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Zapped: Couples Create Microwavable Meals on "Last Restaurant Standing"

Was it just me or was that just a truly stressful episode of Last Restaurant Standing last night? While I always find the series engaging and informative, I have never been quite so stressed as I was last night whilst watching it before.

Maybe it had something to do with the breadth and scope of Raymond Blanc's latest challenge or the fact that the playing field has been largely cleared of the incapable, with only five couples remaining at the start of the episode. By the time Raymond sat down with the players by the end, another restaurant had closed its doors forever, leaving only four couples left on the series. The heat is definitely on in the kitchen.

Raymond tasked the three couples with translating their restaurant's brand into pre-packaged microwave dinners, which they would then have to cook, design, and package before pitching to two leaders in the package dinner world from Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer's. This was their toughest challenge to date and reminded me of one of the tasks you might see on Top Chef: rigorous, demanding, and filled with little traps for the unsuspecting couples. Branding is one thing but taking that sort of marketing and translating it to the shelves of a supermarket chain (while also keeping the quality high) is quite another.

I was really, really pleased with Jess and Laura's performance. Raymond put them in the challenge to wake them up, accusing them of coasting during the competition and not pushing themselves to take enough risk. I think they definitely excelled at this challenge: they thought outside of the box (heh) and identified a niche market--microwavable, healthy dinners for kids--that wasn't currently being served and molded it to Brown & Green, their own brand of wholesome, whole food that was cheeky and playful as well as delicious. Plus, who doesn't love the name Kiddywinkles? Looking at the packaging, the ingredients, and the quality of the food, I would have bought that meal for my child if I wasn't able to cook for them. It contained the very essence of their brand and didn't skimp on quality; it was risky without being overly ambitious.

I do wish that they had thought about the cod sustainability issue but with less than a day to turn this entire project around I thought that the judges were being a little hypercritical with them. (They did ask the fish monger who told them the cod was from the English side of the Atlantic and was fine.) Their pitch was on target as well (other than the cod issue), presenting the buyers with an appropriate jingle that summed up the product, the demographic, and their core values. Food looked and tasted good but I do agree that the brown rice in the children's chocolate rice pudding could create a heavy feeling in a dish that should be filling but still feel light and airy. But all in all, I thought they did great and was pleased as punch that Raymond declared them the winners of the challenge. Fingers crossed that their win works to keep them engaged and taking risk next week.

As for Jeremy and Jane, their failure to excel at this challenge was dictated from the start. I understand that Jeremy has certain principles about his eight-course tasting menu at Eight in the Country, but he's so damn inflexible about everything that it's impossible for him to succeed. You don't go to a pitch and tell the client--who has a huge stake in whether or not you pass or fail this task--that you don't approve of microwavable dinners and don't like the microwave. No, you keep that to yourself and focus on the task at hand: creating the best possible microwavable dinner that you can. I think that they had it all backwards in this task, focusing far too much on the package and presentation (well, in the photograph, anyway) and not enough about thinking about how the food would look, taste, and cook after being zapped.

Does their high-end culinary philosophy work for a line of pre-packaged dinners? Absolutely not. But Jeremy refused to broaden his way of thinking to find a dish that wasn't overly rich and dated that would work. Plus, why would you again make a dish that's overly complicated that you haven't tried before for something like this, i.e., the white chocolate and black cherry fondant? That's not taking risk, that's just foolhardy. And their presentation to the clients was messy, unorganized, and unimaginative; plus, Jeremy somehow managed to forget his ONE line of dialogue. It was, sadly, an embarrassment.

Finally, there was Emma and Martin, who managed to squeak by in several previous challenges but I had a feeling that, unless Jeremy and Jane's dishes really failed to hit the mark, they'd be going home last night. It was a calculated risk to choose a dish like Lancashire hot pot for their pre-packaged meal, especially as there were a number of other brands already using that very same dish on the supermarket shelves; the point of the challenge was to be innovative and on brand. And I think they failed on both accounts.

Over the past five weeks, this lovable twosome put their heart into this endeavor and yet ended up failing time and time again. Perhaps it was their inexperience with marketing or branding. Or, more likely, it was the fact that they didn't really have a concept for their restaurant at all. They cooked contemporary English food like a zillion other restaurants but had a French name (Bravo!) for their eatery and no twist; they tried to use a bistro concept without understanding the actual terminology or meaning behind that style of cuisine. And yet the thing they seemed to love most was honest, homey Northern fare... but didn't offer a single Northern specialty on their menu. Why were they not serving things like Lancashire hot pot and similar at a place called North? Why did they not use the slogan "From North to Mouth" on their packaging? Even better still: why did it take this long for them to realize what their restaurant concept should have been from the beginning in order to make it unique?

Color me confused. I understand that they are innocents in way over their heads but these are simple, simple questions that they should have had the answers to before the competition began. As much as I love them, I am glad that Raymond called them out and told them that they should never, ever open a restaurant on their own and that they are not cut out for this business. That has nothing to do with the quality of Martin's food but with the lack of business acumen and vision necessary to run a restaurant successfully.

It was only fitting that Raymond close Bravo! after all of this time. I do think that Emma and Martin had a good run and are genuinely good and decent people but it was long time that they left this competition.

Next week on Last Restaurant Standing, the couples must focus on the customer, devising ideas that will "surprise and delight" every customer who walks through the door, but quickly realize that what pleases one customer alienates another; Jess and Laura attempt to put on a high-spirited dance routine, which upsets some clients, while a singing performance at another restaurant leads to embarrassment. Still bigger problems loom: one couple can't seem to fill their restaurant and control the staff, while another discovers that their food is ending up in the bin.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Big Brother 9 (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC); America's Next Top Model (CW); Wife Swap (ABC); American Idol (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm:
Criminal Minds (CBS); Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC); Pussycat Dolls Present Girlicious (CW); Supernanny (ABC)

10 pm: CSI: New York (CBS); Law & Order (NBC); Primetime (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: America's Next Top Model.

On tonight's episode ("Top Model 10 Confidential"), it's clip show time already as we're forced to sit through an hour of previously unaired footage from the season so far, including model wrestling matches and NYC firefighters practicing runway walks. Gee, I was hoping for a new episode...

9 pm: MI-5 on BBC America.

If you missed the third season of MI-5 (aka Spooks) when it aired on A&E a few years back, you can catch it tonight on BBC America. On tonight's installment ("Love and Death"), Zoe and Danny follow a rogue scientist who has the capability to make and detonate a biological weapon over a large population.

10 pm: Top Chef on Bravo.

On tonight's episode ("The Elements"), the chefs must complete in a complex taste test and cater an upscale charity event for 230 guests; Dale shows his temper following the challenge; and Jennifer redecorates the holding area by throwing chairs all over the place. Mmmm... smells like drama!


Anonymous said…
you can check out an interview with Martin (of Martin and Emma) on my food blog, thefoodinmybeard
This was totally a stressful episode! Maybe it felt that way because I really care about the success of all the teams that are left. I think any one of the remaining four could win it (although I'm hoping it will be the twins)!
Anonymous said…
Jeremy and Jane *should* be doing much better than they are. They have the most bookings and, I believe, have made the most money. They serve beautifully prepared gourmet food and Jane runs the front of house like a well-oiled machine. Any yet, Jeremy's stubbornness and the team's difficulty working together is causing them to fall seriously behind. It's too bad because they have a lot of potential and they will really have to pull it together if they want a chance at first prize.

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