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From Across the Pond: "Last Restaurant Standing"

If you're at all like me, you'll already hungry for another installment of Bravo's culinary competition series Top Chef, but with the series' fourth season not slated to kick off for another month, what is a foodie-minded viewer to do?

My suggestion: start watching BBC America's new reality competition series, Last Restaurant Standing, which airs a sneak preview this Thursday evening. The premise: nine couples--some romantically involved, others a mother and son, brothers, etc.--have one week and £5000 to open a restaurant of their own, complete with decor, menus, staff, and, well, paying customers. They're aided in this daunting challenge by renowned restaurateur Raymond Blanc (he of the sinfully delicious Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire) and his three "inspectors," Lee Cash, Sarah Willingham, and John Lederer, who drop by each restaurant in turn to make notes about the quality of the food, the organization of the kitchen and front of house, and the satisfaction of the customers.

Each week, those getting the bottom scores will face off in a challenge to determine which couple will be sent home. After the first week's installment, three teams are tasked with organizing a lavish party for a client on a set budget... in 24 hours. The team that fails to pull off this Herculean request will, to steal a phrase, pack their knives and go.

And, oh, did I mention that they all have to live together in an English country house?

Like watching passionate people implode once they realize what actually goes into making a restaurant work, as opposed to cooking for four people? Then this is the perfect series for you. Last Restaurant Standing's first episode is staggeringly good, a luscious amuse bouche that make me anxiously hungry for the subsequent episode. We meet the nine couples, none of whom have any professional cooking experience. They're all home cooks who enjoyed having dinner parties and making food for their friends... typically a disastrous combination once they get into the kitchen.

The contestants comprise, of course, a wide range of ages, relationships, and skill sets. And so too do the restaurants that they just manage to get up in time for opening night: there's an American-themed cafe, a traditional British establishment in a former monastery, a country inn that's doubling as a base for "hospitality and humor" (and a three-piece jazz combo) called The Ostrich, a French/Scottish hybrid literally next to Windsor Castle. Each restaurant space has it's own pros and cons and it's up to these budding empire builders to device a way of getting the punters in, keeping them happy whilst they're there, and getting them to come back: one fully booked opening night does not a restaurant make.

The result is something akin to a puree of Top Chef and The Apprentice, with a soup├žon of The Restaurant (remember Rocco's mama?) thrown in for good measure. At stake for these couples is a partnership with Blanc himself in a new restaurant. Raymond Blanc is a perfect host/mentor for these couples; not only is he well-regarded in the food world and a successful businessman, he's commanding, impressive, and charismatic without looking like he's trying at all. Indeed, Blanc is such a convincing host that he gives the series a deep patina of respectability and seems like he's been doing this for years. He makes suggestions, offers criticism, checks up on the contestants, and issues proclamations like a pro, his deep French inflection never faltering, even as he crushes the spirits of his players.

Speaking of the players, they are a motley bunch. Even after just one episode, it's easy to become attached to some of them... and to already loathe some others. Married couple Jeremy and Jane from Dover are already favorites, even as their nerves begin to fray before opening night and Jeremy's attempt to make souffles for the contestants fails miserably; still, they have an energy and passion that's palpable and are quick to realize their mistakes. Let's hope that they're able to move past these and continue to refine their dream restaurant, which is based around an eight-course tasting menu.

At the other end of the spectrum are newlyweds Sam and Jackie, whom I already want to smack after just a few minutes. Sam is more concerned about getting work as a jazz drummer and setting gigs for his bandmates at the restaurant, the terribly named Ostrich, than he is with overseeing the kitchen, prepping the ingredients, or, you know, cooking. In fact, his priorities are someplace so completely different that his first error is to prepare a menu and print it up... but not actually have many of the dishes displayed there on offer. American Jackie, meanwhile, is an actress, as she reminds us a gazillion times in the first episode and perceives The Ostrich as a place for her to play her grandest role to date: hostess/humorist/raconteur. She's so irritatingly shrill and loud (just wait until she starts jumping around screaming when she sees the restaurant) that she gives Americans a bad name. You just want to muzzle her in the end and slap these two back into reality.

Still, any series that can make you root for and against teams after just one installment is one that I want to be watching, especially when it revolves, as Last Restaurant Standing does, around food. It's an entertaining and eye-opening look at just what is involved with opening a restaurant, though it ratchets up the tension by forcing these couples to do just that in such a brief period of time and with a minimum of funds.

Just the perfect thing to tide you over until Top Chef returns. But, then again, if you're anything like me, you'll be so hooked by then that you'll have to make room on your TiVo for both series as Last Restaurant Standing is too tasty to pass up.

BBC America will offer a sneak preview of Last Restaurant Standing on Thursday at 9 pm ET/PT. Series launches with a two-hour special on Tuesday, February 12th at 8 pm ET/PT on BBC America.


Ooh. This one looks good. Thanks for the heads up. I will definitely be tuning in!!
TxGowan said…
Did you know they've already announced the cast for Top Chef Chicago? All there for anyone to see on the web page.
Anonymous said…
This does look good. I'll be tuning in on Thursday for the sneak peek!
Anonymous said…
Hi, This is Sam of the couple Sam & Jacqui from the first series. I was really disappointed to read your vitriolic remarks. We spend a lot of time in America and are always overwhelmed by the hospitality I find there. It's mindless comments like yours that "give Americans a bad name".

we worked very hard for that show and a lot happened that you wont get to see. If anyone would like to respond to this. we can be reached via our facebook page
samandjacqui goldring

or my e-mail is
Anonymous said…
Ha! That is too funny. I completely agree that Jacqui was shrill, irritating, and self-absorbed and that Sam was in cloud cuckoo land about his band.

It always amazes me when reality TV contestants dislike the public's reactions to their on-screen "personas" or that they then try to engage the audience in a plea for understanding and acceptance. I'd be curious to know how the UK public reacted to Jacqui then if there is such "vitriol" to an American review of the series?

The fact remains that they went on a reality TV show and didn't come off that well. They got their 15 mins and need to move on.
Anonymous said…
RE: Sam and Jacqui's Response

As with all reality shows, there is always a lot that gets left on the cutting room floor. I get that editing plays a huge factor in all of this but that doesn't change the fact that what we did see was two very self-involved people who were more interested in "acting" and their "band" than in the opportunity to open their own restaurant. Please take responsibility for yourselves and don't try to blame it on the show. If you're going to go on a reality program you must be able to take criticism. As an actor and a musician you, more than anybody, should understand that.
Anonymous said…
@Bella: There's nothing worse than reality contestants who Google themselves.

@Jace: Reading your review did make me want to tune in tomorrow night and I didn't think there was anything "mindless" about your criticisms. That's why I like this site. You aren't afraid to state your opinions. Setting my Tivo now!
Anonymous said…
Jacqui is obviously a Brit donning a fake American accent. Very freaking annoying!
Jacqui is from Florida- she is not faking. She seems very sweet to me and by far the more dynamic of the couple.
I know who won the competition if anyone is interested..........
lilibet80 said…
As an American myself, I do believe that Jacqui is an American girl. Sam and Jacqui worked like dogs on the show, but unfortunately Sam is not a chef, nor is he a restaurant manager. He was very wrong to book the musical trio before he found out what the client wanted, and then argue with her about the music. This was her party, she was paying for it, and her desires come before Sam's opinion. Jacqui is very histrionic and is constantly making reference to the fact that she is an actress, as if nobody could figure that out. She does not seem to understand that all that charm and enthusiasm does not make up for the fact that customers do not want to wait for an hour before being served, and then be served food that is inedible. Sam must learn to accept criticism when it is due and stop placing the blame on others for his shortcomings. It is okay to admit that you have no experience in a field, but I wonder if he has gained any insight into his own patterns of behavior that led to the criticism in the first place. Jacqui needs to tone it down as she comes off as affected and over dramatic. However, my hat is off to both of them for trying hard.

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