The wind was picking up, the sun sliding behind banks of thick clouds. A few dozen of us were standing around in that classic group-photo formation, watching a bustling tech crew set up a podium on the edge of a small parklet.
There were cameras all around, including one on a crane. Cars along Penn Avenue slowed as drivers tried to assess if we were Important. And we were, in a way, because you can't have a restaurant relaunch without diners.
With the facade of Miss Jean's Southern Cuisine serving as the backdrop, we had lights, we had cameras. What we lacked was the action, but that's show biz: A lot of standing around for a flurry activity. Kind of like playing football.
Local restaurants given 'Kitchen Nightmares' treatment
Gordon Ramsay of "Kitchen Nightmares" was in town to oversee operations at two restaurants, Miss Jean's in Wilkinsburg and Levanti's in Beaver. (Video by Andrew Rush; 6/14/2012)
Each season, the Fox network's "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" hops around the country, looking to perform an intense few days of restaurant CPR. The crew arrived in Wilkinsburg in late May, where Mr. Ramsay would hone in on problems possibly ranging from decor to dessert.
He also schools the owners and wait staff, a tough-love adventure in trying to teach old dogs new tricks. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but it's always entertaining. Viewers can see for themselves when the Wilkinsburg episode airs Nov. 16.
Mr. Ramsay, celebrity owner/chef of numerous establishments in the U.S. and Great Britain, is the Ryan Seacrest of restaurant reality. In addition to executive producing "Kitchen Nightmares," he is heavily involved in Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" -- Pittsburgh's Elise Wims was a finalist in the 2011 season -- and to a lesser degree, Fox's "Master Chef."
After filming the June 3 relaunch dinner in Wilkinsburg, the process would play out again at Levanti's restaurant in Beaver, Beaver County, later that week. That episode will air on Fox March 1.
"The people at Levanti's had lost their passion," said "Kitchen Nightmares" executive producer Kent Weed. "They had started losing money, then started losing customers. People don't vote with words in restaurants, they vote with their feet."
The show's research team found that there was an overabundance of Italian restaurants in the area, so they changed its theme to American bistro.
Back in Wilkinsburg, as we waited in the little park, the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir assembled near the podium as the rain clouds rumbled. At last, the darkened restaurant windows reflected a flash of a white chef's coat as Mr. Ramsay and Jean Gould emerged.
The choir sang movingly, then there were brief speeches from Mr. Ramsay, Wilkinsburg Mayor John Thompson and a teary-eyed "Miss Jean." We in the crowd applauded enthusiastically, pretending cameras were not pointed at us.
I tried not to slouch.
After about 20 minutes of watching the Fox staff hustle about the restaurant parking lot, it was time for the big reveal (as they say in reality television).
"The first thing that surprised us was the [original] look," said Mr. Weed, who was in Pittsburgh for both of the seven-day shoots. "It was very barren, simplistic, something like the [in the] army."
As for the old menu, he said, there was little that was fresh, the kitchen was poorly stocked.
"It was rough," Ms. Gould said. "It's not easy ... someone telling you your food is not good."
Worse, there was a great deal of bickering between the owner and her staff. But one of the show's biggest draws is showing how Mr. Ramsay smooths over the personality clashes.
"Gordon has an amazing way of getting to know people very quickly, and getting beneath and mask and the layers and to the heart of the person, "Mr. Weed said. "So he's a little bit of a therapist, too, in that regard."
Ms. Gould, a fan of cooking shows, applied to be on the show last year but said she didn't expect to have Miss Jean's Southern Cuisine chosen. Turns out, soul food is a particular passion of Chef Ramsay.
"And he learned she had been involved in the community in the past, she had been a teacher. She sounded like a really great lady and so he was keen to help her out," Mr. Weed said.
Since spring, the building was sold; Miss Jean's has since moved down the street a few blocks, to Hosanna House, on Wallace Avenue. But the day we dined, we were ushered inside the original bank building site to rough-hewn tables, where gray, white and yellow touches served to punch up the wall decor.
One of our appetizers was a crayfish dip that was quite salty, yet tasty. It was served on ordinary, straight-from-the-bag potato chips, which was a bad idea. The chip was too flimsy to hold up under the hearty dip, and the extra salt didn't help.
Two of us chose the safe but appealing choice of fried chicken, which was excellent. But a serving of jambalaya was bland.
The meal's highlight was dessert. Sweet potato pie was very sweet, but good, and the peach cobbler was excellent.
"That was his peach cobbler," Ms. Gould said. "I'm not going to steal that one from him."
Mr. Ramsay appeared genuinely pleased to hear the cobbler praised by someone in our group ("It's my mother's recipe!") when he strolled from table to table like a groom at a reception.
The biggest point of contention on the old menu, Ms. Gould said, was her macaroni and cheese: "We almost went to blows on that."
After "like, a thousand hours of taping," she said she couldn't be certain what made the final one-hour cut but did hint "maybe there was one thing where I thought later 'I shouldn't have done that.' I think I'll just let you watch."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published November 15, 2012 5:00 AM