Review: Restaurant Stakeout

Last month I wrote about a new series coming to the Food Network that wasn’t really that new.  Restaurant Stakeout was a retooling (or so it would seem) of a pilot the Network ran last fall called Mystery Diners.  Tonight there was a sneak peek of the finished product.

Food Network’s description:

Willie Degel Restaurant StakeoutFollow tough-love restaurateur Willie Degel as he busts the bad habits of struggling restaurants on Food Network’s new show, Restaurant Stakeout. See what really happens when waiters, bartenders and kitchen and service staff think no one is watching. Armed with hidden-camera footage and covert surveillance from restaurants across the country, Willie doesn’t hold anything back. He tackles kitchen hazards and impossible customers alike, but is it enough to make a difference?

My thoughts:

I could live without the Jersey Shore seediness but I guess “asshole” is de rigueur on reality TV these days.  On the whole I prefer Mystery Diners because it combined the key elements of feel-good shows like Restaurant: Impossible with gotcha shows like To Catch a Predator while Restaurant Stakeout is more about Degel’s Tony Soprano-esque personality than anything.  Mystery Diners had more substance; Restaurant Stakeout is more gimmick.

Firefly TapasEnough contrasting, the production value of Restaurant Stakeout was top notch.  The music was pretty good, the cinematography was spot on as well.  The cut-aways to Degel sitting behind a desk like Donald Trump while pontificating about service were pretty cheeky.  That being said, he was absolutely on target in his evaluation of the service team at Las Vegas’ Firefly Tapas Bar.  Sadly enough, it is a common site at most American restaurants.

There were certain scenes that just seemed acted rather than the result of hidden cameras.  In particular one argument between an experienced server and a newbie about snaking a table.  Those kind of arguments go on everyday and they get quite heated.  I’ve seen hundreds of them.  That’s why I think this one seemed staged.  The emotions seemed right but there was just something about the body language that felt off.  In fact, one of the servers in the dispute, Diane, was constantly showing up on camera doing outrageous things.  She just came off as as fake.  But most things seemed on the up and up, just not the scenes with Diane.

However both variations on this concept (Mystery Diners and Restaurant Stakeout) help demonstrate why 50% of new restaurants fail within two years – the pure, unbridled selfishness of the employees.  And that’s a very good thing.  Just knowing that you might be exposed as a thief on national television would surely put a dent in the rampant pilferage of today’s restaurant employees and their “Occupy Wall Street” sense of entitlement.  Wanting something is not the same thing as earning something.

Tune in for the series premiere Wednesday, March 14 at 10 pm EST to catch the drama.

Saturdays in the South: Lexington, Kentucky

Originally published in Current Magazine in 2007.

Commonwealth Stadium UKKentucky is a commonwealth known for one of the biggest parties on the planet, that little spring social known as the Kentucky Derby.  An hour east of Churchill Downs is the modest city of Lexington.  Known far and wide for the quality of their tongue suppressors, they have also made a headline or two in the area of college basketball.  The University of Kentucky is one of the most storied programs in the history of the sport.

A common analogy is that the Wildcats are the Crimson Tide of basketball.  How apropos as the University of Kentucky was once coached by Alabama’s Bear Bryant.  Further proving it is storied in football as well, George Blanda, one of the most productive players in football annals, played his college ball on the blue grass.  Other UK gridiron stars include Jared Lorenzon, Babe Parelli, Tim Couch and Nat Northington (the first black player in SEC history).

Tailgating around Commonwealth Stadium is serious business and the UK administration has mapped out the campus to maximize the practice.  Radios blare pre-game shows and themed menus include fried turkeys when the Gamecocks of South Carolina visit, whole hog for Arkansas, hot wings await the Louisville Cardinals, and for Georgia they generate a smorgasbord of hot dogs.  Kentucky gastronomic standards like Hot Brown and Burgoo are found regardless the opponent.  The lots around the stadium flow with the official state drink, the Mint Julep and the official state vice, Kentucky Moonshine.

Playing CornholeEverywhere, Wildcat fans are playing cornhole, a game in which players toss bags (usually filled with corn or beans) at a raised platform with a hole in it.  The goal is to get the bag into the hole or at least stay on the board.  It is not unlike horseshoes and has become such frenzy in the Kentucky/Ohio/Indiana area that it has actually been chronicled by the Wall Street Journal.  Cornhole is as much a part of the game day merriment as bourbon.

Many fans indulge in the Keeneland Double Dip, made up by taking in a little breakfast and horse racing at the city’s most popular track, Keeneland, and then heading to the stadium for some Kentucky football.  Game day tradition includes the “Rally in the Ally” between the East end zone and the Nutter Center where the Wildcat band blasts “On, On U of K” to the Blue Mist’s approval.  Inside the stadium is a sea of blue, jointly singing “My Old Kentucky Home” as the band lays the foundation.  Then comes kickoff.

After the game, many head to Hall’s on the River in Boonesborough.  The tavern at Hall’s is the oldest building in Kentucky and the favorite victory celebration is to sip Knob Creek bourbon and much fried banana peppers.  But there is plenty of dining in the city proper.  Perhaps one could say that the culinary calling card of Lexington is fine dining.  Feasting there is steeped in the aristocracy of the Old South.    Luxury in décor and menu is a common theme throughout the city.  So important is dining to Lexingtonians that they have created the Historic Restaurant District.

Decadence is showcased at A La Lucie (North Limestone Street) with humongous pork chops bathed in bourbon and hot sauce (a KY staple) with homemade potato chips.  The Lamb Shanks are popular as is the pan seared Foie Gras with sweet potato pancake and candied peaches.  No wonder it is the place for the movers and shakers in town.  Other gourmet spots in the District include Atomic Café (N. Limestone St.) which is a Caribbean paradise with conch fritters, coconut shrimp and jerk chicken and Bombay Brazier (W. High St.) is where you go for the best Indian cuisine.

The crown jewel of the Historic Restaurant District just may be Anna Belle’s (N. Limestone).  This American bistro features stunning downtown views and an acute devotion to wine.  Over thirty bottles highlight the choices at their periodical wine dinners.  Wine even creeps into the regular menu in dishes like chicken and prawn vino bianco and the bone in pork chop with dried cherry port sauce.  It is here that you will find the city’s most opulent burger, the Kobe beef burger – served on a gourmet bun with cheddar, chipotle ketchup and shoestring fries.

The neighborhood known as Cheapside has been many things, slave market, public square, and now entertainment district. There you can visit Metropolis (West Short St.) an elegant and upscale eatery.  Lexington’s favorite Sunday brunch can be found at the Cheapside Bar & Grill.  The brunch menu includes Cowboy Eggs – two sunny-side eggs in an iron skillet with Chorizo, peppers, onions, bacon and cheese, served with corn stix and Chorizo gravy.  Other notables include Harley Hog BBQ with Chipotle BBQ sauce, bacon and egg Quesadilla, and grilled wheat or sourdough bread with wild blueberry preserves.  Enjoy them all with a teapot full of Cheapside Tea – black tea with hints of vanilla and berries.

One would be remiss to visit Kentucky without touring a bourbon distillery.  There are a few in the area like The Woodford Reserve (McCracken Pike), a short scenic drive from Lexington, provides a look at what bourbon making was like in the 19th century.  Austin Nichols Distillers (US 62 W) makers of Wild Turkey is only 23 miles from downtown and shows processes that are a combination of traditional and modern production.  Less than 30 miles northwest of the city is Buffalo Trace Distillery (US 421) which offers the “Hard Hat Tour” conducted seasonally and includes an exciting insider’s look at the entire distilling process.  This tour is for adults only.

Known to the native tribes for centuries as the great hunting ground, Kentucky is now a mosaic of Southern society painted in shades of blue.  The culture is distilled like whiskey and dressed in fine linen.

Kentucy Hot Brown
Recipe Type: Entree
Author: Courtesy of the Camberley Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky
Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 15 mins
Total time: 30 mins
Serves: 4
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg, room temperature and beaten
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup prepared whipped cream
  • 8 slices toasted white bread, crust trimmed off
  • 1 pound cooked turkey breast, thinly sliced
  • Grated Parmesan cheese for topping
  • 1 (2-ounce) jar diced pimientos, drained
  • 8 bacon slices, fried crisp
  1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Gradually add flour, stirring constantly, until smooth and free from lumps. Gradually stir in milk until sauce comes to a gentle boil, stirring constantly; remove from heat. Add Parmesan cheese and stir until melted and well blended.
  2. In a small bowl, beat egg. Gradually add 1 cup of hot sauce, 1/3 cup at a time, to the egg, stirring constantly. Gradually add egg mixture to remaining sauce, stirring constantly until well blended; add salt and pepper to taste. Fold in whipped cream.
  3. For each Hot Brown sandwich, place two slices of toasted bread on a metal (or flameproof) dish. Cover the toast with a liberal amount of turkey. Pour a generous amount of sauce over the turkey. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until the sauce is speckled brown and bubbly. Remove from broiler, sprinkle with diced pimientos, cross two pieces of bacon over the top, and serve immediately.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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