'Hi, I'm Your Waiter, and This Is Reality'

Sun May 11, 3:18 PM ET
By BOB MORRIS The New York Times

The fear factor wasn't as high as the desperation factor. But then, on this reality show, nobody was going to have to eat bugs. On a pleasant Tuesday recently, a thousand souls hungry for something more complicated than lunch were lined up outside Commune, the defunct restaurant on East 22nd Street. They were there to be interviewed for jobs at a new place that would open in June and be featured in July on a reality show on NBC called "The Restaurant." They came bearing résumés, glossies, candy and recommendations from chefs. Some had been waiting for hours.

"This basically uses everything I do," said Jennifer Krater, a Radio City Rockette who also works as a waitress and was among the applicants.

"I act on my job all the time anyway," said Liz Ariosto, a bartender who isn't an actress but looks like one. "I pretend I like people, and they give me their money."

Now that's not the attitude the upbeat Rocco DiSpirito was looking for at all. Mr. DiSpirito, the celebrity chef behind "The Restaurant," was taking the personality and skills of each applicant seriously. His 240-seat restaurant, which will be called Rocco's and will also be owned in part by Jeffrey Chodorow, will feature the Italian-American cuisine of his childhood.

"My 78-year-old mother will be in the kitchen cooking meatballs," he earnestly told applicants who had made it past several screeners on the street, including a psychologist. He also liked repeating to would-be waiters and hostesses his vision of the restaurant as a "community center" where people could hang out all night.

"You have to stop saying that," muttered Carla Lalli Music, the staff manager, who was interviewing applicants with him. "It makes me see people in wheelchairs."

With two big cameras trained on the potential employees as they were grilled by Mr. DiSpirito about arcane cocktail recipes or what it was in their upbringings that had taught them to make people happy, it was a pressure cooker of a scenario. But then what could be more of a pressure cooker than a restaurant, or for that matter another reality show among the glut of second-generation offerings like "Are You Hot" and "Married by America"?

"The Restaurant," which is to run for six episodes this summer, will be fighting for ratings at a time when many viewers would be happy to see reality shows go away. While some franchises like "Survivor" and "American Idol" continue to perform well in the ratings, many latter-day shows have tanked with viewers and have put off advertisers with their tackiness.

The hope is that "The Restaurant" will take the genre to a higher level. (Like "Cheers" without a script, maybe. Or "Survivor" with clever New Yorkers on their home island.) "New York has so many cool and stylish people," said Laura Caraccioli, a vice president of S.M.G. Entertainment, a Chicago media agency. "So even if the show stinks, they can fire the staff and have a new one the next day. I mean, it's television they can do anything they want."

Ben Silverman, 32, who shares producing credit for the show with two others, sold "The Restaurant" to NBC with the collegiatelike thesis that "restaurants are the new theater." In that spirit, even some of the customers will be cast; diners seeking reservations can apply on NBC's Web site by stating why they deserve a table. For instance, they could be long-lost sisters reuniting for dinner.

"People go to restaurants to propose, break up and fire people, so they become forums for dramatic and comedic relations to play out," said Mr. Silverman, who used the same pitch to sell the idea of the show to the Interpublic Sports and Entertainment Group, which brought in American Express, Mitsubishi and Coors beer as sponsors of products to be placed on the show and purchasers of half its advertising.

If any young chef is television-friendly, it is Mr. DiSpirito, a high school wrestler from Queens known as both a mama's boy and a man about town. He has two shows on the Food Network and cooks as a guest for David Letterman, among others. He was once asked to model for Ralph Lauren.

His provenance is impeccable too, beginning with his training at the Culinary Institute of America at 16. He studied classic technique at Jardin de Cygne in Paris. He worked under David Bouley, and cooked at Lespinasse. In 1995, he opened his first restaurant, Dava, which closed despite rave reviews.

It was Union Pacific, his second, that cemented his reputation as a foodie's foodie, fusing high French and Asian techniques. Food & Wine magazine named him best new chef of 1999. And when Gourmet put him on its cover in 2000 holding a 60-pound tilefish, it made him into the "It" boy of the New York food scene. Mr. DiSpirito, as hard driving as Martha Stewart, started appearing in gossip columns regularly.

He also started leaving his kitchen for globe-trotting forays more often. He wonders if all the media attention, and now the reality show about his new populist-style restaurant, kept him from winning the James Beard award for best chef in New York City on Monday. He has been nominated many times before, and thought this would be his year. Instead, the award went to Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit. To make matters worse, a television crew was filming him as he was hearing that he had lost.

"Hey, it's reality TV, and that's reality," said another celebrity chef at the awards ceremony, adding that when his own talent agent approached him about throwing his hat in the ring to star in "The Restaurant," his response was, Absolutely not. "I would never put my customers on camera," said the chef, who requested anonymity to avoid a feud.

Others in the highly competitive celebrity chef stakes were not so reticent. "Some people like to go to theme restaurants," said Mario Batali, who runs Babbo and has two shows on the Food Network. "But my kind of restaurant is all about eating, not entertainment."

"I'm sure," Mr. DiSpirito predicted last week, "I'll get dumped on for doing this show. But this restaurant is my heritage, and this food is who I am. I couldn't be more serious about it. The TV show exists on the same plane with the restaurant, but separately."

Fair enough. But how would an Italian-American restaurant where customers could appear on television ("the first reality show that caters to the viewing public!" a press release says) be anything but a tourist destination, rather than a mecca for foodies and Manhattan sophisticates who give a place some of the status it needs for a shelf life? And if the restaurant is to exist separately from the show, as Mr. DiSpirito insists, why was Mark Burnett, a producer who is the man behind "Survivor" on CBS, telling Mr. DiSpirito on the first day of casting that "if you're looking for conflict and drama, you have to put it in"? And why, instead of a typical pool of 300 job applicants, did Mr. DiSpirito find himself interviewing a total of 1,800 over two days?

"There are 1,000 people waiting outside," Mr. Burnett was telling Mr. DiSpirito between interviews on Day 1 of the casting call late last month. "You will exhaust yourself if you spend so much time with each applicant. You will go home tonight dead." The next day would bring 800 more applicants.

Mr. DiSpirito didn't seem to care. "I don't want this restaurant to be a mockery of itself," he told Mr. Burnett.

Plenty of the applicants could have helped it to be one. The lovely aspiring actress, for instance, who had no restaurant experience, knew Sanskrit but no Italian and had a degree in comparative mysticism. Or the flirtatious man with sideburns who said he liked being a waiter because it was easy money. "So is selling crack," Mr. DiSpirito replied.

A Brazilian woman with green eyes and a flower in her hair demonstrated the samba at his request. Another applicant belted out a song. The Rockette kicked. Mr. DiSpirito, as cheeky as he is down to earth, egged all of them on, even as he dismissed them to his peers as they walked away.

One blond, bunnyesque applicant, when asked what she would bring to Rocco's as a hostess, said her looks.

"I mean, this whole show is based on image, right?" she said.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Mr. DiSpirito snapped. He would not hire her, he said later, because she had challenged him.

Where had all these attractive applicants come from? Beyond word of mouth, newspaper items and the pitches Mr. DiSpirito made as a guest on television and radio shows, a couple of casting consultants were hired. One, a former casting director for "The Love Connection" and "The Newlywed Game," spent a week infiltrating restaurants and bars. He knew that applicants needed solid experience to be considered by Mr. DiSpirito. But they also had to be cute, interesting people who were willing to say absolutely anything on camera. Of the 100 employees to be hired in the end, the producers plan to focus on 6 as main characters.

"There's a star quality," said Mr. Burnett, who begins with an applicant pool of 35,000 (on homemade videotapes) for his "Survivor" shows, now in their sixth edition. "You know it when you see it, and it doesn't have to do with looks. We're not casting `Melrose Place.' "

By Tuesday, the potential stars were closer to the final cut. While the site of the new restaurant was overrun with contractors upstairs, callbacks were taking place at a frenzied clip downstairs in the kitchen. Potential chefs were run through a cooking test with cameras in their sweating faces. Their work was brutally dissected by Mr. DiSpirito and his group moments later. Too watery, too saucy. Too slow.

Bartenders, meanwhile, were asked one at a time to mix a martini, pour wine and tell a joke or a story. A few candidates were stunning, displaying both skill and wit.

Plenty of others were duds. One who wasn't going to be hired told a story about her premonition that the World Trade Center towers would fall. Another loser made a martini that was all vermouth. One didn't know that subway fares had just gone up. Another annoyed Mr. DiSpirito by skimping on wine. Another, who tends bar at Nell's, left everyone feeling down with a story about the day, when she was 13, her dog was run over.

"My father gave me a Valium and took me to a bar for a beer," she said.

Mr. DiSpirito did not seem worried about finding enough qualified applicants. And even if some who now seem perfect end up being particularly bad apples, at least it will make good television. Especially when he votes them off his island, or, more aptly, out of his community center.

"I never had a situation in a new restaurant where I didn't have to fire 10 percent of the staff right away," Mr. DiSpirito said.

"In this business," he said, "you don't have to look for trouble, because it'll always find you."

After a final powwow with his producers last Thursday, to be sure he was giving them enough of what they need for their version of reality, he plans to finish calling 100 new employees with good news tomorrow. The calls will be on speakerphones with cameras rolling, of course.

At Tuesday's callbacks, at least one chef was offered a job on the spot. He was 23 and had written on his application that he was born to be on camera. He had the right attitude and the right cheekbones. "I just love attention," he said.

Never mind three stars. This restaurant will have at least half a dozen.