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To Eat and Be Eaten

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Ao get feral and dirty, sweaty and excited, frenzied, fed, whipped, and sated, some people go to sex clubs and orgies. Food professionals just go to work. People who remain in kitchens are addicted to the heat — not just the jalapenos and poblanos, but the crazed perfectionism of preparation and presentation. A finished plate may look like a Zen garden, but the ruthless focus required to create it stirs an atmosphere closer to a war zone. There are no feelings in cooking. Outside concerns are not allowed to penetrate the trance state of getting the job done, and if you can’t stand this kind of heat — that who you are is subordinate to what you are there to do — you really have to quit the kitchen. To those in thrall, part of the lure is precisely this loss and recovery of self, over and over in the course of even one shift. It’s relaxing to be transported, used up, keenly present in the moment. It’s also frustrating, but that’s the theater of desire: nothing is ever enough, so you have to go back for more.
     It’s no surprise that The Restaurant, the six-part reality show now airing on NBC (Sundays at 10 p.m.) has beguiled viewers and critics. The program vibrates with the erotics of the food world, though what’s revealed may not be exactly what the producers expected. There’s a contrived suspense element: Will renowned chef Rocco DiSpirito be able to locate, staff, and open a new restaurant in seven weeks and make it a success?

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The show’s executive producer, Survivor creator Mark Burnett, leaves his stamp on the project, for better and for worse: each episode is a tightly edited mix of lush food and urban clamor, and characters are captured in sharp, telling moments. (On the minus side are the gross, Tivo-proof product placements for American Express, Mitsubishi, and Coors Beer, cases of which are stacked everywhere and are particularly absurd in the context of an Italian restaurant.) But Burnett didn’t need a fabricated hook for the show. Restaurant life is opera, pirate ship, clown show, and dungeon every night — and in this series, it’s more dungeon than anything else.
    So far, most of the top/bottom drama has flared between Rocco and his wait staff. In the first installment, looking boyish and caffeinated, the chef sifts through applicants; some have puppyish tongues and wagging tails, a few are crusty and deadpan. The ones with kitchen savvy head for the back of the house. The wait staff look like a bunch of Lana Turners waiting to be discovered in Schwab’s Drugstore. They are scarily green. Even scarier is the way Rocco lathers them with hugs and I love yous; the viewer senses his Hulk-style flipside is just a broken glass away.
     Sure enough, in the second episode, the boss metes out punishment for incompetence. Taking no responsibility for the waiters’ insufficient training, he lets heads roll — it’s this show’s version of getting kicked off the island. But it isn’t funny or part of an agreed-upon sport. In a radio interview, Rocco jokes that chefs have a “psychotic" kitchen personality and a more agreeable face for the dining room. Sure enough, during the restaurant’s “soft opening," Rocco is shown screaming at cooks about food not coming out fast enough. His behavior with the wait staff has a crueler edge. First he subjects them to tawdry hairdos and makeup — he’s going for a Grease look, it seems — then makes them squirm before the cameras as he humiliates them. A waiter named Gideon is demoted to a runner; he can hardly hold up his head. Caroline, who’s been treated as a favorite, is told to go home. “Not nice, not nice,” she weeps into the camera. Another waitress is fired on opening day, after being subjected to a 10 a.m. hair-and-makeup call. She pleads for a minute of Rocco’s time, begging to know what she’s done wrong. When he finally grants the fired waitress an audience, Rocco says, “It’s just not a match,” and with more oil than he uses to deep fry calamari, he sends her off, saying, “Come back and be a customer.”
     The star of The Restaurant is remarkably crass, a hard, indifferent dom figure, all too comfortable exercising control. It’s as if he’s attracted to something eager and unformed in the waiters — something of himself he sees in them, first-generation Italian-American Queens kid that he is — and then turns on them for the same elements. Fascinatingly, the show portrays this nasty component of restaurant life, one that’s inevitably eroticized. The power differential between boss and wait staff is great, and waiters, like servants, arouse fantasies about dutifulness and accommodation.
     With his shaved head and tight mouth, Laurent, the restaurant’s general manager, acts like a colonel in a De Sade scenario. When Gideon falls and badly injures his elbow, Laurent sniffs with annoyance rather than offering sympathy or aid. To Laurent, Gideon is both an object and the damager of restaurant property — himself. Customers, too, enjoy the wait staff’s distress. An imperious man asks one waiter to leave the restaurant and buy him a bottle of wine. When Rocco blithely tells a woman diner that a waiter has been fired, she laughs as if at the punch line of a hilarious joke.
     By the third episode, there is a power reversal, and we see Rocco-the-dom dommed, partly by the staff, whose disgust with his tyranny rises to a furious boil, but even more by the promiscuous peeping of the cameras. The waiters tell him his restaurant is having “an identity crisis” and that the customers are ridiculing his food — “One minute we’re serving them out of paper baskets, the next we’re changing their silverware at every course.” A restaurant critic is openly unhappy with her cold, unappetizing meal. One disgruntled diner quips, “I could get a better meal at The Olive Garden.” Rocco flails around, claiming to be overworked and underappreciated, a long-suffering husband with too many mouths to feed. At no point does he connect what he feels with what he metes out to his staff. In his mind, he’s always the striving kid just trying to get ahead.
     When he forged his pact to do the show, Rocco may have imagined he’d be flattered by what was revealed. But he’s seldom depicted flaring the culinary expertise that earned his kitchen at Union Pacific three stars. Instead he appears self-deceived, hungry and disingenuous, kissing up to celebrities and telling unhappy customers that his staff is to blame for his own incompetence. No one is convinced, and flop sweat forms along his brow and upper lip. In the fourth installment, in response to criticisms from all sides, he wonders, “Is it the place or is it me?” and calls in a priest to remove the restaurant’s “curse.” In subsequent episodes, will Rocco hire an exorcist or get a clue? Will he reverse course or continue to see himself as a victim, as most bullies do?
 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Laurie Stone is author of the novel Starting With Serge, the memoir collection Close to the Bone and Laughing in the Dark, a collection of her writing on comic performance. A longtime writer for The Village Voice and The Nation, she has been critic-at-large on Fresh Air, has received grants from The New York Foundation for the Arts and MacDowell Colony, and in 1996 won the Nona Balakian Prize in Excellence in Criticism from the National Book Critics Circle.
  For more Laurie Stone, read:

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