AWKWARD NEW YORK is a weekly column about the uncomfortable experiences of Chris Vespoli in and around NYC. Every Tuesday is another cringe-worthy account, from being fat shamed by a Dunkin’ Donuts employee to crashing Fashion Week.
The great, oft-misquoted New Yorker Andy Warhol once wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Well, if that’s true, I already used up a few milliseconds of my time when I appeared briefly on the FOX show Kitchen Nightmares in 2010. Sadly, it’s still the highlight of my TV career.
Though I’ve written and produced a few projects for television, my bloated hipster face has graced the small screen but only a few times as a performer — if you want to call standing at the edge of the frame or sitting silently at a table “performing.” History has shown I can’t quite cut it as a legitimate actor, so it was only logical for me to do the next best thing: agree to be an extra on a mildly popular restaurant makeover reality show. It was just as glamorous as it sounds.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kitchen Nightmares…well, good for you. Hopefully that means you watch more noteworthy television like 60 Minutes, PBS NewsHour, or Chrisley Knows Best. The premise of the show is simple: Famed chef Gordon Ramsay is sent to a struggling mom-and-pop restaurant to revamp its menu, retrain its staff, and let fly a wonderful palate of British-accented expletives when the whole damn thing goes to shit.
It so happened that, in the fall of 2010, an old college friend of mine was working for the show, and sent out a Facebook blast looking for people who’d be interested in appearing as patrons of Classic American, a West Babylon restaurant that was to be the center of an upcoming episode. These extras, for lack of a better showbiz term, would come to the eatery for a legitimate meal, and agree to have their honest reactions to the cuisine captured on camera. I had just moved back from freelancing in LA, and was living on Long Island (in my mom’s apartment…whatever, the country was in a recession) until I could find another place to live in the City. With not much else to do on Long Island, I responded to my friend’s casting call, with some caveats.
Having seen the show, I made it clear that I didn’t want to be one of the suckers who eats at the restaurant before Ramsay makes it over, while the food is still garbage, but I’d be happy to sample the “after” cuisine. My friend assured me that the latter scenario would be the case, and I believed her. This was a mistake. When she asked me if I knew any people I could bring with me, I told her I’d bring my family. This was also mistake.
I arrived at the restaurant with my dad, stepmom, and aunt in tow, and checked in with the production staff outside. After signing a bunch of waivers and releases, we were instructed to enter the restaurant, where the cameras were already rolling and microphones hot. Our only instructions: Act naturally, be honest about the food, and, above all, don’t look directly at the cameras when you walk through the door. My stepmom followed two of these three instructions.
Despite their misconstruing this reality show as their own personal coming out party (“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Ramsay!”), my family and I were seated and handed menus. The food selection was a suspicious mishmash of styles. I ordered what seemed to be the least dubious dish, penne alla vodka with chicken, while my dad took his chances on the meatloaf, I believe. The confusion of the wait staff and the looks of dissatisfaction on the other customers’ faces were extremely apparent, and it was at this point in the experience that I realized we were not lucky customers previewing a revamped menu, but captive guinea pigs being force fed questionable cuisine.
My pasta wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either. Knowing that the show prominently features meaningful criticism from the patrons, I figured if I made my audible gripes intelligent enough, the producers would use them. I scripted out my critique in my head, and then launched into it with my family. I sounded like a Chopped judge as I opined on every aspect of my dish, from the acidity of the sauce to the integrity of the cooked pasta…But this was all the producers used of me: a few frames of me silently staring off into space while my aunt spoke to the waitress, which is the most TV screen time my unobstructed face has ever gotten.
My parents, however, were featured front and center — especially my dad — and became stars of their social circles. Hey, at least they got something out of it all.
As for Classic American, the restaurant is now closed, as is the chapter of my life in which I thought I was worthy of appearing on television.
For more AWKWARD NEW YORK, click here.