The Restaurant

[4 August 2003]

By Frances Katz

Too Late, Buddy

The title of the new reality show from Survivor‘s Mark Burnett doesn’t accurately describe its focus. The Restaurant is really about Rocco DiSpirito, well-known chef, well-known hunk (one of People‘s “Sexiest Men Alive”), and, as we soon learn, relentless self-promoter. Can he cook? Does he have any brains or business acumen? On this show, it hardly matters, as long as the audience is captivated by his quest to open a restaurant in hyper-competitive Manhattan.

While this establishment, Rocco’s, has been open for several months by the series’ start, the point appears to be documenting the difficulties he faced in getting it off the ground, while surrounded by TV cameras and limited by unusually short deadlines. His goal, he says early on, is to create a “personal” restaurant, based on childhood memories of home cooking; and so, in the first episode, when he tells his family in Jamaica, Queens about his plans, his mother agrees to work her “magic” in the kitchen.

By this point, he already has the backing of millionaire restaurant financier Jeffrey Chodorow, frequently seen hopping in and out of huge stretch limos, talking business at DiSpirito on his cell phone. DiSpirito also spends time on the phone with his publicist, planning TV and radio appearances to promote the show and the restaurant. Though he already owns a successful restaurant, he seems oddly unsure of himself in the face of such directives. Briefly, DiSpirito demurs, telling the publicist he doesn’t want to do any promotion until he actually has a location and a plan. “Too late, buddy,” the publicist tells him. “The wheels are already in motion.”

Chodorow tells him the same thing when his dream location in the heart of New York’s trendy SoHo district can’t be procured. He’s got to take second best, a less desirable site that appears to have almost no chance of opening on schedule. DiSpirito forges ahead. He appears on Today to announce auditions for wait-staff and “back of the house” cooks and kitchen help; almost immediately, long lines begin to form at the restaurant’s location.

The show’s website suggests its interest in “the foibles and flirtations of [Despirito’s] waiters, waitresses, bartenders and sous chefs as they mix it up with the steady flow of Manhattan’s social scene.” As is usual on reality shows, these “characters” audition and Despirito proceeds to hire those who seem most likely not to get along with each other (that is, rather than selecting competent workers). One 20something waitress wannabe charms him by saying she loves food and to “nurture” people. Another prospect declares he has a “special light in his soul” that makes him an ideal waiter for this restaurant. “You are sooooo hired,” DiSpirito swoons. Perhaps needless to say, the tension between the professional workers and those are just thrilled to be on television nearly sabotages the restaurant’s success.

At times, The Restaurant looks like Project Greenlight with saucepans. The first episode showcases crisis after crisis. After the location skirmish, the contractors say they won’t be finished in time for the opening. Furniture and fixtures don’t arrive. The waiters and the kitchen staff are bickering before the ovens are installed. Even The Real World takes time out from all the hot tub trysts and shouting matches.

But The Restaurant doesn’t let up. At last, an exhausted Despirito stops to throw cold water on his face; it’s the episode’s most honest-seeming moment. As he looks into the mirror with water trickling down his chin, his eyes reveal the fear and the stress that results from turning one’s life and career over to reality TV producers.

Published at: