Inside Look: 24 Hour Restaurant Battle’s Scott Conant
On Food Network’s 24 Hour Restaurant Battle dueling teams of aspiring restaurateurs have 24 hours to conceive, plan and open their own restaurants for one night. On each team, one person handles front-of-house issues like decor, seating and service while the other manages back-of-house matters like menu planning, shopping and, of course, cooking.
When the doors open, each restaurant serves a discerning group of diners along with host Scott Conant and a rotating panel of judges representing three areas of expertise: restaurant marketer, restaurant reviewer and restaurant investor. Based on the restaurant’s concept, execution and viability, the judges choose a winning team who receive $10,000 to start their dream.
I think Battle is an under-appreciated example of the whole food competition reality genre. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t feature the back-biting and snide remarks that are what makes a lot of the other shows popular. I’ve gone on record before saying that I care more about the food than watching people behaving badly.
Perhaps that is why I count myself as a fan of Battle. There is a place in reality TV for good-things-happening-to-good-people shows. Look at the success ABC has had with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Sometimes you just want to watch something that makes you feel better about what is a very disturbing world.
Scott Conant is a very well-respected chef and highly successful restauranteur which makes him the perfect host for a show that is as much about cultivating ideas as it is about awarding a winner. Sure Conant has six outstanding restaurants and best-selling cookbooks like Bold Italian, Scott Conant’s New Italian Cooking and Pasta but he has also co-written a book about team work entitled 101 Teambuilding Activities: Ideas Every Coach Can Use to Enhance Teamwork, Communication and Trust that transcends the restaurant world.
With season two of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle set to premiere tonight I chatted with Scott to get a feel for what’s it’s like on the set.
Ted Allen calls you the tomato whisperer, what’s that all about?
You know I do a spaghetti with tomato and basil and Ted happens to be a fan of it which is good for me. We get a lot of press out of that spaghetti with tomato and basil so it’s fortunate. He likes what we do with it. I’ve made it with him a couple of times and he’s working on it so it’s all good.
After the success of Chopped All-Stars there is undoubtedly going to be another one. How much pressure is Aarón putting on you to compete?
You know I tell Aarón all the time I have six restaurants in five different markets I’m working on an events company as well so I compete enough in real life so there’s no reason for me to go behind those stoves. I have to tell you, it doesn’t get out very often but on Chopped that is an incredibly difficult competition. I’ve done those things in the past as I was coming up in the ranks and it’s tough.
Even though I’m kind of hard on some of these people sometimes it’s tough what they’re trying to do especially with all those cameras in your face that doesn’t make things easy.
Can you compare your duties on Chopped and on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle?
They are different. On 24 Hour Restaurant Battle we have to look at the whole – the entire restaurant concept. It’s not about picking it apart; it’s about finding some of the things that work and some of the things that don’t work. Which is what I do in real life with the restaurants that I open. It’s really tough to remain objective when I opened my own restaurants. There isn’t a single day when I’ve shot one of those shows where I haven’t learned something myself about what I do on a daily basis. I see the same mistakes that amateurs are making as seasoned restauranteurs are making.
On Chopped it’s really about the food. It’s about how to make this really varying basket of ingredients seamless in how they come together. A lot of people can do it a lot better than others especially with the time frame.
What exactly are you and the judges looking for from the contestants considering the 24 hour window?
What I always say is that we’re looking for clean, sure, well thought-out ideas. Not just things going halfway or this is my intention but this is the idea. It’s really about opening a restaurant in 24 hours and you have to have everything buttoned up; everything has to be 100% of your ability. Sometimes the most simple approach works best. But I think that translates to real life as well. The more simple the better.
Even if you’re doing something very fancy, if you’re doing a high-end restaurant simplicity is inherently better for the customer.
Are there any dishes that you’ve tried on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle that really stand out in your memory?
Yeah, I can’t speak about this current season but I can talk about the first season there was some great barbecue that we had on season one. We had some great little brunch ideas. You know it’s funny because two of the contestants from the first season have actually gone on and opened restaurants of their own based on a lot of the critiques the we gave helping them move forward. That created a very different standard for themselves than they were when they first thought of opening up their own business.
That’s the real potential for me with this show. It’s really kind of nurturing and helping people, mentoring to a certain extent about how to get a pure, clean idea and how to make it straight forward for a business plan.
Have there been any concepts that you wish you had thought of?
There were a couple of things that I thought really resonated but I will say there were a few people that I said, “I would definitely hire this person. I’d love this person and they could definitely give me a call if they need a job because I would hire them.”
Have you ever heard someone explain their concept and immediately felt it was doomed?
But you know what? There are certain things that I’m good at and certain things I’m not good at. I think that I do what I do very well and I can pick out and point out certain things but it’s always surprising what succeeds. You’re always going to fail if you don’t try. So even if it is something that I may not ever go to or I may never eat at that restaurant it doesn’t mean that it won’t work for the rest of humanity. So there’s no reason not to try it out.
Who will be the judges this season?
Drew Nieporent did a few shows. Geoffrey Zakarian, I think he did the majority of the shows as well. Geoffrey and I always have a fun dynamic. Alison Brod, for a PR perspective, did a few shows. Gabriella Gershenson for a food writer’s perspective. She works at Saveur magazine. Marcus Samuelsson did a few shows as well for another chef’s perspective, restauranteur’s perspective. So it’s a great group, Ben Leventhal from The Feast: New York and eater.com he did a show. He may have done two. There’s a couple of other experts that we had for different approaches. There’s a lot of knowledge at that judges’ table.
The chance at having your own restaurant, even for one night, is a dream that all of us in this business share. How emotional does it get on set?
You know, it’s really amazingly emotional for a lot of people. This is a dream come true and I don’t think that can ever be overstated. People are working really hard and they’re doing something that they’ve always wanted to do. If they’re going through a funk or they’re in a bad time this is their way out. That’s one of the things that I really appreciate about it (the show) as well. We’re here to help people. We’re here to nurture their ideas. It doesn’t behoove me to shoot people’s ideas down. I want to lift them up. I want them to go out and open up a restaurant and please people and make a better life for themselves. That’s the intention. It’s really inspiring, it’s inspiring for me and I think it’s really inspiring for the other judges as well.
Season two of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle premieres tonight (April 21) at 10pm/9c and airs each Thursday at that time on the Food Network.