Food Network’s Restaurant Stakeout: as fake and staged as it seems

Food Nework’s latest reality show, Restaurant Stakeout, is anything but real, which is no surprise to anyone who has watched it. I have no idea why Food Network, which has some strong reality TV–Chopped, Next Food Network Star–actually airs crap like this show and Cupcake Wars. It’s embarrassing.

Restaurant Stakeout takes the restaurant makeover show and flips the equation by having the entire episode focus on the observation of the restaurant’s staff to discover its problems. That’s an intriguing premise, and it’s somewhat framed as education, with host/star/restauranteur Willie Degel educating owners and us while attempting to entertain with his impassioned and grating over-the-top New Yorker persona.

But the show’s producers have gone the lazy route and staged action. Three episodes were filmed in Rockland County, New York, and the staff and owners revealed just how inauthentic this show actually is. The Journal News reported on the fakeness by interviewing the owners of the restaurants. Mike Solicito, who owns the Lexington Grille and Pub, which was featured on the second episode, said “none of it’s real.”

He didn’t elaborate, but the owner of the Mount Ivy Cafe, featured on last Wednesday’s episode, did. Here’s what producers faked:

  • Hiring an actor. This is unforgivable, unethical behavior. Producers hired a waiter who dropped food and drank on the job after lying, and then got fired. Mount Ivy Cafe’s owner, Lucia Ivezaj, said, “They wanted a lot of drama, and unfortunately we don’t have drama here. So therefore they made some of their own drama.”
  • Telling real employees how to behave. Ivezaj told the paper, “We were told what do, how to act — so it was fun.” I’m sure it was. It’s not fun for us to watch non-actors pretend to be actors, because they suck at it.
  • Faking time. Editing to collapse time is one thing; having your cast fake the passage of time is another. Mount Ivy Cafe’s owner said she liked the experience except for “having to change clothes every couple of hours, pretending it was another day.”
  • Telling cast members how they’ll be portrayed. Ivezaj seems relieved about all the staged moments because, she said, “we had fun doing it” and, as she added, “Supposedly they make us look good six weeks later.” That sounds like they were reassured by producers that it’d be worth tolerating those things because it’d all come out well in the end.

This is all pretty appalling, although anyone who’s watched the show probably suspects something’s off, from the badly-hidden cameras to the way the confrontations feel.

Any reality series that isn’t just a fly-on-the-wall documentary has some involvement by producers in setting up what we see, and that’s to be expected. On this show, Willie Degel and/or the producers send in people to test the staff, instructing them via an earpiece (in the article, the Lexington Grille’s owner said his sister-in-law was one of those people used as an extra). On some level, that’s fake–not real customers–but it’s okay because what’s going on is acknowledged on-screen and we’re not being deceived, and it’s a legitimate experiment to see how the employee will respond.

And I’m willing to tolerate some of the artificial set-up, like when Degel walks through the restaurant pretending to tell his crew where to install cameras; the person he was instructing on last week’s episode was a terrible actor and scribbled on a notepad in the most hilariously fake way imaginable. That doesn’t have any impact on the core of the show’s narrative or drama, and is just ham-fisted exposition.

But beyond that, the series is inept: the climactic confrontations with the staff at the end fall completely flat, because they’re just (probably out of context) reaction shots and flashbacks, since the real drama was faked and there’s no way for them to react to such artificial moments. I know my reaction to its artificiality: never watching again.

Update: Here’s more evidence that Restaurant Stakeout is fake: a casting call for actors to play servers.

The Quest ends its journey stronger than it began

Verlox from The Quest

A review of the finale of summer's best reality series, which wasn't always perfect but was thoroughly entertaining right down to the finish, which included phenomenal challenges and special effects. Will ABC give it a second season?

Plus: an interview with the actor who played Verlox and the ogre.


Shark Tank is getting a spin-off

Shark Tank

Companies that get deals on the show will be followed for this new spin-off.

Also: Before the show began, Shark Barbara Corcoran was cast and then replaced--but then she sent this amazing e-mail and won the job.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.