Film Reviews

Restaurant Hustle Review: Stories from the Pandemic

Four chefs adapt to survive COVID-19’s impact on the hospitality business


Restaurant Hustle: All on the Line
(USA, 91 min.)
Dir. Guy Fieri, Frank Matson

Guy Fieri has given audiences a tasting menu of Americana for over a decade with his popular series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. His portraits of restaurateurs from coast to coast are often fun and raucous celebration of good grub and the personalities within in America’s kitchens. The situation is dire for restaurants around the world, though, as the COVID-19 pandemic restricts or prohibits indoor dining as a safety precaution. Those of us who can pitch in by ordering extra take-out during the pandemic, and relish the comfort and convenience of a meal from down the road. However, no matter the secret sauce with which the diners, drive-ins, and dives of the world braised their ribs pre-pandemic, restaurants simply can’t survive on take-out alone.

Fieri, making his feature documentary debut alongside Frank Matson for the special Restaurant Hustle: All on the Line, chronicles the plights of four restauranteurs scrambling to keep their livelihoods afloat during the pandemic. Restaurant Hustle is among the wave of docs telling stories from the pandemic to capture a seismic event as it unfolds. The chefs on the menu in Restaurant Hustle include Marcus Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, who runs a trio of Red Rooster restaurants in Harlem. Chef Maneet Chauhan has four restaurants and a beer park with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. Christian Petroni runs five Fortina restaurants delivering pizza and Italian eats to New Yorkers. Chef Antonia Lofaso, finally, is a single mom running a handful of restaurants in Los Angeles, California. Each chef tells their story after coming off a high in 2019 and seeing the high-risks and low profit margins of the hospitality industry magnified exponentially during the pandemic.

However, these chefs are all tough cookies. The hustle-bustle of the lunch hour rush ensures that high energy and adaptability are in the bones. The doc recounts how the initial COVID-19 outbreaks had the chefs on high alert ahead of the March shut downs. Chauhan, for example, says that she and her husband closed their restaurants temporarily in anticipation of forced shutdowns. Before immediately pivoting to curbside pick-up, she chronicles their experience with undertaking market research in order to maximise profit and efficiency, while keeping the restaurants closed in the interim to reduce high expenses like inventory, waste, and, unfortunately, staffing. The chefs all tell of putting hundreds of people out of work, hopefully temporarily, as business flat-lined. Between the businesses helmed by these four chefs alone, Restaurant Hustle accounts for over 1000 Americans out of work due to the pandemic.

Samuelsson, on the other hand, recognised the role of restaurants as the kitchens of America. He chronicles his effort to unite the Red Rooster joints with World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization devoted to feeding Americans during national disasters. Samuelsson uses his restaurants as outlets where fellow New Yorkers could get food when grocery stories are in short supply, or inaccessible to those in need. The chef also sees much of his community hit hard as he reflects on the reality that Black men are among the people most adversely affected by the coronavirus, which makes his mission doubly serious and urgent. But he also finds his mission assume a new meaning as the Black community rises up anew with the Black Lives Matter protests that reignited over the summer. His food feeds many on the front lines of a shared fight.

Lofaso, who arguably gets the most screen time and has the largest personality, finds creative ways to keep her restaurants running while getting as many people back to work as she can. These efforts include tapping into the allowances for restaurants to sell groceries, which become especially viable when liquor starts flying off the shelves. Whipping up menus for Zoom dinners, meanwhile, captures how technology afforded new means to re-imagine businesses worldwide. Lofaso chronicles a high-energy business blitz as her team prepares over 100 dinners who patrons eager to be united by an online cooking class: she prepares the bulk of the meal, sends it via delivery, and they all Zoom in to put it together. However, Lofaso also encounters every kitchen’s worst nightmare when the virus enters one of her restaurants and adds another twist in her story, as 2020 is apt to do.

Petroni finds himself on similar brainwaves as his fellow participants. On one hand, the grocery-story style take-away offers a moderately reliable and waste-reducing method that could become a new normal for restaurants. His “Pies for the People” campaign harnesses philanthropy and good business sense by adding a charitable cause to ordering out. Patrons can buy a pizza for someone in need, and pies fly out of the ovens to feed front line workers. Each of the four stories sees the restaurateurs use their kitchens to feed Americans at the front lines of the pandemic, like doctors, nurses, and personal support workers, offering aid when they too are in need.

As with Fieri’s other series, Restaurant Hustle is less about the food and more about the spirit of America that resides in the nation’s eateries. The reality show roots of its creators keep the stories urgent, rather than dated, a factor with which many docs struggle while accounting for the pandemic. The doc puts the cameras in the hands of the chefs themselves and lets them film from the front lines of an industry that is among those hit hardest by the pandemic. The character-driven, first person accounts offer valuable and engaging perspectives from different corners of America during COVID.

These four portraits show Americans at their best from the perspectives of business owners scrambling to survive and adapt to the rapidly changing calamity of 2020. There are more stories to be told, and the doc says that more are to come, but it’s a worthy four-course snapshot best paired with take-out from your favourite local restaurant.

Restaurant Hustle premiered at DOC NYC and airs on Food Network Dec. 27. and discovery+ on Jan. 4

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Complex and ran the former blog Cinemablographer. He is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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