining room. As the evening winds down, another Manhattan restaurant called Rocco's serves a legal notice telling Mr. DiSpirito to stop using the name (it's changed to Rocco's on 22nd Street). Outside, the police begin towing illegally parked cars — not just the patrons', but Mr. DiSpirito's, too.
Will Rocco, and Rocco's, recover from opening night? Will Mr. DiSpirito's wrath descend on the staff, many of them now prime candidates for firing? Will he ever get his Mitsubishi S.U.V. back from the police pound? The producers have called the series a nighttime soap opera, and it is a thoroughly gripping one, once you get past the turgid set-up.
The series goes down like a good dessert. Just how much sugar is in the recipe is another question. In real life, restaurant owners delay openings all the time, and I strongly suspect that Mr. DiSpirito would have gotten his extension if the rules of the series had not forced the issue. Qualified waiters are always in short supply, but in my dining life I've never seen quite the festival of ineptitude that Rocco's manages to stage. Nor have I seen waitresses clustering off to the side, gossiping and sneaking drinks of wine. That's what happens when you hire characters instead of workers. I am willing to bet big money that those cars would never have been towed in real life. Restaurants know what the parking regulations are on their streets, and they protect their customers. And that fire, when you think about it, breaks out at a convenient dramatic moment.
At the same time, there's nothing fake about Mr. DiSpirito's determination to create a good restaurant. Failure can make terrific television, but no chef wants to be seen on camera making bad food. It's one thing to thrill the audience with an unmitigated disaster. It's another to flambée your career in front of millions, and sink a restaurant that is intended to outlive the series. Rocco's on 22nd Street, in fact, carries on, with signs outside telling wary patrons that the cameras have gone.
"The Restaurant," despite its manipulations, opens a window that even professional food writers rarely get to look through. It makes clear, whether consciously or unconsciously, the unholy alliance of creativity, money and public relations that dominates New York's restaurant economy. Mr. DiSpirito spends as much time doing magazine photo shoots and huddling with his press agent as he does planning his menu. He and his backers know that his image makes him a bankable commodity. The cameras were rolling long before NBC came calling. That's the other big change since the days of Le Pavillon. In the old days, chefs just cooked. Today, they shoot for stardom, which can establish them as a brand, which can allow them to create restaurant empires. Viewers may think they're watching the painful birth of Rocco's on 22nd Street. The real story is Mr. DiSpirito's career.
Chef Special Is Product Placement
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
In "The Restaurant," a reality show about a celebrity chef struggling to open his own place in Manhattan, Rocco DiSpirito spends a lot more time in his car than in his kitchen.
We see Mr. DiSpirito drive his Mitsubishi S.U.V. to his mother's house in Jamaica, Queens. We watch him argue with his publicist while refueling it at a gas station. The camera does not linger on the penne or Mama's meatballs, but we witness his S.U.V. being towed from in front of his restaurant, Rocco's on 22nd Street.
"The Restaurant," which begins tomorrow night on NBC, works on two levels. It is an enjoyable, artificially enhanced reality show, a "Real World" for foodies. It also provides a valuable lesson in television economics. Because so many reality shows have lost their novelty and viewers, networks are passing the costs on to sponsors, who use such shows for product placement. NBC calls this kind of reality show "unscripted drama." The scripted part lies in writing advertising artfully into the plot.
Coors beer is the oddest sponsor fit of the three. Few Italian menus offer things like agnolotti alla birra, and Coors is not the brand of choice of many downtown sophisticates. Mostly we see crates of Coors beer being loaded into the kitchen storerooms as the carpenters work frantically to put down the floors and erect new walls before the deadline. (Sometimes the show looks a little like "Trading Spaces.")
Like Mitsubishi, American Express is an easier fit. The logo is on the "open/closed" sign on the restaurant door, and the filmmakers make the most of a scene on the "soft" opening night, when family and friends were fed free in a dress rehearsal of fine dining. One of the harried new waiters, Gideon Horowitz (he got his job by showing up early for auditions and camping out on the curb with a sign that read "I am not a bum; I am first in line"), informs a customer that there is no more red wine. The customer is appalled. "How can you not have red wine?" he asks, pulling out his American Express card and imperiously instructing the waiter to take it next door and buy four more bottles. (The waiter fails, perhaps because American Express does not want viewers to come away with the idea that it is that easy to use a stranger's card.)
Mr. DiSpirito is a natural reality-show hero: attractive and engaging on camera and an established sex symbol, who has made the list of People magazine's sexiest men. Like the Carrie Bradshaw character on HBO's "Sex in the City," he narrates each episode in a first-person off-camera monologue, "I'm one of those fancy New York chefs."
He takes the viewer on a tour of his grandmother's tiny red-brick house in Jamaica (actually it is more of a Mitsubishi drive-by) and rather touchingly says that each family meal in the basement there "was like being in Italy." He says his vision is to recreate that cramped, homey spirit in a vast empty space vacated by a bankruptcy proceeding on the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets in SoHo.
Luckily, reality intervenes. Perhaps because no valet is a hero to his master, his financial backer, Jeffery Chodorow, alone seems unmoved by Mr. DiSpirito's charm and enthusiasm. "Rocco, at this point it is not about how much you love the space," Mr. Chodorow, who speaks with the flat, dyspeptic tones of the actor Ben ("Anyone?") Stein, tells him. "It's really not worth the legal problems so let's talk later, O.K.?" He folds himself into his limousine and drives away. Mr. DiSpirito eventually resigns himself to another vacant space in the Flatiron district.
Viewers get a slight taste of downtown flash and dash, but the reality of the restaurant world remains hidden. (Mr. Chodorow and Mr. DiSpirito hope the show will make the restaurant a hit, even if ratings are disappointing.) From George Orwell's descriptions of life as a "plongeur" while down and out in Paris to Anthony Bourdain's exposé of gourmet squalor in "Kitchen Confidential," readers hold few illusions about kitchen hygiene and high jinks. NBC viewers' eyes are kept trained on the front of the room — the flubs, rivalries and romances of the waiting staff and the caprices of customers.
So there is not much insight into the fine art of cooking. We see Mr. DiSpirito flag a little between spritely media appearances. We watch him worry and occasionally lose his patience. But we do not see him prepare food much — unless one counts an appearance on a local radio station, where the hosts challenge him to concoct a dish from ingredients in the vending machine (he gamely whips up a dessert from candy, coffee and nuts mixed in a blender).
In fact it is not until midway through opening night that viewers have any sense at all of why this engaging young man greeting guests out front is wearing a crisp white chef's jacket.
Then, suddenly, clam orders begin to pile up, a grease fire ignites over the stove, and Mr. DiSpirito hurtles downstairs and snarls obscenities at his sous chefs, shouts at the waiters and hurls plates around. At last, a chef who knows his way around a restaurant kitchen.