Can a visit from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay help Shore restaurants thrive?
One night last October, what appeared to be a television crew was spotted unpacking lights and equipment in a parking lot off Fischer Boulevard in Toms River.
Rumors began to swirl, fueled by news that a call had gone out for extras to participate in an unnamed television show.
By the next day, cellphone photos of a slick-haired man dressed all in black were circling on social media, and people reported seeing a van – actually a mobile kitchen – emblazoned with the words "Hell on Wheels."
Representatives from Fox would not confirm until days later, but the secret was out: Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, known for delivering brutally honest critiques in a manner not even his British accent can soften, was in town and shooting his reality restaurant renovation show, "24 Hours to Hell and Back."
Ramsay visited three restaurants during his New Jersey trip – Caneda's White Rooster in Toms River, Blend on Main in Manasquan and Botto's Italian Line Restaurant in Swedesboro – for the third season of the show, which features top-to-bottom renovations of existing restaurants in need of a boost.
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Fox would not comment on the success rate of restaurants following an appearance on "24 Hours to Hell and Back," but as of press time, of the 21 businesses featured, five have closed and 16 remain open.
The experience is exciting – or so it seems – but what was it like for these restaurant owners to put their life's work in someone else's hands? What happens after the cameras are gone, and can small-screen spotlight can be enough to turn things around?
Editor's note: A story on Botto's Italian Line Restaurant will publish closer to its episode air date, Jan. 28.
Blend on Main, Manasquan
Episode air date: Jan. 14
Chef Lou Smith is of the mind that any press is good press, so when a network called last summer to ask if he wanted to take part in a restaurant renovation competition show, he agreed.
Smith, owner and chef of Blend on Main since 2014, was not given many details. "Next thing I know, Gordon Ramsay was ripping his face off in the dining room," he said of the moment the chef began unpeeling his bearded disguise.
Smith suspected Ramsay would be involved after hearing he was filming at Caneda's White Rooster in Toms River. "My antennae went up," he said.
The production crew arrived, asked Smith to stay away for a few days while they wired the restaurant for sound and audio, then filled his Main Street restaurant with diners who had been tasked with challenging the staff.
As expected, dinner service wasn't easy that night. And the cameras were rolling.
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"Yes, that is what I look like when 90 people sit down at one time and all want to be fed high quality," Smith said after the episode aired. "It is beyond stressful. No one can make a mistake, and every second that passes it is now a minute to the customer.
"Every order had a special request. That never happens," he said. "When we're that pressured, it comes out more aggressive."
But Smith and his staff – minus two head chefs, who were not included in the show – completed service and were cleaning the kitchen when the chef was called to the dining room. There, the big reveal – which included Shore chef James Avery, who worked with Ramsay on "Hell's Kitchen" and was called in to distract the staff during filming – before Ramsay and his team got to work, renovating the restaurant (without input from Smith, though he is very happy with the new look), giving tips to his chefs and paring down the menu.
Ramsay didn't have any cooking tips for Smith – "I took it as a compliment," he said – and buzz around the show brought in diners, which, as the owner of any beach town restaurant in the slow season would say, is a good thing.
In fact, attracting more local diners into Blend on Main was the reason Smith agreed to the show in the first place.
Looking back:Chef Gordon Ramsay is in Toms River, and here's why
"There are 43 families that work here," he said of Blend on Main, which does not close in the slow off-season. "We keep everybody that we have in the summer in the winter. It's tough stuff."
Smith hopes to parlay the television experience into support for a Manasquan-based organization with which he is involved, Common Ground Grief Center, which provides support for children experiencing loss. Customers can purchase T-shirts that read "#TeamLou" at the restaurant; a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the center.
"I definitely appreciate chef Gordon Ramsay shedding light on my restaurant," Smith said. "I am certainly proud that he did not find an unkempt place or a dirty place. That's hard to find in his shows.
"At the end, (Ramsay) tells me I'm a great chef and gives me a hug," he said. "For him to say I'm a great chef was validating."
Caneda's White Rooster, Toms River
Episode air date: Jan. 21
It took Patty Caneda more than a year to build her restaurant, a pretty, polished space she opened in 2018 as a tribute to her Cuban-born grandparents and the food on which she grew up.
The menu has Cuban classics – arroz con pollo, churrasco, ropa vieja – and her grandmother's scratch-made empanadas, a flaky turnover that inspired Caneda's first restaurant, Caneda's Empanada Experience.
After Ramsay's visit, which began as Smith's did and followed the same process, the Rooster looks much different. Caneda's crystal chandeliers, white tablecloths and cool color palette were replaced with bright walls and decor, lending a Miami feel, Caneda said.
"I have recently felt the nostalgia settling in," she said from a seat in her new dining room, which is very slowly growing on her. Caneda misses what she created but acknowledges that the changes Ramsay's team made – a smaller menu, a more family-friendly environment, adjustments in staffing – could help her keep the restaurant she has poured her heart into.
"We were struggling, we are not embarrassed about that," she said last year after Ramsay's visit, adding the restaurant's upscale atmosphere may have been off-putting to local diners looking for something more casual. "I know we needed help, and some changes had to be made.
"I want to be a local restaurant you want to come to every night of the week," she said. "I think the producers understood we had something great here. We just weren't executing it properly."
Go: 781 Fischer Blvd.; 732-929-2822, thewhiterooster.net.
A lifelong Jersey girl, Sarah Griesemer joined the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey more than 15 years ago and has held a variety of positions since, but writing about the Shore's mom and pop restaurants is her favorite. Write her at email@example.com and follow @jersey.shore.eats.