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With a Grain of Salt

Who and what, exactly, is the chef du jour?

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By ELI LEHRER
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And the show itself doesn’t bear much more of a relationship to reality. As the New York Times has reported, the “48-hour” restaurant makeover actually takes months of planning, with boxes of materials shipped to the restaurant well in advance. Irvine, who wields a sledgehammer in the show’s opening credits, has little or no involvement with this part of the process. And the $10,000 budget, apparently, refers to materials only: Labor, the biggest cost for most construction projects, isn’t included. 

Even Irvine’s prepackaged advice, which sounds like common sense at first blush, is actually a vast over-simplification. In Irvine’s world, restaurants can always make more money and turn themselves around by replacing frozen ingredients with tastier, cheaper-to-prepare, fresh ones. This sounds great in theory and probably works for some restaurants some of the time. But, in fact, almost all restaurants (probably including Irvine’s own) serve some frozen food for a reason: While more expensive, it’s less labor intensive to prepare, and can be kept frozen until needed. In some cases—fish purchased to be served inland, for example—it’s arguably of better quality, too. Even in the best restaurants, items like brown sauce and bacon are almost always bought partly precooked and frozen.  

The show’s faults, however, are easy to overlook: Restaurant: Impossible’s satisfying, if formulaic, plots combined with Irvine’s charisma make it compelling, if dumb, television. And for all its fictionalization, the combination of remodeling, publicity, and Irvine’s recipes does seem to have saved a number of restaurants. The blog Food Network Gossip finds that 45 of the 65 restaurants the show has visited remain open, an impressive number given that all claimed to have been on the verge of closing their doors before Irvine arrived.   

Furthermore, Restaurant: Impossible’s adaptation of nearly all the tropes of the superhero show provides another important data point about the way reality shows have come full circle. Although there are plenty of reality shows on television that follow typical themes, such as investigating unusual people (A&E’s Hoarders) or providing a sort of “extreme game show” setting (CBS’s long-running Survivor), reality television has already brought in any number of other genres. For example: a sitcom with a heavy dose of comedy (IFC’s Whisker Wars); angsty, sometimes gripping, teen dramas (MTV’s Teen Mom and its spinoffs); and, in the ultimate example of things coming full circle, a mostly scripted crime drama with professional actors in the cast (Discovery Channel’s Amish Mafia). 

Restaurant: Impossible adds a superhero to this mix. Yes, it’s a fictional program, and a formulaic one at that. And no, it doesn’t teach much about restaurant management. But as a superhero saga, it’s pretty darn good. 

Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute. 

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