It’s All In “The Restaurant”

Dear God, I never thought I’d be saying this, but…

there’s a reality TV show that you really should be watching!

It’s called “The Restaurant“, and it runs on NBC Sunday nights at 10. And you should be watching it because it’s like an ongoing illustration of everything I’ve been writing about leadership in this section.

“The Restaurant” is a documentary-style program that follows Rocco DiSpirito, a well-regarded New York chef, as he leaves the kitchen to launch his own restaurant, Rocco’s on 22nd. Four episodes have aired so far, and in them Rocco has managed to get his restaurant up and running, though at a huge cost in money and sweat equity.

What’s fascinating about “The Restaurant” is the way it has turned into a kind of continuing saga of What Small Businesses Do Wrong. Like I said, this is Rocco’s first time as owner rather than just as chef, and it shows. He’s been stumbling through all the mistakes I’ve been writing about in my “Where Leaders Fail” pieces.

The most interesting part of the whole show is watching the decisions Rocco makes as he manages his staff. In the space of a few weeks he has managed to completely crush their morale. Rocco in managerial mode tends to come off like “Goofus and Gallant”, only without Gallant. Some examples:

  • Early on he decides that, since it’s his restaurant, his place is in the front of the house schmoozing with the guests and flirting with the ladies rather than back in the kitchen. Given how much the place is costing to run, I don’t blame him for wanting to have some fun, but his decision was an early blow to his credibility capital among the staff from which he has yet to really recover. He’s got a strong reputation as a chef from his previous gigs, but they’ve never seen him in that capacity — the only Rocco they know is the one schmoozing and flirting while they’re killing themselves slinging plates around. Naturally, they think he’s a preening pretty-boy who is completely out of touch with what’s really going on in the restaurant.
  • The first few nights they’re open, a number of problems reveal themselves in the processes by which the restaurant runs. The most glaring is an ongoing issue with how food is handled in the kitchen — as plates get passed from cook to cook, a small but annoyingly consistent percentage of them seem to be getting forgotten for a while, resulting in the food getting cold; and then, when they’re picked up again, whoever takes them hasn’t been noticing the problem. The result is cold food ending up on diner’s tables — including one meal served to a visiting food critic, who acidly comments in her review that at Rocco’s the entrees are served “piping cold”. How does Rocco handle this problem? By dropping into the kitchen long enough to scream at the staff to get their act together, and then disappearing from their radar again. So now the kitchen staff think he’s an ineffectual martinet.
  • As time goes on, the continual screwing up takes its toll on the staff, and one by one they start to quit. This leads him to start trying to keep the ones he still has, and win back the ones he’s lost — and, in one case, he manages to succeed at one of these objectives in a way that makes success at the other impossible. When his best bartender walks out, frustrated at the crazy working environment, Rocco turns on the charm in a full-court press to change her mind. He talks her into coming back to the restaurant one afternoon to talk things over, and then takes her tooling around Manhattan on a shiny red Vespa he owns while they chat. When they get back to the restaurant, she’s still wavering, so to show her how important she is to him, he gives her the Vespa! Now, it’s clear that he thinks this is a brilliant move — what a great gesture, what a way to show how much he cares! — but as soon as she comes back to work we see why it wasn’t: the rest of the staff feel hurt and betrayed, because they get nothing for having stayed on Rocco’s team while she gets a Vespa for quitting. Talk about the wrong message to send! One waiter who has been critical in holding the wait staff together is so offended by the gesture that he then quits, and nothing Rocco says is enough to bring him back.

In short, this isn’t a tawdry sleazefest like most reality programming; instead, it’s a refreshingly frank look at how hard it is to lead a team in a high-stress, high-stakes environment. You’ll have sympathy for Rocco even as he digs his hole deeper into the ground. And all may not be lost: losing the waiter seems to have woke Rocco up to the gravity of his situation, and last week we saw him spending some serious time in the kitchen, helping to fix that cold-food problem, so there may be hope for Rocco’s yet. Either way, though, it’s great fun to watch, and, for those of us who occasionally have to lead people ourselves, highly educational to boot.