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Reality shows invade St. John's territory

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
July 23, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian. If you have any questions or comments, he can be reached at or at (601) 264-0672.
The reality-show genre has swung around to my reality.
To be on television today, one doesn't have to spend a month roughing it in the Amazon, eating bugs or strange animal organs, marrying a millionaire, redecorating someone's house, racing around the world or even getting radical reconstructive surgery. All one has to do is open a restaurant.
Sunday night NBC aired the first installment of their latest reality show "The Restaurant."
The producers of the show gave Chef Rocco DiSpirito and company seven weeks to find a location, bring it up to code, decorate and equip the space, hire a staff, train a staff and open for business a Herculean task.
And an impossible task to execute flawlessly and successfully, which is probably what the producers had in mind from the start. "The Restaurant" has already provided one evening of entertaining television.
DiSpirito is a talented chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and executive chef at Union Pacific in New York. Food &Wine magazine named him one of America's top young chefs. People magazine named him one of the sexiest men alive. Say hello to the 18- to 34-year-old female television demographic.
After watching the show, I found that it is only based in partial reality. All of the servers look like actors and actresses. Manhattan is full of out-of-work actors and actresses working as servers in restaurants, but they aren't as attractive and camera-friendly as the group on this TV show. There are a lot of dog-ugly waiters in New York.
On the first day of hiring, 2,000 applicants showed up. Again, this is not reality. New York restaurateurs are screaming for good help in today's market. These applicants don't want to work in a restaurant, they want to get on TV, which should make for extremely poor service in the restaurant, which, in turn, might make for some exceptionally good TV viewing in our living rooms.
Nevertheless, DiSpirito's restaurant will be hard pressed not to be a success. His newest concept has to have the highest preopening-marketing budget in the history of the restaurant business one hour of prime time coverage on a major network once a week for seven weeks and all of the publicity and advertising that goes with a TV series. If you can't make a go of it with that kind of exposure, it is never going to happen.
One week before the restaurant opened it was in total disarray. Welcome to the world of a restaurateur un-floated Sheetrock, no equipment, no kitchen, no tables, no chairs. Now that is reality.
The first show ended just short of opening night. This week's episode will feature the grand opening of the restaurant. Can I make a prediction here? These people are going to be so deep in the weeds they won't be able to see straight.
There is nothing like the opening week stress of a new restaurant.
The restaurant business has the highest failure rate of any business in existence. Banks hate restaurants, and with good reason. Every Joe who cooks a good steak on his backyard barbecue grill thinks he will be able to open and operate a successful restaurant.
His friends tell him, "Hey, Joe, that's a great steak. You should open a restaurant." What Joe doesn't realize is being able to cook a good steak is about 5 percent of the knowledge and experience needed to operate a successful restaurant.
A good restaurant operator needs to be a cook, waiter, maitre d', hostess, bus boy, bartender, bar back, dishwasher, accountant, manager, marketing expert, electrician, mechanical engineer, child psychologist and plumber all at the same time. He also needs the work ethic of a mule.
If they really want to show the American viewing public the trials and tribulations of building a restaurant, tell them to come down here. I'll show them what it's like trying to find a construction worker to actually work in Hattiesburg during deer season.
For an accurate view of what it is like opening a restaurant watch "Opening Soon" on the Fine Living channel. But for an entertaining hour of television, watch "The Restaurant."