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Restaurant: Impossible’s return focused on Robert Irvine helping, not phony drama

Restaurant: Impossible’s return focused on Robert Irvine helping, not phony drama
Restaurant: Impossible star Robert Irvine talks with Rosie's Cafe owner Kaitlyn Rose, during the season 14 premiere. (Photo by Food Network)

“Sit your ass down there,” Robert Irvine told the owner of Rosie’s Cafe on the return of Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible. He’d just interrupted her on-the-fly interview with a producer; she was explaining that she didn’t feel like a failure, despite having a restaurant that was financially under water. “I’m going to teach you how to run a restaurant,” Irvine said. “I believe in you. I believe so much in you.”

This is the formula for Restaurant: Impossible: Robert Irvine is the tough guy who actually cares. Oh, and he knows his shit, too.

An adult man telling an adult woman to “sit your ass down” is unnecessary, period, even if it is more a nod to Robert’s tough-ass former military guy persona than a product of the need for hosts of these kinds of reality shows to scream obscenities at people.

Having been resurrected in this era when it’s difficult to launch new, unknown shows, Restaurant: Impossible was brought back and returned as a stripped-down, surprisingly casual and intimate version of its former self—a show with absolutely none of the reality TV shenanigans of Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back.

That’s notable because the path these kinds of makeover reality shows usually follow is ugly: heightened drama, more screaming, making owners fire and/or humiliate their staff just to make a good scene, and not worry about what kind of destruction is left behind.

It’s the path on which you’ll find Gordon Ramsay’s shows and Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue. And those shows are a long way from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, the original UK series that established the template for this subgenre of reality TV.

That’s not, thankfully, the path that Restaurant: Impossible was on for its season 14 premiere.

Restaurant: Impossible replaces ambushes with personal attention

Before it was cancelled in 2016, Restaurant: Impossible switched, for its final two seasons, to a format that involved ambushing restaurant owners. They didn’t know the show was coming, and hadn’t asked for help, yet here came a reality TV crew anyway.

Besides the time wasted each episode on the ambushes, the ambush format highlighted the insanity of letting a TV show sweep in and re-do your business in less than two days. The result appeared to be more about making a TV show than truly helping, even if they did redesign the space, even if they did help.

Food Network has come to its senses, thankfully, and in the premiere of this new iteration, Robert Irvine came closest to that original Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares Gordon Ramsay as I’ve seen in some time: His passion felt like actual concern rather than performance for cameras, and he was just there the whole time, teaching and asking questions and working with Kaitlyn Rose, the owner of Rosie’s, along with her boyfriend, the restaurant’s untrained chef.

Even the camera work was more laid back, and almost felt casual—even a little sloppy, like someone just held up an iPhone to film. I realize that is not what actually happened, but with so many medium shots and odd framing (one conversation captured only part of the side of Robert’s face), it just felt loose. And that actually worked, because it suggested that the crew was struggling to keep up with what was happening, rather than creating beautifully composed, pre-planned shots.

Robert spent most of the episode focused on the business, its food, and its owner and head chef. He was, at times, disappointed and frustrated and annoyed, but he was also identifying real problems, not feigning horror.

There was a montage of him walking around and ordering people around as the redesign was being completed, but mostly he let the design team do their work. In previous seasons, it’d seemed like he’d wander in with a demand perfectly timed to create drama, but there was much more of a firewall this time.

Designer Taniya Nayak returned, and although she’s been on TV judging ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight, it’s terrific to see her back designing, since her work is exceptionally strong. Tom Bury, the construction manager, was back, too, bringing a gold sledgehammer for Robert to smash something.

At the end of the episode, before she saw how Taniya and Tom and locals who’d volunteered to help out (i.e. save the production money) had reimagined her restaurant, Kaitlyn said, “I haven’t seen the place, and Robert’s changed my life in more ways than I can…” She trailed off.

Usually those kinds of statements feel like empty platitudes, and since so many restaurants featured on these kinds of shows fail anyway. But this felt more genuine than usual because we watched her work with Robert, and come to terms with what was happening and what needed to happen.

Food Network seemed to figure out what was happening and what needed to happen with Restaurant: Impossible, and I hope this format continues throughout this season—and future seasons, too.

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