The curse of the restaurant makeover

Once the TV cameras are gone, it’s not always quite so 'happily ever after'

JACOB RICHLER January 28 2008

The curse of the restaurant makeover

Once the TV cameras are gone, it’s not always quite so 'happily ever after'

JACOB RICHLER January 28 2008


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The curse of the restaurant makeover


Once the TV cameras are gone, it’s not always quite so 'happily ever after'


A week or two back I stopped in for dinner in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood at an unexpectedly charming little restaurant called JAM Café. If you live in the area you will likely know it as the latest concept to occupy the former site of the long floundering Bistro Aubergine. If instead you make your home in distant Halifax, Vancouver or Saskatoon, but all the same take an interest in restaurants, occasionally tune in to Food Network Canada, and like most people who do are a fan of Restaurant Makeover, you may know the place too, because Bistro Aubergine was featured on the show last autumn.

“But hang on a sec,” you should be thinking to yourself if you caught that broadcast. “As I remember it, Top Chef Lynn Crawford and Famous Designer Cherie Stinson transformed Bistro Aubergine into something else entirely.”

And you would be right. In the Restaurant Makeover episode the little bistro gets a sound design rethink by Stinson, who installs a large marble bar in the front room, and in the back, already blessed with a handsome fireplace, adds bookshelves for a comfortable reading-room effect. Then Crawford, who is executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York and a regular on the show, decides that the place should abandon its bistro concept and instead turn itself into an upscale pub, which while hardly a fresh idea is at least a reliable one. That’s when the Makeover team come up with their new

name for the place: the Cork and Cabbage.

“That’s a good name,” says chef and owner Asim, when he gets the news.

“That’s a great name,” says his considerably more assertive wife, Sheila, who has purportedly been down on the project all along, and long been seeking to dump it. “We’ll take down the For Sale sign and see how the next few months go.”

And as it happens, even though head chef Asim has given no sign of being up to the challenge of assembling a decent grilled-cheese sandwich, and the Cork and Cabbage is the most foolish name floated for a restaurant since Peter Cook and Dudley Moore came up with the Frog and Peach (a country restaurant in Dartmoor which, as you may recall, offered only two items—frog à la pêche and pêche à la frog), things apparently go very well.

“Cherie Stinson and Lynn Crawford have worked their usual magic, transforming Bistro Aubergine into a casual but sophisticated spot for the gastro-pub set,” writes Patricia Noonan, “food writer,” on the storyboard that pops up at the end of the show. And

next, just before the titles scroll by to close the show, another one reads, “Asim and Sheila changed the name of Bistro Aubergine to the Cork and Cabbage and continue to delight customers.”

The only problem is that they never delighted any customers before or since. The show documented a Makeover executed in April, but by the time it was first aired on Oct. 1, the Cork and Cabbage was long gone,

sold to a new ownership group that had reopened the place as JAM Café nearly six weeks earlier, in August.

“In retrospect I wish we had put something different up on the boards [at the end of that show],” concedes Michael Taylor, who produced the current season—its fourth—for Tricon Films, and is clearly sensitive to the frequent accusations that it is both casual with the truth and comically self-aggrandizing about the benefits of its makeovers. “Everything you see [on the show] is true,” he assures me.

If you have not seen Restaurant Makeover, this is how it goes. And I mean that this is how it goes every episode, because the show is beyond formulaic—it actually appears to follow a minute-by-minute-template, like so.

00:00-03:00 Introduce visionless restaurateur and woefully untalented chef, often a hapless couple, outline how their failing restaurant will soon enough have them reduced to living in a squatters’ colony, and then introduce their soon-to-be saviours, a Top Designer and an Award-Winning Chef, neither of whom you are likely to have ever heard of, and then break for commercials.

00:05-00:10 Repeat the very little that has already occurred, and then cut to the Rescue Team visiting the restaurant for the first time, whereupon the invariably horribly dressed Top Designer immediately sets about attacking the bad taste of the decor team that preceded her there.

00:13-00:18 Repeat the very little that has already occurred, then cut to Saviour Duo explaining how bad the situation really is, their pledge to fix it, and fade out with the restaurant owners performing the ceremonial writing-of-the-cheque-for-$15,000-thatthey-can-ill-afford-to-part-with, and the Res-

taurant Makeover team pledging to match it penny for penny.

00:21-00:26: Repeat, then in a direct and masterful appeal to male viewers gay and straight, cut to long sequence of burly eastern European handymen in snug overalls smashing the place up with axes and crowbars.

And on and on it goes, through the inevitable designer’s dilemma, the well-intentioned but obviously pointless kitchen demonstra-

‘This place isn’t Irish—it’s not even green! squeaks Award Winning Chef

®tion, and at long last The Reveal, wherein the delighted owners squeal “Oh my God!” a lot and sometimes even burst into tears because they drank far too much at lunch. Fade out with a joyous party scene of long-suffering regulars, happy for the first time, and a “Thanks to us they lived happily ever after” storyboard or two, usually delivered in the form of a wildly enthusiastic testimonial from a food writer deservedly never heard from before or since.

Meanwhile, every season has its Cork and Cabbage. Last year, just six months after Top Designer Robin Fraser and Renowned Chef David Adjey reinvented a Toronto restaurant named Latitude as Eduardo’s, a friend of mine rang me from his office next door to say that Eduardo had just stopped him on the street to ask him if he wanted to buy his espresso machine. “It’s a fire sale,” I was told. “Right down to the last salt and pepper shaker.” This sort of thing is to be expected: Statistics Canada documented 576 food-service bankruptcies over the first 10 months of2007, and the sort of restaurant that comes begging to the Restaurant Makeover team for help is by nature not going to be a place with better than average prospects. In the middle of one December shoot, location undisclosed, the power got shut off. But whether or not that makes it to air is doubtful: the producers like to invent high stakes, but eminently prefer the depiction of triumph to failure.

“I want to save their kids,” designer Brenda Bent confides of her motivations while she works on her redesign of a Toronto Indian restaurant called Dhaba, where owner R K. Singh’s credit cards are purportedly stretched to the limit, and his children have expressed a desire to pursue a different sort of career.

When Irish-born publican Pat Quinn is preparing to expand his downtown Toronto pub P.J. O’Brien’s into the freshly vacated space next door, we are informed gravely that it is up to the Restaurant Makeover gang to ensure that Quinn “doesn’t lose his shirt, his pub and his legacy in the process.”

Then they slap a “Closed for Restaurant Makeover” sign on the door even though the

new area was never open in the first place, and everyone does their best to keep a straight face as Quinn’s business experiences are described as having had their “ups and downs” without mentioning that the ride included his and hers Rolls-Royces, founding the Irish grocery chain Quinnsworth, selling it for a spectacular price to Galen Weston, and then turning around and losing all the proceeds and then some (two million 1972 Irish pounds) on his Pat Quinn Club Resort, which amongst other things featured Ireland’s first (and last) artificial-snow-equipped ski hill.

Mention the name Pat Quinn in a pub in Dublin to this day and someone will tell you a good story and buy you a jar. But turn to Restaurant Makeover chef Corbin Tomaszeski, who is in charge of toasting all that stale Poilâne bread at Toronto’s Holts Café, and set him loose at P.J. O’Brien’s and he spends the balance of the hour running around squeaking “This place isn’t Irish—it’s not even green!” which is pretty much the same as dropping in on Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St-Germain in Paris and declaring that it’s not French because they don’t play any Edith Piaf.

No matter: it apparently makes for great television. Restaurant Makeover is the toprated Canadian-produced show on Food Network Canada, landing regularly in their top three. It airs seven days a week. And even if many recipients of the Makeover treatment grumble privately about the nature of their

Susur Lee who gave the advice in the kitchen, accorded his restaurant a new respect (both the International Food & Wine Society and the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs have since booked dinners there). At P.J. O’Brien’s, where they ignored all of chef Tomaszeski’s suggestions (an elaborate cheese platter, potato pancakes, and a bizarre dish of grilled smoked-salmontopped oysters) but got stuck with an odd new stone wall that looks to have been transplanted from a bad ski lodge, business has expanded 50 per cent—which is to say in direct proportion to the sum of its newly acquired seats.

redesigns, and the chefs usually ignore the profferred culinary advice, everyone is happy for the television exposure.

P. K. Singh likes Bent’s redesign of his restaurant Dhaba, especially now that he has reinstated all the statues of Indian deities which she removed, and asserts that being television with her husband, star chef

“That show must have aired five to six times,” Quinn said to me. “People come all the way in from Barrie and Brockville now.”

Business has improved at Bagel World since its Makeover pulled its design out of the 1960s, even if the kitchen did not follow through on the suggested menu changes. Life goes on much as before at Phil’s Original BBQ, especially now that owner Phil Nyman has put back on the walls all the Miles Davis posters the Makeover team took down. Even the owners of the Cork and Cabbage appear to have earned a better price for their property than they would have without their Makeover.

Now the show is looking beyond its longstanding Toronto-area base to Montreal and especially Vancouver, where pre-Olympic restaurant openings are burgeoning. So don’t be jealous: some day soon, a Restaurant Makeover restaurant may flop in your neighbourhood, too. M