To hold us over until Bravo's Top Chef returns -- March 12, in the City of Big Shoulders -- armchair chefs and restaurateurs can follow along with BBC's Last Restaurant Standing. It doesn't have one-quarter of Top Chef's inter-personal dramas and gasp-out-loud challenges, but it has its charms.
Nine couples have each been given a space (in the charming exurbs around Oxford) and a budget to open and operate a restaurant; the theme, design and cuisine is up to them. The contestants have created an assortment of Euro- and American-style ventures, but so far, just two have proved most intriguing. On the good side is the bright, colorful bistro offering food from Ghana (yummy-looking stews); the tarnished side of the coin is the ordinary English mom-and-son who in ordinary England cannot get a restaurant offering ordinary English food to function.
There are the usual tears from stressed contestants, tight-lipped snipes from peeved customers and, for comic relief, the Mutt-and-Jeff team of newlyweds who just don't get it: She's an American "actress" with an irritating "bubbly" personality perpetually set on 11; he's a dour little dude who regularly abandons his kitchen to noodle away on his jazz drums.
The whole custard-burning, wine-sloshing, fork-dropping stress-fest is presided over by well-known chef and restaurateur Raymond Blanc. His French-accented English is just this side of unintelligible, and he's a dead ringer for whatever character actor gets the role of dyspeptic French chief of police in European thrillers.
The pace of Last Restaurant is glacial compared to its frantic American cousin. One episode is spent presenting a night of custom; last week's added challenge asked the contestants to add special cocktails and desserts to their menus. After Blanc and his team of testers determine the three lowest-performing restaurants, a special challenge, such as hosting a private party on a fixed budget, is set for the following week's episode. At this rate, we'll be cooking well into summer.
But the relaxed pace lets us enjoy the delicious small moments such as when the decidedly proletariat team made up of a prison chef and a bingo-hall worker can't think up a single cocktail, or when a reputedly top-notch home chef is forced to ask his hired kitchen help how to chop leeks. And when contestants are cut, they're sent packing in a mini-van. Oh, the disgrace!