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'America's Next Great Restaurant' premiere: Perfect Mediocrity

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Image Credit: Byron Cohen/NBCThe key to understanding America’s Next Great Restaurant is to realize that the title is an outright lie. The purpose of NBC’s new reality show isn’t to create a “great” restaurant — it’s to create a solid concept for a chain of restaurants, an idea that can be franchised up and repackaged throughout the country. Not for nothing does the show feature Steve Ells, the founder and CEO of Chipotle, as one of the main mentor/judge figures. Now, I love Chipotle. There’s one right down the street from my apartment, and I go there so often that the evening shift and the noon shift know my usual. From a capitalist perspective, I admire Chipotle’s simplicity. From a taste perspective, I love their burritos. It’s functional-plus: Relatively cheap food that’s relatively good for me and tastes relatively good while only requiring me to wait a relatively short time. But I would never call Chipotle “great.”

If you can keep that in mind, America’s Next Great Restaurant is actually, perhaps accidentally, an interesting show. There is no pretense that the contestants are reinventing the wheel, cuisine-wise. Some of them can barely even cook. One contestant on the series premiere came from a PR background and seemed to have only a vague idea about what a kitchen looked like. But she had a hot idea – “Stir-fry, for the healthy heart” – and she won over the investors purely on the concept alone.

It’s easy to be cynical about ANGT, but in its faux-corporate structure, it may be more real “reality” show than a comparatively idealistic series like Top Chef. Instantly-graspable ideas — a South Indian Chipotle-esque restaurant, or menus built around everyday foods like meatballs or grilled cheese sandwiches — rose to the top. Ideas that didn’t have an instant mass appeal got kicked out. (Farewell, kebab sliders: I would have loved you, but the investors didn’t think you’d play in Peoria.)

Structurally, ANGT is basically MasterChef meets Shark Tank, and if the prospect of watching a mash-up of a mediocre reality show and a just-okay reality show doesn’t excite you…well, it shouldn’t. Of the four “investors,” Steve Ells is clearly the breakout — believably focused on both the quality of the food and the attractiveness of the foods’ concept, he comes off looking like a wise philosopher-king. Bobby Flay was a bit toned down in the season premiere, at least compared to his hyperkinetic persona on Throwdown.

Lorena Garcia seems like she’s angling to be the no-bull investor, which is good, since the fourth investor is Curtis Stone. NBC seems feverishly devoted to making Curtis Stone happen — along with ANGR, he appears frequently on The Biggest Loser and competed on The Celebrity Apprentice. He’s a genial screen presence, but next to the other investors, he seems like a lightweight. (At one point in the premiere, he actually said, “Why am I doing this?” Fair question.)

It’s always hard to judge a contestant pool in a season premiere, but there are a few people who might make ANGR into a compelling series. I especially enjoyed Greg & Krystal, the pair of adamantly non-dating contestants who combine a nifty idea (Southern-style comfort food served tapas style) with an incredible tendency to just speak mouth-words into oblivion. Here’s the two of them after they got tapped to move forward:

Krystal: “Pretty much at that point I blacked out, and almost felt like I was gonna pass out, cry, and throw up, all at the same time.”

Greg: “It’s like getting punched in the face really hard, in a good way.”

Pause to imagine Curtis Stone gleefully punching Greg in the face, while Krystal joyfully cries, vomits, and passes out. And this is them happy.

I’ll definitely tune in to next week’s ANGR just to see what a typical episode of the show is like. What about you, viewers? Did you like the show? Any of the concepts in particular stick out at you as Next-Big-Chipotle possibilities? Seriously, kebab sliders! Missed opportunity, America.

I have so, so many thoughts to share with you about fast food, so consider following me on Twitter @EWDarrenFranich