By Grady Smith
July 21, 2010 at 06:25 PM EDT

Food Network junkies, asseeeemmmmbllle! 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, a new reality-competition series that pits amateur restaurant owners against each other, premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET. Kind of like a well-beaten mixture of Top Chef‘s perennial Restaurant Wars episode and Chopped, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle gives two teams exactly 24 hours and $4,000 to prepare a menu, choose a coherent theme, paint and furnish, and open their restaurant for service. One team member runs the kitchen and handles the cooking, while the other handles the “front of the house,” taking care of decorating, greeting, and creating tension with their teammate. At the end of the day, judges and patrons come inside to test how well each team did, and the winning team receives $10,000. Accomplished chef and restaurateur Scott Conant heads up the tough judging panel and also serves as host for the program. He took some time to chat with EW about the new show, the difficulties of opening a restaurant, and how he’s “much nicer” than he looks on TV.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you think the toughest part of opening a restaurant is?

SCOTT CONANT: I think the toughest thing is always being able to take your vision and really make it more compact and hone it and make it smoother and make it better and constantly work on that. I always tell the contestants on the show that when you walk into a restaurant — from the menu to the décor, there needs to be a common thread and a theme, and if there’s a disconnect, it automatically doesn’t resonate with people. It has to have a lot of soul, and if it doesn’t, it just ultimately won’t work. I think that’s the little element of a restaurant that people are like, “You know it has that something…” I always tell my staff, with my restaurants, “You know, it’s got to have soul.”

This show is focusing on amateur chefs. What was the reasoning behind that?

Well, the thing is, it’s not even necessarily amateur chefs. It’s really about people whose dream it is to open a restaurant.

So, even home cooks?

Even home cooks, with minimal or little training sometimes — or maybe somebody with a lot of front-of-house experience and no kitchen experience. In some cases, we have people who have never worked in a kitchen before, but have great front-of-house experience. Really, the common theme is the passion behind it — how much these people want to be involved in having a part of something that’s theirs, their restaurant — that extension of themselves that they can give to people and entertain people.

Are you always in the kitchen, or do you consider yourself front of the house too?

I’m in the kitchen. I spend time talking to guests and shaking hands and all that kind of stuff and nurturing relationships, but I would never take off a chef coat.

On the show, we see a lot of people working with family members. Have you or would you ever work with someone in your family?

I would not. I love them to death, but I think it’s easier to love from a distance. [Laughs]

What is your role is as a judge? You all are often very harsh. Would you consider yourself a Simon Cowell?

I bumped into somebody at the airport yesterday, and the woman was like, “Oh, I watch you on Chopped all the time,” and the first words out of my mouth were, “I’m really much nicer than they make me look.” Ultimately, it’s really about just being honest, and I hope, if nothing else, I have the reputation of being clear. I have an obligation to these young cooks and chefs who come on the show. You know, nobody was ever honest with me, so I needed to hear it from the critics, which, by then, is a little bit too late because it’s already in print. So, what I try to explain to these young chefs is, “Listen, you have a great starting point here,” or, “You have a bad starting point here.” Whatever the truth is I should say to them because it’s an opportunity for them to learn. Now, if they don’t want to hear it, then I just won’t say anything, and if they become argumentative, I’ll meet them where they want to be met.

Well, there’s a certain camaraderie that seems to exist in the whole culinary world. You hold each other to high standards, but it never seems to come from a place of anger.

No, there’s no reason for me to be angry at anybody. I’m not angry at all.

You mentioned that you nurture.

I try to nurture, and sometimes it’s a little bit honest, but I never want to be hurtful. I think the one thing that you’ll notice is that I’ll be honest, and it may sting, but it’s never going to hurt.

Being such an accomplished Italian chef, are you a little but harsher on Italian cooking?

Only because the standards that I have for myself and what I’ve learned over the years have been that things are meant to be a certain way, and I’m open to modernizing technique. But am I a little tougher on it? It’s only because I’m most familiar with it.

How do the people off the street choose which restaurant to attend? Are they assigned?

Basically, the crowd show up, and what happens is, they choose which restaurant that they want to go into. Nobody forces them anywhere. Whichever resonates best for them is where they go.

The contestants get $4,000, which isn’t much, considering all they have to do.

This is the reality of the situation, that you need to work within a budget. That’s just life. Nobody starts a business to lose money. At least I’ve never done it. [Laughs]

So, are you excited to be part of the Food Network fold? Is it fun to be part of the gang with Paula [Deen] and Bobby [Flay]?

Well, I’ve got a long way to go before it’s Paula and Bobby and Scott and Giada [De Laurentiis] and Rachael [Ray]. Yeah, I’ve got a long way to go before I’m anywhere close to that.

Have you met any of them?

Yeah, I’ve met most of everybody. I’ve done Paula’s show, and Bobby — I’ve been to his restaurant a bunch of times, and he’s been to mine. He’s a great, great guy. Years ago, when I was starting a new company, Bobby gave me a little piece of advice that I took with me. You know, it’s those little words that you hear. It stuck with me, and it was one of those things that I’ve always kind of worn on my sleeve and said, “He didn’t have to say that to me.” He didn’t need to take that five-minute conversation with me, but he did it, and it changed my life. But all that being said, the food network folks — I just couldn’t be happier. Everybody is so nurturing, and everybody has the same thing in mind: getting the network into a great place. And they want everybody to be successful equally. That’s what I love about it, because that’s how I run my business.