People Impossible: Robert Irvine for President

My favorite television show is Restaurant: Impossible, the only show I know when to watch (Wednesday night). After more than a year of trying to bring order to an institution that should be the very source of order in the world, I derive a lot of vicarious satisfaction out of watching Robert Irvine take charge, put people in their place, overhaul an operation, and mold a collection of incompetents into a combat-ready — excuse me — dinner-ready unit.

Watch a few episodes and you’ll see the same faults coming up time and time again:

  1. Cooks can’t cook because they don’t know how (and think salt is poison).
  2. Owners don’t track food costs because they don’t know they need to, so they don’t pay too much or charge too little.
  3. Managers hate being mean, and so they don’t hold people accountable.
  4. People hate criticism, resist correction, and blame others for what’s wrong.

Mostly the problem is number 3. At some point in almost every episode, Irvine will turn to the restaurant owner and say, in his working-class Wiltshire English, “You’uh no’ doing your job, and tha’s why you’uh failing!” Not doing your job invariably means not setting standards, not checking to see that standards are met, and not holding workers accountable for not meeting them. The inevitable result is poor service, bad food, dirty kitchens, and fewer customers.

Owners will often tell Irvine they can’t bear to fire people because their staff is like their family. Sometimes their staff actually is their family, but that’s hardly an excuse. You can’t raise a family without setting standards and punishing children for not meeting them. Somehow that lesson has been forgotten by these people.

Or maybe they never learned it. We have now had three generations of permissive parenting and feminized fatherhood, on top of two hundred years of secular, democratic, egalitarian, revolutionary Americanism. Quite a few Americans today think hierarchy and authority are evils to be eradicated. Quite a few Americans today respond to correction with an angry “F— off!”

Restaurant: Impossible shows us where that all leads. It’s a profoundly conservative, anti-egalitarian, downright patriarchal show. The loud and brawny host chews people out and orders them about like a drill sergeant. (He learned to cook in the Royal Navy.) He gets away with it partly by force of personality but also because he holds all the cards: He knows what he’s talking about, he has $10,000 to spend on improvements (much more counting labor), and everyone understands that without him the restaurant is doomed.

It’s amazing how humbling the combination of fear and hope can be. Restaurant owners and workers accept Irvine’s chastisement because he makes them face both: the possibility of success with him, the certainty of failure without him.

Too bad he only fixes restaurants.

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