Wednesday, February 20, 2008

First Look

I am absolutely loving Last Restaurant Standing. From my perspective, this show is determined to put the "reality" back in reality television. The challenges are spot on. There is no nonsense. The contestants are there to prove that they can actually run a successful restaurant - a singularly difficult task, that has, thus far at least, been treated with the respect it deserves.

Running a restaurant seems so simple. Many of us can cook. We've all been to restaurants. We all think we know what people like to eat, and some of us have probably even thought "Hey - I could do that!". But this series shines an uncompromising spotlight on the real world of how restaurants really work. Over 15 episodes, Chef Raymond Blanc will test and re-test the nine couples who are competing to determine whether or not they have what it takes to actually run their own restaurant business. And how does he make this determination? He actually gives each couple an empty restaurant, a budget, suggestions, and (gasp!) constructive criticism! He does not require them to create dishes with ingredients purchased from vending machines, nor does he scream spittle laden obscenities inches from their faces. I can't say there haven't been tears, but they weren't brought on by Blanc. There have even been a couple of spats. But they were dignified spats. And so far, no one has gone to the hospital, and they all appear to have the same amount of hair with which they started. And this from a diverse group of couples that have little or no professional cooking experience...

Each week the restaurants are visited by a panel of 'inspectors' that includes Lee Cash, Sarah Willingham, and John Lederer (each successful restaurateurs in their own right), and are judged on how they are running their restaurant, from how well they have applied Blanc's suggestions (last week it was creating specials in the form of desserts and cocktails to up revenues), to how efficiently they use their budget, to how the kitchen is run, to the quality of the food, and ultimately, upon customer satisfaction. The scutiny is equally distributed between the front of the house and the back, and the standards are high (Blanc is well respected, with two Michelin stars, several restaurants, and his own cooking school - he knows the biz!)

The first challenge involved each couple getting their new place up and running. That meant choosing a name, planning a menu within the budget, ordering dishes, cutlery, linens, furniture, etc. decorating the space, booking customers, and hiring (and managing) staff - the whole enchilada. At the end of that episode (and I believe each episode to follow), the winning couple won a Raymond Blanc star trophy to display in their restaurant. Of the remaining couples, all but the three with the lowest-rated restaurants were allowed to stay; those three were then given a new challenge - to book and cater a party for one of three clients, each of whom had their own budget and specific needs and desires. The restaurant that failed the second task (gasp again - a second chance!) was shut down, and the couple sent home.

At the end of the season, the winning team will not receive $100,000.00. They will not get a new car. And they won't be shipped off to a resort in Las Vegas to be swallowed up by a huge corporation. Nope. None of that. Instead, having proven themselves capable and worthy, the winning couple will be given their own brand new restaurant, with the financial and personal backing from Blanc.

Blanc says "The couples taking part are very brave. They have to leave their families or change the schooling of their children. It is a life-changing decision to take part in this program - it is not just a game. They are making many sacrifices...." From what I've seen thus far, I have to agree. This one is a definite watcher!

BBC Tuesday 9 p.m. et/pt

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