America's Next Great Restaurant Is the Applebee's of Reality TV

Back in 2006, the people who bring you American Idol took an unglamorous turn into the world of amateur invention with ABC’s reality competition, American Inventor. It was light years away from the theatrics of Idol, but at their core, both shows were trading on a similar idea: that of the audience as expert. Now the genre is back, with NBC’s America’s Next Great Restaurant, and never before has the morbidly obese American public been in a stronger position to judge. After all, they are the world’s foremost authority on what they want to have for lunch.

You’d be excused if during last night’s America’s Next Great Restaurant premiere you thought, at times, that you’d accidentally wandered into an oxygen-deprived episode of Top Chef. (From here on out, I'm going to refer to the show by the acronym ANGR, which, appropriately, is something you feel a lot of while watching it.) ANGR is produced by Magical Elves, the same studio that produces Bravo's cacheted culinary Olympics, but there’s a distressing amount of cluelessness hovering over these proceedings. Twenty aspiring Ray Crocs have been assembled, we're told by host and head judge Bobby Flay, all discovered by a traveling bus. It sounds a lot like Girls Gone Wild, except instead of flashing their breasts for the camera, potential contestants were asked to flash their idea for a gourmet eggroll chain.

Flay's fellow judges are Chipotle founder Steve Ells, a nerdy billionaire whose blindingly Caucasian features don’t exactly scream “fifth-generation Oaxacan culinarist”; Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan chef who owns a restaurant in Miami (I think?); and Curtis Stone, an Australian chef who looks like Malibu Ken and suffers from a crippling addiction to appearing on reality TV. (Sure enough, he popped up on Celebrity Apprentice an hour later, and will host the next season of Bravo's Top Chef Masters, too.)

There were a few rejected pitches thrown in for comedic effect, but after seeing the people actually vying for the ANGR prize, I’m not so sure they should have been eliminated. The gentleman who wanted to combine “gun stores with cafes,” for example, is actually sitting on a goldmine. I’d strongly encourage him to continue pursuing his Glock Full o’ Nuts dreams.

Back to the contest. The prize here is supposedly three restaurants—one in New York, one in LA and one in Minneapolis—but the show's wording, if you pay attention, is really quite tricky. It’s always “the chance to open three restaurants” or the excitement of being “able to open three restaurants.” Those are little linguistic escape chutes. Don’t be surprised if the prize winds up being a three-wheeled foodtruck-cycle that the winner has to pedal across the country his or herself.

And did it also not seem as if the judges were making up the rules as they went along? They didn’t even have a system for eliminating contestants, much less a kiss-off phrase. “You won’t get our investment.” “You might get our investment.” “Please go sit outside for a few minutes while I make a call to my lawyer about getting off this show.” Audiences need structure. We need Tyra Banks rifling through headshots and delivering the same, robotic sentences over and over again—it’s comforting and makes order out of the chaos that is the two Jays.

As for the finalists who advanced to “official” competition from among the 20 hopefuls (couldn’t they have just started with the ten?), let’s just say a certain someone extolling the tangy delectability of his grandma’s balls will be with us for another week at least. Meanwhile, a contestant named “Joe,” who owns a sports bar in Los Angeles called Big Wangs, was instantly eliminated when he presented his non-concept for a restaurant that serves more wings. This was after Joe pointed to an African-American contestant and said, “He’s doing wings of course. That’s what they do. Wings.” So good riddance, Joe.

The show ended with a hilarious attempt at manufacturing suspense, pitting two remaining hopefuls against in each other. First, the judges challenged the grilled-cheese guy to make as many sandwiches as he could in 15 minutes. WHAT? What is even going on?! Then they challenged his competitor, whose concept was “wings and burgers," to make a hamburger. “This burger is going to tell a lot to us,” Bobby Flay explained to absolutely no one, because nothing about the tasks made any sense.


The grilled-cheese guy did.

What did you think of the premiere? Will you be tuning in again next week?

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