This week, the first episode in a new series of Mijn Restaurant! (My Restaurant) was broadcast on VTM, with the expectation that Flanders, as before, is going to be perched on the edge of its seat for the next few months.
Mijn Restaurant begins its second season
The show is based on an Australian format: My Restaurant Rules, which now has a number of versions in Europe. Five pairs of contestants in five cities are given a budget and a building with which to create their dream restaurant. In the first few weeks, we see them develop the setting, employ staff and arrange supplies.
Then the jury is introduced. In Mijn Restaurant! it’s a three-person team headed by Peter Goossens, chef of Hof Van Cleve, Belgium’s top-rated restaurant. He’s the equivalent of Gordon Ramsay, short of an F-word or two. Like the British super chef, Goossens is tough, demanding, uncompromising and anything but mealy-mouthed. His fellow jury members are food writer Dirk De Prins and hotel executive Christel Cabanier.
The contestants have to sit through an ordeal that’s virtually inhuman in its cruelty, but which makes great television: the jury’s comments are recorded and played back to them. The appeal of shows like this is panem et circenses, with the bread taking the form of a whole menu. The struggle is gladiatorial, but it’s a cut above the usual reality knockouts. These people have talent: they can actually cook and run a restaurant, as most of them have continued to do since. It’s nice to watch someone at work who knows what they’re doing.
Not that the cut-throat aspect isn’t equally important. Last year’s contestants – in Leuven, Hasselt, Ghent, Ostend and Antwerp – were a mixed bag. The final two remaining were a mother-and-son team (who eventually won) and a Hasselt lesbian couple. For most of the season, though, the audience chose to concentrate on a 19-year-old fighting for a restaurant in Ostend with her 20-something boyfriend. Like many a 19-year-old, she thought she knew it all. Under intolerable pressure, she didn’t come over very well.
All five restaurants were operating in the black as the series was running; the decision to close one or the other was taken by the public based on the views of the judges – and their own prejudices. This year, however, only the winner will be allowed to stay open. “That way it’s all or nothing,” said a VTM spokesman. “The losing couples get an huge amount of experience and become immediately well-known. Of course they can open another restaurant under another name”
The series reached a million viewers, which is enormous for Flemish TV. More remarkable still was the press coverage, not only in the boekskes but also in respectable newspapers, with articles not only about the programme but also about the private lives of the contestants.
VTM anticipates more of the same this year, and asked TV journalists not to reveal the names of the new contestants or the locations of their restaurants – the sort of media silence that’s usually associated with kidnap cases. Not that there hasn’t been controversy to report: one of the restaurants has already been the subject of legal action since it’s installed in a listed building for which there’s no permit for rebuilding. The city of Kortrijk has promised to repay the fine VTM will face.
The show is focusing on smaller towns this time around, and chances are participants have been selected with a view to maximum drama. The show is a major success, though, before it even starts. Whether it will add much to the Flemish culinary scene is another question.