It took a few weeks, but NBC finally brought back Mark Burnett’s ugly reality child, The Restaurant, this weekend. Airing two episodes in the television graveyard known commonly as Saturday night, NBC reaquainted us with the ongoing feud between celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito and non-celebrity manager Jeffrey Chodorow. For those who are still in the dark – and that includes, you know, everyone – Rocco has gone off to be a giant celebrity (and by giant celebrity, I mean a teacher at the Learning Annex) while his restaurant has languished from barstool ennui and server discontent (Janine quit in a banana fritter flurry of emotion when she proved to be useless on the floor; a sadsack deputy crumpled under the fierce rule of the head hostess). With the investment losing lots of cashola, Jeffrey has increased his role from silent partner to loud meddler. The Chodorow Corporate Task Force, which briefly featured our favorite character, Intern Drew, swooped into Rocco’s 21 to cut costs in all facets of the business, including that one tricky area: Rocco’s ego. Easier said than done.Saturday night’s first episode was a general mish mash of contentious vignettes which ultimately contributed to the Rocco/Jeffrey feud. In a stagey opening scene, a determined Rocco descended into his kitchen pre-dawn and stirred up a nasty tomato sauce that even Mama had to spit out. The sequence was oh-so-symbolic of a cook fighting for his craft. Either that, or a self-indulgent moment that suggested Rocco might not be the culinary genius that thousands of tourists believe him to be.
We then welcomed frizzy haired Carol into The Restaurant pantheon of neurotics. A member of the Chodorow task force, Carol clearly woke up on the wrong side of her Upper West Side bed that morning as she swiftly accepted the role of coffee nazi. Sipping her Starbucks, Carol ushered the busboys away from a tray of coffee so that they could learn things like, you know, bussing tables. Carol’s reign of terror was brief, however. She became surprisingly deferential to Rocco when he attacked her for introducing new uniforms that would make candy stripers proud. In all fairness, the uniforms were horrendous, but savvy viewers may have noticed that they were not that far from Rocco’s usual striped wardrobe (which is usually concealed by his favorite gray sweater that reminds me of my tv room carpet).
With crazy Zabars rejects like Carol running around, cool as ice Laurent decided it was time to take action. He told Rocco that he needs to take a more active role in the restaurant, a suggestion at which Rocco initially balked, but seriously, Laurent is just too cool to be ignored. So Rocco called up Jeffrey and said “We have to talk”, as if this was the first time this had been proposed. Rocco is fond of throwing around the empty macho rhetoric like “We got to settle this like two grown men”, but then he oddly insists that his mother sits in on all discussions. Nevertheless, Jeffrey and Rocco were again unable to have any sort of a productive meeting, and it’s pretty obvious why that is. You see, Jeffrey is fond of using facts and logic and reasoning to make his points. Rocco is fond of, what’s the word? Oh yes. Bullshit. When Jeffrey says “I need you to work with me to solve problems x, y, and z”, Rocco will often send some passive aggression back by saying “I’m all for it. It’s what I’ve been asking you to help me with for the past six months but you weren’t here.” Essentially, Rocco implies that he’s been wanting Jeffrey’s help, but now that the Chodorow clan has come in to fix everything, he’s threatened by a loss of power. Jeffrey should be more mature and just note that the past is the past and now they have to work together for the restaurant’s future, but instead, Jeffrey can’t resist the urge to fight Rocco back. Tonight’s argument was particularly amusing because it featured Rocco boasting that it takes five people to replace him. He must mean physically because lately it looks like Mr. DiSpirito has been eating one too many pizzettas. Cheap shot. Yes!
Mama had a moment of clarity when she told Jeffrey that her son is immature, but Jeffrey is immature too. At least someone has some perspective here. Meanwhile Carol and Friends loaded in the newer – and much nicer, I might add – barstools, which promise to increase the number of people who can sit at the bar. In an effort to point out Jeffrey’s spendthrift ways, Rocco haughtily remarked that the restaurant had paid $20,000 on stools that cost $1500 each. Actually, they were only eighty dollars each. Hope you prepare your evidence better in court. Later, Rocco had a few more baseless accusations to throw around: he wasn’t getting paid, he had made no purchases without authorization, yada yada yada. Jeffrey swiftly provided him with concrete evidence that he was wrong, but Rocco had now changed his tune with the dismissive comment: “Oh, this is small stuff.” If it was so small, then why did you complain about it in the first place? We’ll have to wait on that answer because moments after the meeting began, Rocco was off to a live interview. Sigh.
Around this time, my new favorite Chodorow minion, Sarah, sat Rocco down and in a sweet but sternly British way called him out, saying that she has a job to do and he better slow his roll. Rocco quickly dismissed her – what do women know, right? – and said that he’d assign his security guard to the silverware to make sure it never leaves the building. Usually in these reality TV moments, the big dog goes unchecked, but Sarah voiced what I assume all the viewers had to say: “Isn’t that like the most ridiculous way ever to handle the situation?” Gotta love Sarah. Unless you’re Rocco, in which case you’re realizing that flirting will do no good so he might as well treat her like shit.
The show took a minor detour to chronicle a flare up in the kitchen. Literally. The wall caught on fire. Rocco wanted to know if the food was okay. Jeffrey wanted to know if anyone was hurt. Carol wanted to know if her J-Date had arrived.
As the first episode came to a close, Jeffrey and Rocco wound up bizarrely in couples therapy, sort of. Rocco inserted himself in a table full of therapists and rattled off a list of his problems. He called himself a narcissist, but Rocco has to learn that being aware of one’s flaws doesn’t excuse them. Jeffrey was called over from his nightly gabfest with the Chinagrill Management folk and a somewhat sane dialogue was finally opened at the therapist table, despite Rocco eating the food off his customer’s plate with his fingers. Uplifting Mark Burnett music led us to believe a breakthrough was made, and this was paralleled by chef Tony apologizing for a squabble he had with a line chef. This was a strange note to end on, and surprisingly, I found myself wanting to see more of the therapists and less of Rocco.
If the first episode was a mixed bag of chaos, the second installment Saturday night was a well constructed drama with a central conflict and many innocent victims. The plot was simple: trod-upon head chef Tony was given a raise by Chodorow, but the very next day, Rocco fired him. The staff was shocked, especially the appetizer chef who acted like she had just witnessed the Hindenburgh. Gossiping ensued, led by the head yenta who went about spreading her usual anti-Rocco goodwill. To make up for Tony’s absence, Rocco donned his chef’s hat (aka pizza dough) and cooked for about an hour or so, but then retreated to the dining room where he could relish in his celebrity, leaving the leaderless kitchen in chaos. Rocco finished out the night by heading back to his office early and chomping on a cigar while Laurent stared condescendingly at his boss. Nothing gets by Laurent.
What was fascinating about the second episode, aside from the inherent drama Tony was forced into, was how poor Rocco’s management style really is. I know there’s a lot of creative editing that goes on, but certain strands of truth can be gleaned from the footage. First is how out of touch Rocco is with his kitchen. Rocco has never been a Tony fan, and in this episode, he accuses him of being insubordinate and shifty. Apparently Tony nods whenever Rocco tells him to do something and then doesn’t do it. Rocco is the boss, and Tony should follow his orders, but if Rocco is never present, can Tony be faulted for assuming a more independent role in the kitchen?
The problem here is that Rocco has seasonal micromanagement disorder. It’s a disorder that affects many bosses. It happens when a boss delegates certain responsibilities to an underling, who then forms processes and methods to carry out his or her plans. Then one day, for usually unexplained reasons, the boss decides to take a more proactive role and butts into these tried and true methods. Confused and usually threatened, the boss doesn’t ask for an explanation or even suggest ways to improve the methods. Instead, the boss just insists that it must all come to an end, usually sending everyone into a tailspin. It’s just this sort of random micromanaging that has led Rocco to believe Tony is undermining him. And by taking over Tony’s position, Rocco not only sent the kitchen into chaos, he completely derailed it by disappearing into the night.
As for Tony, he was extremely gracious and level headed when Rocco fired him coldly (while signing autographs, no less). What could have been a smooth transition was completely undermined by Rocco having his goon break into Tony’s locker, retrieve his personal items, and then escort him away from the restaurant. I understand that bosses need to pull those sort of dick moves with unstable clients, but this was totally unnecessary. Tony responded by locking himself in Rocco’s conference room. Mark Burnett wanted us to believe that the chef had gone crazy, but all he was doing was making a phone call and changing clothes. No big deal.
Jeffrey was understandably peeved at Rocco, and he yelled at him over the phone in a tan sweater blaze of glory. Later, Jeffrey slipped into the rare black sweater and informed the staff that Tony would be relocated to a different restaurant. Yenta was happy to have more fodder for her gossip machine, and as Rocco puffed his stogie while his bistro languished across the street, I couldn’t help wondering if the therapists had made any comments about self-fulfilling prophecies and Intern Drew’s label for Rocco: Captain Douchebag.