Scott Conant, red onion fan, hosts and judges Food Network’s new 24 Hour Restaurant Battle

Food Network has a great reality competition in the Ted Allen-hosted Chopped with its baskets of mystery ingredients, and tonight it debuts a show that seems even more like a Top Chef challenge that’s been turned into a series: 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, which debuts tonight at 10 p.m. ET. The “restaurant wars” challenge has become a staple of the Bravo competition, and now it’s become a standalone series (on another network!) on which two teams of two have exactly 24 hours to create a concept, space, and menu, and open their restaurant for business and judging.

Chopped judge, chef, and restaurant owner Scott Conant both hosts and judges the new series. He may be best known as the judge who has expressed irritation over the presence of red onions in his food, prompting, among other things, a Facebook fan page called Shut up, Scott Conant, we dont care if you have an aversion to raw onions!

When I talked to him about the series, I had to ask him about red onions, of course, and when I mentioned the Facebook group, he said, “I am actually a member of that group. I keep an eye on it; I think it’s very funny,” he said, adding that his dislike of red onions is actually “a misunderstanding and some of the dialogue about red onions has been cut out of those shows. The problem is that red onion can be extremely assertive; I think we all know that. I love a red onion on a hamburger, or on a bagel with lox and cream cheese–I love that, it’s great. What we’re talking about here is nuance of flavors. I’m not going to apologize for holding people to a high standard,” Scott said.

He also told me, “I need to stand on principle sometimes, once in a while, and let them know that this is good, but this is how you make it better. Who goes into life to be mediocre? I don’t know anyone who rises to mediocrity; everybody wants to be great at what they do.”

The aforementioned Facebook page says “Scott Conant is a grumpy judge,” and I asked Scott about his reputation for having high standards. “I appreciate that; that’s very diplomatic,” he joked. He said that because of time constraints, a lot of “the dialogue between me and the contestants on Chopped is edited out … I like to think that I have a very good rapport with contestants, and I let them know at the very beginning that I’m not a pushover, and I don’t throw compliments around. You get a compliment from me, it’s genuine. And if I can feel like I can help you, I will,” he said. “I’m not in this to make people feel bad about themselves. I really feel like I can help people along, because I never had a lot of that nurturing element when I was a chef or young restaurateur, and sometimes it comes across as a little bit of tough love.”

On the new show, Scott said that the judges–who include Marcus Samuelsson and Geoffrey Zakarian, “are there just during the dining experience, which is great because they see it the way the diner sees it, [while] I see it from conception to full execution.” The contestants actually work over 24 hours straight, and he interacts with them occasionally during that time.

“It’s really fun to be involved with the entire process,” Scott told me, “because I really see all these contestants come in with their ideas” and see “how they executive it and how it’s honed and it evolves.” During the process, he gives advice: “I’d like to think I can help them see some things they haven’t seen since I’ve done this so many times. Compared to Chopped, he said, “both competitions are very daunting,” and the extra time doesn’t make the new show easier because “there’s a lot of stuff to be done in 24 hours” so “it’s a really stressful situation.”

Some 24 Hour Restaurant Battle contestants “pull off a front-of-the-house that on some occasions was really impressive” while “people with great restaurant experience had a really hard time adjusting to a completely different way of thinking,” Scott said, adding that working as a chef is “not a linear thought process” and “if you’re not used to it, not accustomed to it, there’s a huge catching-up time.”

Scott said that overall, the new series “is a lot of fun, and I’m not just saying that because I’m involved.” He’s opening a new restaurant in Toronto this week and working on two others this week, and said that “every single day I was on the show I learned something about opening a restaurant, and I’ve opened a lot of restaurants.” He also added that his time on TV “been a great platform for me and my restaurants.” When people come into his restaurants, “people are critical … they’re looking for red onions … it’s very funny,” he said. “It makes my staff better, it makes me better, it makes us pursue greatness all the time.”

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