With Bravo's "Top Chef" having recently garnered series-high ratings for its fifth season and Gordon Ramsay's "Hells Kitchen" performing well on FOX, it was inevitable that more cooking-related reality shows would be coming down the pike. Enter "The Chopping Block," NBC's entry to the genre that starts cooking tonight on NBC. Chef Marco Pierre White discussed how he became a part of the show, his thoughts on 'performing' for reality TV and what is the most important element in getting a restaurant to succeed.
While White has been in the restaurant business since 1987, he gives credit to "Hell's Kitchen" for his new show but he doesn't mean Ramsay's version here in the U.S. "Well first, for many, many years I refused to do TV. And then I did a show in England called 'Hell's Kitchen.' And after 'Hell's Kitchen' I was then approached by [Granada America] and NBC whether I would come to doing the show 'Chopping Block.' They sat with me on the phone and we had a chat and a conversation and so therefore I agreed to do the show but it was all in the strength of 'Hell's Kitchen' U.K."
The format of "Chopping Block" finds eight couples broken up into two teams and running two competing restaurants in New York City in hopes of making it to the end of the challenges and winning the grand prize � $250,000 to open their own restaurant. Of the couples, White said, "All I can say is the [eight] couples that were chosen for the show were all very hard working. And they all came with a dream to win a restaurant. And what's interesting about a show like 'Chopping Block,' you know, what you see is timing is a great thing. And you see after program, one program, two program, three, you start to see people's true colors. And even though they were hard working, you start to see that some people are there for the wrong reason. They start to turn that dream into a nightmare."
Of all the cities to place a cooking competition show, why New York City? "In my opinion," White offered, "New York is mostly the gastronomic city capital of the world. It feeds people on many levels at many different price points within many different environments like no other capital I've ever been to. You have very serious individuals cooking and serving in those restaurants. It would be terrifying for me to open a restaurant in New York. Never mind one of my contestants. You'd have to be very brave."
And while food is often thought of as the primary reason for a restaurant succeeding, White has his own thoughts. "The most important aspect of any restaurant is the environment you sit in. So let's not forget we're in the business of selling a night out. And the business of selling - food is only one aspect... if you walk into a restaurant, you sit down, you feel comfortable, you feel relaxed, you're being looked after, you start to be yourself. Once you become yourself, you start to enjoy yourself. You can truly start to appreciate everything. And you know something, if there's a mistake because you're having a good time, you close an eye."
Chef White is very aware of the other cooking-related series on the air and shared his thoughts on why he thinks these shows are more successful today than every before. "I think people's interest in food is greater today than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago," he said. "I think secondly a kitchen is an actual theatre. And I think it gives people great insight into the workings of a restaurant. Which fascinates, which intrigues them, which captures them."
As for one of his fellow high-profile chefs, White had a few words to share about Ramsey's U.S. version of "Hell's Kitchen" and Ramsey's recent claims that "Top Chef" was stealing ideas from his show. "Originality is only original if you're the first and I have seen nothing original there at 'Hell's Kitchen.' And if someone does steal one of their ideas what a great compliment. What a great compliment."
As for his own part in the reality show genre, White has his own ideas about how he wants to be seen and how he doesn't. "Firstly, I will never be a performing seal. I do not perform for a camera. I am myself. I'm a great believer if you do reality TV then you have a duty to put reality into TV. If you don't do that, then what you're doing is questioning your integrity. You're questioning everything you ever worked for. And I didn't work 22 years in a kitchen as hard as I did to be a performing seal. I didn't - I didn't set out to turn 'Chopping Block' into a circus."
White also stressed that the environment where chefs are cooking is one that should be filled with respect for everyone involved. "I will not tolerate anybody raising their voice unnecessarily," he said. "I will not accept lack of respect. A chef must be respectful. You have a job at hand to do and that is feed your customers to the best of your ability. If somebody doesn't want to follow the rules, they want to be loud, if they want to be disrespectful, they wish to swear, then they have to go. They can't be part of that kitchen."
White will also not tolerate disrespectful behavior from guests and has been known to kick patrons out of his restaurants. "The main reason why I eject people from my restaurant is firstly they're rude to the staff. Secondly, they're rude and boisterous. We started to overspill onto the enjoyment of other tables around them. As a restaurateur you have a duty to one, ask them to fall in line or leave the restaurant. You cannot allow rude people in your restaurant because they spoil it for others."
As for his entire career as a chef, his destiny seemed to have been chosen for him based on his family. "Firstly, my grandfather was a chef. My father was a chef. My uncle was a pastry chef. My other uncle was a butcher. I was surrounded by food. My mother was Italian who cooks beautifully... my father encouraged me to go into the restaurant business, the hotel industry for the simple reason is he said you will not make a lot of money but you'll always have a job because people always have got to eat. You'll be able to put food on your family's table and a roof over their head. And that's why I got into the food industry. I followed my family's tradition."
One difference between when he began his career and today is the number of people who are able to enter a kitchen and learn to cook. "Today you have people walk into kitchens from every single sector of society," White said. "Kitchens are the last bastions. You don't need qualifications. You knock on the door. You have the courage to walk through it. You keep your head down."
"The Chopping Block" premieres tonight at 8:00/7:00c on NBC.