“I am not a big fan of TV chefs,” Eater restaurant critic Robert Sietsema tells me over the phone. I’ve called him to discuss the phenomenon of TV-famous chefs opening ill-fated restaurants in New York City. Their record of late has been mixed, at best. Amanda Freitag tried and failed to resurrect Chelsea's Empire Diner, while Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen suffered a series of mishaps and served its last plate of Nashville hot chicken less than a year after opening. And then there's Guy Fieri, whose Times Square venture Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar received a damning zero-star Pete Wells review in The New York Times.
Still, as long as there are celebrity chefs, they will try to leverage their notoriety into a New York restaurant. Just this summer, two more came on the scene. Iron Chef star Cat Cora opened upscale chicken joint FatBird, and has already sued her business partners for the restaurant's "lackluster performance." And Anne Burrell (also of Iron Chef pedigree) started Phil & Anne’s Good Time Lounge with bar maestro Phil Casaceli.
Not even fame can protect these new ventures from the daunting physics of starting a restaurant in this city. With nearly 50,000 restaurants to choose from, and countless new openings, remodels, and menu re-launches every week, how can they attract actual diners?
Sietsema’s curiosity keeps him going to these places, to see if maybe, just maybe, his skepticism is misplaced. He tries to judge each restaurant “very fairly” by its food and not its chef’s fame. But he can’t help being suspicious about chefs who rose to prominence on TV. “It’s often just based on wild haircuts,” Sietsema says, noting that Burrell and Fieri sport similar spiked faux-platinum mops. TV chefs who open restaurants in New York City, he says, are Icarus flying too near the sun. “It’s hubris to think that we are suckers who were born yesterday and we’re just going to accept them because they’re on TV,” he says.
And yet, he returns. “It’s fun,” he admits. And for better or worse, these restaurants are more entertaining than most to watch -- not least, because their challenges are myriad, and unique.