Don’t look now, but production companies are propositioning your favorite Westchester chefs to star in reality food TV programs. So far, County restaurants have yielded stars for Food Network’s Chopped, Iron Chef, Restaurant Stakeout (among others), and Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares.
While Westchester’s restaurant scene might prove an economic boon for reality TV (tri-state shoots minimize travel costs for New York-based production companies), the benefit to chefs is not so obvious. “I’m worried about it; I’m not going to lie,” says Anna Maria Santorelli, whose Larchmont restaurant, Anna Maria’s Restaurant, was the subject of a episode of Restaurant Stakeout. The show is part of Food Network’s new “hidden camera” programming. In Restaurant Stakeout, the misdeeds of restaurant staffers are filmed in the absence of their employers. In the episode devoted to Anna Maria’s, Chef Santorelli’s staff is seen to be ignorant of the restaurant’s menu and, occasionally, confrontational with customers. It could have been worse. In other episodes, staffers drink on the job and eat from diners’ plates.
While Chef Santorelli is constrained by her contract with Restaurant Stakeout’s production company from revealing details, she does allow that Restaurant Stakeout is “probably more TV than ‘reality.’” During the service in which her staffers were found to mishandle customers, the diners were notified before entering the restaurant that a reality show was being filmed. Diners later joked that the mic packs visible on restaurant staff call into question the show’s premise that the staffers were filmed without their knowledge.
Even though Restaurant Stakeout creates the impression that Chef Santorelli is a poor manager, she doesn’t anticipate that the show will diminish her reputation. “Our business has boomed since the show. And Larchmont’s a small town—everyone already knows what we do. When it was being filmed, it was the talk of the town…the word spread. People were showing up just to get on TV. Now that it’s being aired, people want to come in and share the laugh.” That said, Santorelli admits that she worries about her reputation among diners who’ve never visited her restaurant.
Other chefs do not emerge unscathed. A Google search of the restaurants that Gordon Ramsay “aided” in Kitchen Nightmares—whose premise has the foul-mouthed chef swooping in to save a failing restaurant—shows a high percentage of closures after the cameras are gone. Tuckahoe’s Olde Stone Mill, a subject of the Ramsay treatment in 2007, had changed ownership by 2010.
Then there is the risk that one might fail in full view on national TV. For every Chef Peter X. Kelly (of X2O), who triumphed over Chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, several local chefs slink off in defeat. According to Chef Christian Petroni (formerly of Peniche, Barcelona Wine Bar, and, soon, Fortina), the filming of his first episode of Chopped lasted 21 consecutive hours. Though Petroni won his first episode of Chopped, he was eliminated in the first round of Chopped All Stars, filmed one week later. His excuse was that he’d snagged a date with a girl that he’d been pursuing for a long while. He was with her until one hour prior to his 5 am call time. “I just figured, you know what? It’s okay if I go home first this time.” When John-Michael Hamlet (of North Salem’s defunct John-Michael’s, the predecessor of Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish), was eliminated on Chopped, he had an emotional outburst on camera that might have been tough to live down later.
Some chefs are just saying no to the offer. Chef David DiBari (of The Cookery and the DoughNation pizza truck) is one of the many local chefs to decline reality TV stardom. “Yes, they’ve come to me! But you have to ask yourself, ‘What is ten thousand dollars [the prize at Chopped] to me? That’s one monthly bill.” What about the lure of the cameras? “All those guys doing those shows just want to be rock stars. But look at me…I’m cooking the food that I want to cook. I feel like that makes me a rock star.”