The Fox reality show "Kitchen Nightmares," as the name suggests, focuses on restaurant kitchens. Sure, Gordon Ramsay and company may redo the decor, but for the most part they concentrate on substandard chefs and awful food, leaving the beleaguered waitstaff alone.
Flip the formula and you have Food Network's reality show "Restaurant Stakeout," premiering Wednesday night at 10, following a preview that ran Sunday. Here, Long Island restaurateur and self-admitted character Willie Degel looks at dining-room nightmares -- uncaring servers, indifferent hostesses and clueless owners. And we mean "looks at," literally, since the show makes ample use of hidden cameras.
"I never pursued TV. TV found me," Degel, 44, of Old Brookville insists in a rat-a-tat patter that's straight-up Jimmy Cagney as Carnival Barker. The show's production company, RelativityREAL, had cast him in a 2010 truTV pilot called "America's Toughest Boss," spotlighting him as owner of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse, an upscale eatery with two locations in Manhattan and one in Bayside. "I tried it, but I didn't enjoy it," Degel says of that project, which never went to series. "I have a big heart and I wanted to do a show about business where I could help people."
HOW HE DOES IT He does that by installing as many as 16 hidden cameras in a restaurant that has asked for his help, then sending in people posing as diners to test the service. Sitting in a control-center RV outside, he'll call out audibles to his dining confederates' unseen earpieces and have them change their orders a few times, ask for an off-menu item, snap their fingers or leave their wallets behind. He'll also surreptitiously observe how the staff handles regular customers.
Then, like Ramsay on "Kitchen Nightmares," he will give owners and staff his critique. But despite his own bulldog demeanor, says the Queens-born Degel, "I don't really think I'm like him. I don't like to degrade people and belittle people the way he might. But I will lay you out on the table and show you what you're doing wrong and hopefully help you learn to do it right."
And Degel -- who advises the Williston Park restaurant Willy Parkers on an episode premiering April 4 -- knows that whether it's reality TV or Restaurant Row, showmanship sells. "Me, I'm going to say what I say," he tells you, pretty much unnecessarily. "I'm who I am!"