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Pictured (left to right) from `America's Next Great Restaurant` are Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone. (photo by Mitchell Haaseth/NBC)
Pictured (left to right) from "America's Next Great Restaurant" are Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone. (photo by Mitchell Haaseth/NBC)

Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone head NBC's 'America's Next Great Restaurant'

by jmaloni
Thu, Feb 24th 2011 02:25 pm

Winner to setup chain eatery at three different locations

Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni

Chefs Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone, Steve Ells and Lorena Garcia are putting their money where their mouth is. No, really.

The former two, both internationally known television chefs, will join the latter two, both successful restaurateurs, in financing a new restaurant chain, with locations in Hollywood, Calif., Minneapolis and New York City.

"America's Next Great Restaurant" debuts Sunday, March 6 (8 p.m., NBC).

Because this isn't just another reality television series - it's actually an endeavor the judges are investing their own money into - Flay says viewers shouldn't expect many "American Idol"-style "characters" (read: big personality, little talent).

"You know, actually a lot of the crazy sort of concepts did not even make it to the final cut of the beginning of the show," he said. "There were thousands - we sent busses around the country to actually take auditions from people all over the place. And, I mean, you have to understand that most of the people - and I shouldn't say most, but I don't really know what the numbers were - but, basically, you didn't have to be a foodservice professional to pitch a concept. You could be, you know, a schoolteacher. It didn't matter. It could be anybody.

"And so we got some pretty, you know, we were told at least there were some pretty outlandish ideas. But for the most part we knew that ultimately we needed a good restaurant idea that would actually work and one that people would understand, because otherwise we'd just be throwing our money out the window. And so, you know, I think that as investors, you know, I think the four of us basically sort of operated on our own sort of volition and then let the TV take place around us. So that, of course, it's going to be a television show, but basically that's not what we were there for. We were there to find a really great restaurant idea."

Those competing to win the top prize will find an experience similar to what they'd find behind the counter.

"The challenges are specific to things that you'd have to go through to open a restaurant. I mean, you know, I think one of the key elements here that should not be overlooked is that we're not just a panel of judges deciding people's fate week to week, but we're investors. And so, you know, we're putting our money up to open this next great restaurant," Flay said. "And, you know, we created challenges to put people through actual skills that they're going to have to utilize when opening a restaurant. So it could be anything from, you know, of course food and menu development, to skill challenges that have to do with, you know, slogans and logos; you know, creating a uniform; creating a design, of course, for the restaurant."

What judges are looking to establish, Ells said, is "America's next great restaurant in a fast, casual format. And when we think about fast casual restaurants, we think about a restaurant that's accessible to people like fast food. So - but a price point that's not much more than fast food and service that's very quick."

"And so I think we were looking in our contestants for qualities that would enable them to duplicate this kind of experience, to create an environment and food that's relevant to people, something that people will enjoy eating, but that is elevated above the typical fast food offering," he said.

Each of the investors will serve as mentors for the chef-testants, answering questions and offering guidance on what works in the restaurant business and what to avoid.

Ells is the founder, chairman and CEO of Chioptle, a national Mexican food chain. He is also a classically trained chef. Garcia began popular Latina eateries Food Café, Elements Tierra and Lorena Garcia Cocina Restaurant. She is also a spokesperson for Nestle and a regular television personality on Spanish television. Stone starred in "Take Home Chef" on TLC. He is a regular on "The Biggest Loser," "The Today Show," and also appeared on "The Celebrity Apprentice." While working for chef Marco Pierre's restaurant, Quo Vadis, Stone earned a prestigious Michelin Star.

Flay is the most famous of the four, with more than a half-dozen television shows under his belt (including "Iron Chef America," "Throwdown! with Bobby Flay," "The Next Food Network Star," and "Grill It! With Bobby Flay"), and five successful restaurants to his name (including Bolo, Bobby Flay Steak and chains Mesa Grill, Bar Americain and Flay's Burger Palace). Flay's life is busy, to say the least, but he's not complaining.

"Who has a semblance of a personal life?" he said, laughing. "Let me tell you something: Sleep is overrated. I can tell you that much. I consider myself a very lucky guy. My entire life is about food. It's about one word. So, in many ways my career is very focused in terms of what my interests are and what I actually participate in.

"So of course my restaurants are the most important thing to me. And, you know, I'm in my restaurants most of my time. And then I shoot television when I can. But basically it all sort of works in unison.

"You know, the stuff that I do on the Food Network that I've been doing for, like, the last 16 years, it's - first of all, I love doing it. It gets people to know who I am and also more importantly to know what my restaurants are. So that when they come to New York or they come to Vegas, or wherever, I have a restaurant they actually think of, you know, possibly going to one of my restaurants.

"And so, you know, writing cookbooks, doing television, the restaurants, it all revolves around one word, which is food. And so I don't think of it as business versus personal. To me it's all one life.

"And, you know, I sort of intertwine my personal life with my business life. And it seems to work really well. Now don't get me wrong. I work a lot of hours, but I'm not complaining about it."

For the winner of "America's Next Great Restaurant," Flay's lifestyle is one he or she can expect.

"The restaurant business is about people, and it's about people who drive the restaurants. I mean, you know, there's no Chipotle without Steve Ells. And he just didn't have a good idea. He had a good idea that he was able to just throw his entire body into and dedicate," Flay said. "I mean, Chipotle didn't happen overnight, and I don't think that any good restaurant has happened overnight. They take a long time to actually play out; you know, what they're going to be and how the public is going to (respond). ... The restaurant - it just takes a long time to play out exactly what it's ultimately going to be.

"You know, it starts out on a piece of paper in somebody's head, and then it just sort of gets - it gets fleshed out over time. And so, you know, we got to know these people - at least the ones that were around long enough for us to get to know - you know, very intimately, and we got to know a lot about why they are and why they were doing this.

"And that's an important thing, because anybody can come up with a really good pitch, but the question is do they have the repertoire of personality and also drive to see (the) thing through, because ultimately that's what they have to do. Getting the restaurant open might be easiest part of this. Making it work and growing the business is going to be the really tough part."

Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, the minds behind "Top Chef" and "Project Runway," produce "America's Next Great Restaurant." It's a production of Magical Elves, reality television's powerhouse studio. Follow the show online at http://www.nbc.com/americas-next-great-restaurant.

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