‘New Chefs on the Block’ Shows the Grim Realities of Opening a Restaurant

The enthralling stories of two Washington D.C.-area chefs, from the moment they sign their leases to their restaurants’ first year in business.

If you’re someone with a deep love of cooking and a tenacious entrepreneurial spirit, watching New Chefs on the Block will stoke the fire to open a restaurant. Not because the 2016 documentary makes the process look easy. Far from it. The film follows the paths of two very different Washington D.C-area restaurateurs from the moment they have the keys to their respective buildings.

Aaron Silverman, an accounting intern-cum-chef, made his mark with Rose’s Luxury in 2013. Frank Linn, a classically trained chef and indefatigable champion of brick-oven pizzas, opened Frankly… Pizza! the following year. Although Linn’s initial projection was to open Rose’s in 2013, construction setbacks put him far behind schedule. Both chefs blew past their budgets.

This warts-and-all story, narrated by each chef and various staff and families, makes the quest to open a restaurant look, well, like it really is – physically and mentally demanding, financially draining and by most odds, destined for failure. But the obstacles are nothing to chefs who dream big enough, as we hear from snippets woven in from uber-successful restaurateurs Danny Meyer (of Shake Shack fame), “Top Chef” Mike Isabella and (the late) Citronelle founder Michel Richard.

The culinary docu is grounded by two dynamic storytellers – Linn, an almost maniacally-obsessive pizzaiolo, the son of entrepreneurs; and Silverman, a tattoo-ed, soft-spoken maverick whose concept is inspired by magnate Meyer’s “Put Your Employees First” credo. Bankrolled by his parents’ retirement savings, Silverman opens Rose’s with a very different set of rules: His employees get full health benefits and days off – unheard of in small, upstart restaurants. His take on sharing and family-style plates teeters on fine dining but with (by most cities’ standards) modest prices.

Linn, by contrast, runs a tighter budgetary ship. He and his family are shown demolishing the old interior and doing much of the renovation themselves. If Linn seems particularly comfortable talking to the camera, and he does, it’s probably because he’s talking to his brother-in-law, New Chefs filmmaker Dustin Harrison-Atlas, who says the storylines that intrigue him most are those of people “blindly determined to succeed in the face of slim odds.” That defines every restaurant owner, but for Harrison-Atlas, it embodied Linn.

But at that point, the brick-and-mortar pizzeria was still an idea in Linn’s head, with no set location. So the filmmaker set out to find another story subject further along in his pursuit. Googling led him to Silverman’s Kickstarter campaign. What Harrison-Atlas couldn’t have predicted was that this was where he hit the jackpot of unlikely restaurant-opening scenarios. But in an industry in which some estimates predict close to 30 percent fail in the first year, both chefs manage to hold on to their shirts. In glimpses viewers see the vulnerability and fear behind the veneer.

Many will never understand why chefs would risk everything to pursue a dream like this, and that just makes it more compelling to watch.    


Go See It: New Chefs on the Block

  • Tuesday, October 3, 3:30 p.m. (Downer Theatre)
  •  Saturday, October 7, 9 p.m. (Times Cinema)



Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.