FAREWELL LANCE, HELLO BARBECUE

Anyone who remembers the grim second season of NBC's The Restaurant was probably taken aback to learn that CNBC planned to rebroadcast all the episodes from that show's two seasons. Who wanted to watch Rocco DiSpirito and Jeffrey Chodorow go at each other's throat one more time? Yet there it was in mid-July, beginning with back-to-back episodes in prime time and repeating them later in the same evening.

In retrospect, we had forgotten the buoyant tone of Season One's first few episodes, and we've got to admit that the production values and storytelling aspects of The Restaurant outshine those of the reality shows that have followed it. Viewing it with knowledge of how the venture turned out (Rocco was bounced out of his namesake restaurant in disgrace, Chodorow lost a bundle on the deal and the restaurant long ago closed its doors) is like watching a Shakespearean tragedy. The audience knows disaster is coming; the characters don't.

There's nothing tragic about the barbecue show now running on The Outdoor Life Network (OLN). It's hosted by 10-time world champion Chris Lilly, proprietor of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, AL. And the story line is clear: they're out to find the greatest barbecue chef in the nation. With the format OLN picked, and with the contestants they were able to attract to the contest, they just might do it.

The nine-part series is already in the can. First, cookoffs between experts and amateurs taped at local competitions in eight states winnowed the contestants down to the top four all-stars and top two amateurs. And note that these cookoffs took place in the heart of the barbecue belt: Memphis, TN, Kansas City, MO, Hammond, LA, Corpus Christi, TX and four other locations. The finalists faced off at New York City's Big Apple Block Party, which took place in June. The winner got $25,000 and the coveted "Best Barbecue Chef in America" crown.

So who won? You'll have to wait until the grand finale on Sept. 11 to find out. Between now and then the show will air at 10 p.m on Sunday evenings, with encore presentations spotted during the week. There's plenty of airtime on OLN now that Lance Armstrong has completed his last Tour de France, and the barbecue show is one way OLN is filling it up.

Two things make this All-Star BBQ Showdown potentially interesting. One is the high-caliber judging panel. Unlike the judges on "Iron Chef America," "Cooking Under Fire" or one-man tribunal Gordon Ramsay on "Hell's Kitchen," the judges on this show have been adjudicating barbecue-cooking competitions for years, some doing so almost weekly. Taste and texture standards are set in stone, and everyone knows what they are.

Another is the structure of the competition. There are many ways to produce great barbecue, but each week's contenders will have to do so without knowing what meats, equipment or tools they will be working with that day. One week they'll be using giant competition rig, the next they'll have to deal with a Weber smoker like the one your neighbor uses on the weekend. If you wanted a level playing field on a cooking show, this one's for you.

"These challengers are fueled by competition and excellence in barbecue, elevating backyard fare to an unmatched level," says Gavin Harvey, president of OLN. "Our viewers will get an authentic look inside the methods of these pit masters' madness, learning tricks of the trade that they have developed down to a science. The do-or-die cook-off will be classic battles of wit, talent and pure adrenaline to concoct the best BBQ in the nation."

If you are looking for a cooking competition show where you could learn lessons of great value to your operation merely by watching, this could be the one.

Of course, the good news for full-service operators in all this is that routine events in your restaurant remain of burning interest to TV viewers. Whether you're looking for more customers or more employees, national TV exposure can only help.

Still to be determined is the effect of this fall's "Kitchen Confidential" series on FOX. Inspired by Anthony Bourdain's tell-all book of the same name, it's a fictional show, but it's going to make working in restaurant seem like one wild and crazy career choice. Which, as those of you already in the profession know, it sometimes can be.

Here's how the PR folks at FOX describe the show.

"Chef Jack Bourdain (played by Bradley Cooper) found enormous success at a young age. Unfortunately, Jack's culinary genius also led to a lifestyle of boozing, womanizing and drugs-excesses that eventually landed him in the gutter. After hitting rock bottom and deciding to sober up, the only job he could get was slopping soggy pasta for the masses at a tacky, opera-themed restaurant.

"Out of the blue, Jack is offered an opportunity to get back in the game as head chef at a top New York restaurant. There's just one problem: the owner gives Jack a mere 48 hours to fully staff his kitchen and prepare to dazzle over 300 customers-including the food critic for the New York Times (who also happens to be a jilted ex)."

Reality-based? Not this one. Will people watch? Hey, it's got to pull bigger numbers than Emeril Lagasse's short-lived sitcom did for NBC.

"Kitchen Confidential" will debut in September on FOX. Its regular time slot is 8:30 p.m. on Monday evenings.