The dish on ‘The Restaurant’: style over substance presents an unappetizing view of foodservice

The dish on ‘The Restaurant’: style over substance presents an unappetizing view of foodservice – NRN Editorial

Ellen Koteff

Rocco DiSpirito has, had a few tough weeks, and he can’t just blame it on the heat in the kitchen.

First the New York chef and star of NBC’s reality show “The Restaurant” was taken by surprise when he was publicly slapped with several health code violations for his recently opened Manhattan eatery, Rocco’s. The infractions ranged from flies in the kitchen to the absence of a self-closing door in the employee toilet facility.

If that weren’t embarrassing enough for DiSpirito, prominent members of his own foodservice community, including the leaders of the National Restaurant Association, blasted him and the so-called reality show while branding it “un-reality TV.”

In a letter to Jeffrey Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, the NRA’s chairman, Regynald Washington, and chief executive, Steven Anderson, pulled no punches.

“The first four episodes of ‘The Restaurant’ have depicted a sensational, if not ridiculous, view and mischaracterization of the restaurant industry,” the letter asserted. “From the callous disregard by management in accommodating the restaurant’s guests to [its] particularly troubling treatment of the staff, these incidents are magnified in an effort to secure ratings, and unfortunately, are at the expense of the entire staff of Rocco’s.”

And by extension, the NRA said, the show also made its mark at the expense of the entire foodservice industry, which practices “high standards of professionalism and guest service that–for decades–[have] been the driving force behind the restaurant industry and its 11.7 million employees.”

It’s not surprising that many who are employed in foodservice have tuned in to watch “The Restaurant” each week. After all, when do any of us pass up the chance to be armchair critics? Many of the editors here at NRN have dished weekly about the six-week series and, to little surprise, their reviews are mixed.

I, for one, had a few problems with the show’s first five episodes. DiSpirito certainly was charming enough when he wanted to be, but he relied more often than not on charm alone–not on the cooking prowess that made his Union Pacific restaurant in Manhattan one of the city’s top-rated establishments.

Even more disturbing was his handling of Rocco’s staff and customers. He almost seemed to have a “fly by the seat of your pants” attitude when it came to working with his employees. One was left to wonder if he had any human-resources training at all. Of course, much of that could be attributed to the editing process, which is charged with generating ratings for NBC, not good impressions of the restaurant industry.

In an effort to get the industry’s impressions of “The Restaurant,” NRN posted this question to users of its Web site, www.NRN.com, in mid-August: “How does the new reality TV program ‘The Restaurant’ compare with your experience in the industry?”

Herewith are some of the responses:

DiSpirito “doesn’t have a clue as to running a restaurant. If you wanted to serve 200 and you have 300 on the books, I know where I would be–in the kitchen, not getting felt up in a booth,” one restaurateur replied in a Web posting.

Another respondent observed that the show is “a marketing executive’s dream and the nightmare of all who come in contact with this beast of an image machine.”

One reader went on at great length but concluded, in apparent disgust: “As much as Rocco’s has been panned by those on the show, as well as in print reviews, there still is a three-week wait for a reservation. Why? I’m going to stop now; my dishwasher is threatening to quit, so I have to go buy him a Lexus.”

For those four of you who never have seen “The Restaurant,” DiSpirito gave one of his employees a Vespa motor scooter as an enticement to keep her on the job. When that employee told her co-workers about it, they were none too happy, naturally.

Another reader took offense at DiSpirito’s encounters with female customers: “People who work in the hospitality industry know that one important part of the game is schmoozing. Rocco obviously got his Ph.D in schmoozing from Playboy University. It is absolutely repulsive to watch him work through his restaurant’s dining room getting in on every photo opportunity with young, single women.”

But another female reader had this response: “You just can’t take your eyes off of it. As a viewer I am fascinated by the several different realities that co-exist within the restaurant.”

Most of the comments, however, seemed to zero in on the fact that DiSpirito spent too little time in the kitchen and too little time training his employees.

“I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen Rocco in the kitchen,” said one reader, while another commented: “Maybe if [the staff] reviewed training in premeals and worked on the issues instead of dismissing them as staff problems, the restaurant would make it.”

It remains to be seen if the restaurant will make it over the long haul. Nonetheless, the word on the street is that the three-week wait has grown into a three-month wait for reservations. As designer Nicole Miller observed, any press is good press. She, for one, can’t wait to go to Rocco’s.

But a better question is what all of this will do for the hard-earned reputation of DiSpirito. He first earned his national reputation when Union Pacific was awarded three out of four stars by The New York Times. Trained at The Culinary Institute of America, DiSpirito is noted not only for his French-Asian fusion cuisine but also for being named the “Sexiest Chef” by People magazine in 2002.

Let’s face it. The restaurant industry is hard work and a serious business. It took DiSpirito a lot of long hours to earn his rung on the career ladder to culinary heaven, where only star chefs can enjoy floating above the test.

But in the end will style over substance be enough for DiSpirito? I guess we will have to stay tuned to find out.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group