Last week, Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible took a break from its regular programming schedule to look back on one hundred episodes. The eight-season show deserves longevity. It teaches failing restaurants how to cook fresh, delicious food on a budget. Its charismatic culinary director, Chef Robert Irvine, catalyzes creative and financial renewal in spite of a weak economy.
Last week’s episode, “Bummed Out,” was emblematic of the show’s appeal. Chef Robert and his builder and designer had 2 days and $10,000 to transform Orange City, Florida’s Bumbinos Italian Ristorante into a success story. “Business went bad and I don’t know why,” said Bumbino’s owner Terry Gardner.
Chef Robert performed his usual diagnostics; he checked customer service, atmosphere, and food. He found clean surroundings but drab interior design, mediocre food, and warring kitchen staff.
The restaurant’s experienced chef was making pizzas while a novice botched the rest of the menu. Of the tilapia, a customer said, “It’s a little too fishy for a fish that isn’t supposed to be that fishy. A little slimy.” Another customer said of the eggplant rollatini, “It’s just disgusting. The sauce is pure garlic. Ugh.”
In the Bumbino’s kitchen, Chef Robert found raw chicken sitting in its own juices and warned the staff about bacteria growth. When he sat for a sampling of the menu, the kitchen proceeded to serve him the same tainted chicken in the form of chicken parmesan.
Chef Robert taught the kitchen staff how to make zesty marinara sauce with simple, fresh ingredients: diced potatoes, chili flakes, tomatoes, white wine, salt, pepper, oregano, and basil. After simmering these fixings, he blended them in a blender, achieving a smooth sauce ideal for accenting entrees. Chef Robert next demonstrated chicken parmesan his way, placing the finished bird on top of sautéed broccoli rabe and marinara sauce.
To impress upon the Bumbino’s employees the importance of civility in the kitchen, Chef Robert gathered them in an eatery where actors awaited his word to perform a skit in the background. The performers, pretending to be staff, bickered loudly so that the visitors from Bumbino’s would notice. “I was sitting here in shock, uncomfortable,” Bumbino’s owner Terry Gardner told Chef Robert, “That to me has been so far the best lesson that you’ve given me.” She and her coworkers swore to clean up their act.
Meanwhile, resourceful designer Cheryl Torrenueva refashioned Bumbino’s interior, creating Italian charm within the confines of a shopping center office space. With the help of builder Tom Bury—a superman with a hammer—Torrenueva brought a “modern, tranquil trattoria feel” to Bumbino’s.
The restaurant’s wooden booths were sanded, reupholstered, and modernized. The walls were painted soft shades of blue and green. A custom wall design was made with pizza peels. Wooden cabinets were built and filled with handsome display kitchenware. A ring of wine bottles was affixed to a ceiling light to create a sort of chandelier. The pièce de résistance was a redesign of the front door to incorporate a touching black-and-white picture of the restaurant owner’s niece and inspiration—her bambina.
Restaurant: Impossible has earned rare integrity as a food show. Instead of simply burying them in guidelines, Chef Robert shows his beneficiaries how to build a healthy, tasty menu with limited resources. Then he supervises—and sometimes offers a helping hand—while staff executes a new menu for a grand reopening. Chef Robert replaces frozen French fries with fresh ones. He develops bold flavors using minimal amounts of butter and salt. He demonstrates proper kitchen hygiene, saving untold numbers of customers from food poisoning.
As it plans its next hundred episodes, Restaurant: Impossible might consider a small revision of its own. The show’s post-production components—music, logo, sound effects, and editing style—have a kitschy feel that would be more appropriate for a food-related game show like Guy’s Grocery Games. All audiovisual aspects of Restaurant: Impossible should serve its good-hearted mission.
Restaurant: Impossible underscores the gravity of the 2008 recession; it features dozens of debt-burdened restaurateurs across the country. Chef Robert shows them how to climb out of emotional and financial ruin. He aims to restore dignity and craftsmanship to the restaurant industry—he envisions the ideal eatery as functional, clean, beautiful, and packed with happy, social people. And he mostly succeeds. According to last week’s commemorative episode, 76 percent of featured restaurants have been turned around for the long term.
In its pursuit of high standards on a budget, Restaurant: Impossible brings welcome altruism to the Food Network. Its producers understand that a superior restaurant can be a community institution just as much as a church or school—a meeting place that unites friends and families no matter the financial challenges pushing them apart.