Photos from NBC
Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia, Curtis Stone and Steve Ells, who are investors in the winning restaurant.
We're down to the wire on “America’s Next Great Restaurant,” with the last episode Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBC (Ch. 11). Who will join the investors in the three-restaurant-chain with an outlet at the Mall of America? The past two months of shows have provided the longest-running commercial for Chipotle -- and quite a promotion for a new local restaurant.
It’s hard to out-think the investors, who are also the judges -- Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone – what with all the divergent opinion and change-of-direction that the TV show has fostered. What the judges seem to want one week changed in the next. Yet each of the three finalists is a strong contender precisely because they have adapted to what the judges asked of them.
Bobby Flay, in a conference call to writers, had this to say about the contestants: “The thing that surprised me, I think, across the board was that a lot of people with little or no restaurant experience, that were very, very smart people, who had really good ideas, weren’t really keen on listening to investors’ advice.… I think that sometimes people forgot we were actually sitting there listening to them, deciding on who we were going to invest in. And they just were sort of just competing to win. There’s a difference, you know? I think that sort of got lost in their vision somewhat. And that sort of surprised me. I think that people that sort of have their eye on the prize, the real prize, which is getting these three restaurants, did better.”
In Sunday’s episode, the finalists have a brief reunion with their families before they get to the serious work of competition.
Let’s take a look at the likelihood of each finalist winning Sunday’s competition.
Soul Daddy/ Jamawn Woods
Soul food with a twist
Pro: Jamawn, age 32, has done a great job of putting a healthful twist to soul food, as the judges have suggested to him. Before he landed in this contest, he was selling waffles and fried chicken from his apartment in Detroit. Today he's mastered dishes far beyond that scope. He consistently prepared food that the judges loved (with the exception of the kids’ menu), and won the popular vote from the public in several challenges. His personal story is one that seems to tug at the judges’ emotions (out-of-work, broke, three kids), who not only tolerate his tears but seem to encourage them. (Yet would it be acceptable for any of the female contestants to cry during their time before the judges?)
Con: Is the country looking for a national soul-food restaurant? Particularly a healthier version of one? Got my doubts on that, especially in Minnesota, which has not been a Mecca for soul food. Jamawn expanded the traditional notion of soul food to include Cajun-spiced salmon and shrimp, but in doing so, has he gone beyond what diners consider to be heart of soul food? And it seems to miss the emphasis by the judges on fresh food.  
Spice Coast/ Sudhir Kandula

Modern Indian cuisine
Pro: Interest in Indian food nationally is definitely on the increase and there are a number of successful high-end Indian restaurants. Sudhir, age 40,  is a passionate advocate for the food of his country, particularly the Southern Indian fare that he says is lighter in general and uses more vegetables.  This is a cuisine that could be considered healthful and that uses plenty of fresh ingredients, all of which tap into the Chipotle style and Steve Ells’ restaurant model, which Sudhir clearly has found an affinity with. Of the three finalists, Sudhir seems to have the most business savvy and financial sense (for the food-truck episode, he was the only one who had figured out a precise food cost).In fact, he has been part owner in two NYC restaurants. In an interview elsewhere, Sudhir makes clear that he plans to open a restaurant, whether or not he wins -- and one that has a significant vegetarian menu, which was an early point of contention with the judges.
Con: Is there sufficient interest in Indian food to make this a winning national brand? That’s the only question holding back this prospect.
Brooklyn Meatball Company/ Joseph Galluzzi
Pro: During the last episode, when Bobby Flay asked if the meatball concept “had legs,” Curtis Stone said it was a “no-brainer.” Joey, age 40, pointed out earlier that his concept was a money maker and had mass appeal, and he won the kids’ vote in that challenge. His meatballs – which are basically comfort food – were highly rated by the judges, except in the last episode where they apparently weren’t cooked right. Joey has been willing to adapt his concept to please the judges. His food brings the homemade touch to meatballs (which can be found across the parking lot of MOA at Ikea). They could be sourced from purveyors with a sustainable-food image, just as meat is at Chipotle. His menu appeals to families and, frankly a wide range of ages, something the investors spent an entire episode discussing. Meatballs lend themselves to a wide variety of entrees, from appearing atop rigatoni to being made into smashed sliders for kids, and can come in all sorts of meat options. It's a versatile dish.

Con: I’m having a hard time picturing a family saying, “You know what I really want for dinner tonight? Meatballs,” and then driving to the Mall of America to eat them -- though that may be what diners do at Ikea. But, of course, that’s not the intent of the MOA location. It’s the hungry shoppers they’re after. Still, the question is how often a diner will choose meatballs as the dinner of choice. More importantly, is Joey a serious businessman? Joey made some grievous mistakes early in the competition -- from calling his original concept "Saucy Balls," to recommending the gangster look for uniforms and then posing with a (fake) weapon for his photo to be on the restaurant wall. The investors will want reassurance that Joey can be in a serious leadership position in the new restaurant.
Join me on Twitter at #stribtaste, at 7 p.m. Sunday, as we watch the final episode of “America’s Next Great Restaurant.”

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Soul Daddy grooves at MOA