Sunday, May 13, 2007

Restaurant Makeover

What never fails to amaze me about HGTV’s Restaurant Makeover is that those who own a restaurant, or pub, or family diner don’t know the basics of how to run a one. I have no intentions of ever owning or operating a restaurant, but even I know that you should use fresh ingredients (no store-bought Caesar salad dressings or frozen lobsters), stick to a food theme (don’t serve hamburgers at a Thai café), or display mass-produced, ugly 3-D caricatures of pigs as your mascot in a barbeque joint. But week after week, such dimwits, whose restaurants are understandably on the verge of going under, appeal to the Restaurant Makeover team to give their babies a new lease on life.

Typically, the show begins with one of their cast of designers and chefs avec attitude, sneering and making catty comments about the restaurant décor and menu away from the owner’s ears. “It’s another one of these,” says the beautiful redhead Meredith Heron to chef David Adjey, while crinkling her pouty mouth and aristocratic nose. When entering Thai Thai café, she adds, “It looks like they threw up condiments all over all the walls,” or something to that effect. Indeed, there are stacks of shelves selling condiments, and the 80s décor is a cross between Mexico and Spain with red and orange colored walls, mosaic tiled floors and a random seating order. She’s right.

When we meet the owners, they’ve got their heartbreaking stories. They haven’t had a vacation in five years, or they may have to send their son who’s studying at University back to Mexico because they can’t afford to pay his tuition anymore [tell him to pay his own way, stupid!], or a single mother who’s spending her five year old daughter’s savings to stop the restaurant from going bankrupt, or all the new trendy pubs on the street are taking the poor shlub’s business away. They’re asked by the Restaurant makeovers to sign checks for $15,000 (which the show will match, dollar-for-dollar). As they put pen to paper, you can see their fear and gut-wrenching nausea, as they put their trust into snotty professionals who haven’t put their soul and sweat into the day-to-day operations of their babies.

They always have their caveats. “You must keep our buffet [aka “market”] for our lunch crowd – they’re what make us stay afloat,” or “Don’t touch my bar, I made it with my own bare hands from the timber of my grandpa’s cabin.” “Whatever you do, don’t change the essence of my restaurant [because after all it’s doing so successfully].” Of course, the makeover team always does anyway.

The owners always tell the chef, “Don’t touch that [dry, frozen] rainbow trout [with the head still on] because our customers love it.” Our customers [alcoholic bar regulars] always come in for the (deep-fried, greasy, overdone) chicken wings, potato skins, and cheese balls.” The chef always changes them.

It never fails that the restaurant cook is one or more of the following:
a. untrained
b. overtrained, but dominated by the bad direction of the owner
c. is of a different ethnic background than the food of the restaurant, so the Thai café ends up serving Chinese food
d. is overly confident and tries to push the makeover chef’s buttons
e. has no personality and barely speaks, so the makeover chef tries to bring them out of themselves.

It all makes for entertaining drama. But my favorite moment is when they introduce the tradesmen: the carpenters, electricians, and painters. The project manager [Igor?] is particularly hot. He’s got a thick Russian accent with a little boy’s face, and a man’s body. He’s always goofing around, pulling faces, making jokes at the expense of the pretensions of the designer. In every episode, there’s a confrontation between him and the designer du jour, wherein he or she tries to assert their authority over the blue collar yokel. He’s so utterly heterosexual he is excellent bait for the gay male designers, who try desperately to get a reaction out of him. “I love you, Igor, you’re such a sweetheart,” they lisp when he agrees to redo the flooring they put up on the wall horizontally, instead of vertically. “Don’t call me sweetheart,” Igor says thickly, pulling a displeased look.

Robin DeGroot, a talented, platinum blond manboy aggressively flirts with him, trying to give Igor a peck on the cheek or wrap his arms around his hunky chest in a ‘friendly’ and team-building hug.

Restaurant Makeover’s token lesbian, Executive Chef Lynn Crawford [that’s an assumption on my part, the lesbian part that is] has forbade Robin to use the word “sexy” when describing his newest design concept. Especially when he’s designing a café that caters to the high school kids across the street.

Cut to scenes of the deconstruction team joyfully swinging mallets to bring down walls, ceilings and bars. Drilling away ceramic flooring. Smashing mirror tiles. They’re like a bunch of teenager gangsters, drunk on testosterone, intent on destruction. You see Igor being rolled up in the middle of a carpet being ripped out, and he’s giggling. [He’s so cute.] Or having the male equivalent of a hissy-fit when he discovers he needs to reroute the plumbing, or re-jig the wiring. “You expect me to do all that in five days?” he says, in angry bewilderment. He looks so put out – his face turns red, he scowls, but eventually gives in to the domineering designer. The viewer is then treated to bent over butt shots from below, while he’s hanging off a ladder sorting twisted wiring. I’m still waiting for the episode where they feature Igor shirtless [hint, hint].

The Restaurant Makeover team then brings in the owners to see the disaster they’ve created. They’re usually led into the restaurant blindfolded, and you can see the designer salivating in expectation of their horrified reactions. Once unblinded, the owners never disappoint, either by being silent with shock, becoming visibly anxious or even breaking down in tears. After a few moments, the designer gently pushes them out, and tells them not to return until “the reveal.”

In about 20 per cent of the episodes, the owner, who’s always an obsessive control freak, breaks the rules and keeps showing up at the renovation site, sometimes stalking the restaurant to see how progress is going. It’s up to the designer, rolling their eyes, to play patient mother while tactfully setting boundaries with their rebellious child.

The show goes on. Things go smoothly, then something goes wrong. Some unexpected budget-fucking problem occurs; the designer finds a solution. Often the blue-collar team works into the wee morning hours to finish the restaurant for the reveal; even the designer ends up painting walls and ruining their manicures. Occasionally the electrician hires an outside contractor to help him without the approval of the designer, or sometimes a plumber, at $500 extra per day. The $3,000 order of wallpaper is missing; so after the designer screams at and blames the supplier, Igor finds it in the back room. The Carrera marble bar counter arrives broken, but the stone tile flooring works just as well. The custom chairs the designer “must have” are way over budget; after a visit to the supplier’s shop and some pleading, they get them at half price. The custom ordered piece never fits; the construction crew always gets the wrong plans; the lighting never arrives on time. But you always know…there’s going to be a happy ending.

There are as few plot twists in the kitchen. The restaurant’s cook prepares three entrees from the existing menu for the makeover chef, who invariably hates two [or more] out of three. Sometimes they refuse to eat them, especially when it’s frozen, pre-packaged and deep-fried. The cook never seems to use local, fresh ingredients; the chef must inspire them by taking them to a local market. Half of their existing menu is crossed out with a permanent black marker by the chef, because one must stick to a food theme and offer something fresh and new. Don’t use dried herbs. Use fresh oil if you’re going to deep fry. Stop poking the steak as it’s grilling. Then, after your food and technique has been trashed, get a good night’s sleep and meet the next day, when the chef will show you how it’s done.

David Adjey, the craggy, but handsome blue-eyed chef, has a unique process. He makes up new entrees on the fly, much to the chagrin of the owners and cooks. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s going to make in advance. After shopping at a local market, he brings the goods back to the kitchen, and throws together some masterpiece that the cook or owner always loves. In a unique episode, the cameraman goes looking for him, because he hasn’t shown up to the restaurant on time. You see the cameraman sneaking into his Toronto studio apartment, complete with brick walls, open living plan, and copper cookware hanging decoratively from a rack in his stainless steel kitchen. The cameraman finds him still in bed sleeping, shirtless, and alone. I suddenly feel sad for him: he’s in his late forties and single without children, living like a young bachelor in a small trendy condo, hung over from a night of drinking. He no longer has the aura of being a famous and successful chef. Then the camera pans out to discover he’s actually been up all night studying Thai cookbooks, pouring over techniques and flavors. I suddenly admire him again. He’s dedicated to his art.

The most huggable chef on the show award goes to Massimo Capra. He looks like a living cartoon of an Italian chef, with his balding head, handlebar moustache that curls up at the ends, and happy Buddha belly. Massimo speaks in a soothing, uplifting Italian accent, and clearly loves his career, and tries to make everyone fall in love with him and food. And everyone does.

Finally, the reveal. After last minute touches such as fresh flowers and hanging new artwork, the least important part of the shows occurs in the last eight minutes. The makeover team shows off their work to the restaurant owners who invariably ooh and awe over their amazing work. Friends and customers come through the door and always say, “Oh my god,” or “Am I in the right place?” Food is served, everyone loves it, and the owner[s] glow with joy and appreciation. At the ending credits, some restaurant critic is quoted, by writing something to the effect of, “A fresh look and taste to an old neighborhood favorite, Restaurant Makeover dishes out a five-star facelift.”

My only complaint is that the blue-collar team aren’t invited to the reveal. Poor Igor is once again ignored, never sharing in the glory. Always the underdog. But the irony is, it’s not the designers or chefs or the makeover that’s the star of the show. It’s Igor. Now if only the producers would make him work with his shirt off.

Update: Executive Chef Lynn Crawford is NOT a lesbian. Sorry girls.