Bringing Back a Classic: Amanda Freitag Chats About American Diner Revival

Amanda Freitag chats about her experience revamping restaurant menus on Food Network's new show American Diner Revival.
Amanda Freitag

Photo by: Anders Krusberg ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Anders Krusberg, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Why do we love the American diner? It's because you know what to expect: a broad menu with the classic dishes you love, friendly service and a comfortable family environment. On American Diner Revival the goal is not to change that definition of a diner, but to take it to the next level. While home improvement expert Ty Pennington remodels the interior and exterior of each diner, Amanda Freitag takes a look at the menus and finds ways to give them new life, by striking the right balance between old and new. Sometimes it means a menu overhaul, but in most cases it's tweaking the dishes to encourage an influx of new customers while still keeping a constant flow of regulars.

FN Dish recently caught up with Amanda to chat about the show and how she approaches the challenge as a diner owner herself.

FN Dish: So how has owning your own diner, Empire Diner, influenced how you approach the challenge of redoing the menus on American Diner Revival?

Amanda Freitag: I think the challenge is to keep it as true to diner food as possible, but elevating it and making sure it fits that diner. Every diner is different and unique and has a reason why people go there, whether it's the region and the food for that region, whether it's the family influence or whether it's just something that the chef is doing, and most of the time it's been passed down from generation to generation. So for me the challenge is to keep it true to what it's always been, yet elevate it and just shine it up a little because I don't want to ever give the diner something that they can't do or don't want to do or doesn't fit. I want it to fit right in and feel like it's been there forever.

How do you figure out how much to change or how little to change?

AF: That's a great question because a lot of diner menus are big and I think every case so far has been very different. One of the menus, I completely streamlined, redid it actually. Redid the fonts, redid the menu structure and then redid some items, and that was a challenge because most of the time we're doing it obviously without the diner owner there, because they're going to come and be surprised and that would be something I'd want to work in conjunction with the diner owner. So the choice [is] whether to just redo the whole menu, streamline it or just add some things. A recent example was one of the diners we ended up just making a table tent and it was signature specials and it was additional sides and that really worked well, especially in that diner feel, that diner setting. It's like, OK you have the big menu, but then you have this other thing that you look at almost first when you get to the table. So it's been different each time. Maybe it's just adding a blackboard special. So taking a whole big fat eight-page diner menu [laughs] and redoing it in 36 hours doesn't always work, so it's adding a few items, or it's streamlining and tweaking their existing menu.

What do you think are the essential dishes that a diner menu should have, ones that you think are untouchable?

AF: I mean every diner menu has to have, you know, their burger corner, so that's sort of untouchable I really feel. There's some diner classics like big fat sandwiches or meatloaf, or there's been a lot of hot dogs on these diner menus that we've done [laughs], which is interesting. And then there's always the french fries and the sides and the things that ... just seem to end up on every plate. The egg dishes — you really can't take away the egg dishes, but you can change them and shine them up a little bit. But I think you know a basic diner menu always has strong breakfast, always has those great burgers and sandwiches, and then a few of those blue-plate specials. And those are mainstays, and I think they have to stay. And I think it's fun to look at those and make a twist or add to that section. Say, OK there's always going to be meatloaf, but now let's add chicken-fried steak or whatever it may be.

What do you think is the essential diner experience, basically what makes a restaurant different from a diner?

AF: I think the essential diner experience, why people go to diners, is just to feel at home, to feel that they can get whatever they want, whenever they wanted, which may be breakfast for dinner, which may mean dinner for breakfast [laughs]. And I think that it's about giving that person what they want but also in a very accommodating environment. I think people go to diners because they feel like, "OK, I could come here and get my thing." You know? And: "I don't have to worry about what my dining companions are having. I could have what I want and they could have what they want. I could eat a big steak sandwich right now and they can have pancakes, and we're all going to be happy." So I think it's about really giving the customer whatever they want at whatever time of the day. That's the diner to me — with a cup of coffee. [laughs] ... Nobody ever judges you at a diner unless you have a cranky waitress.

How has it been working with Ty, and do you two coordinate the menu with the design and so forth?

AF: It has been so great working with Ty. I'm super lucky right now; I love working with him. He's brilliant. He gets it; he sees the vision of what it should be. One of my favorite moments from one of the shows recently was when the diner owner came back and said, "This is exactly what I wanted." And [Ty] just knows ... how to make people happy and he listens to the diner insider. He sees the place and then instantly he knows what needs to be done. So for me it's great to work with him because as a chef who's been doing this for a really long time, I also have that intuition, but in the kitchen — certainly not with design. But ... I do have a vision of how things should look. ... We definitely team up on food and design because you'd be shocked how related they are. And just like any restaurant project, before you do anything, before you build it, before you design it, you sit and you talk ... What's the menu going to be? What's the concept of the restaurant? And then you take the design from there, and the design and food is very connected. So whether it be him creating a platter or whether it be us deciding on the height of the counter that the servers work at or whether it be something that he says: "OK, this place is going to be blue and green and white." And I think about a plate of food that's going to look great in that room. ... There's a lot of things that tie together, which is interesting because it's also inspiring me with the menu items when ... I talk about what I'm going to do and then he talks about design and it's like, OK, then we take it one step further. He's incredible. I love working with him. His energy is endless and his talent is just huge.

What's been the most-rewarding part about working on the show?

AF: Obviously the most-rewarding part is when the diner owners come back and you can see the look on their faces when they come back into their place that they've been toiling at year in and day in, day out, seven days a week and they love it and that's something that they could never do. They couldn't stop their working and they can't afford it — they don't have the means. And the rewarding part is that we were just the catalysts, that there's this whole team of people that really made it happen. [It started with] the person who called up and said, "Please come and help just because we love them so much." The town that's saying, "We don't want this place to go away, what could we do?" ... It really takes a village [and] it wouldn't have happened unless it was for these people. That's rewarding to see the layers of relationships that formed through that one restaurant over many years and how all those people come together to make it, to bring it back, to save it, to keep it going. I think, honestly, those things are going away, those small mom and pop shops, diners across America, they're not lasting and why is that? Is it because they can't afford it, is it because they don't have the support, is it because people want to go to those new shiny places? Those things are part of our culture — they have to stay around. And I think a lot of people feel the same way, and if we could help save them, that's the reward for me.

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Amanda Freitag Bio

Amanda Freitag is a judge on Chopped, has battled Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, and she competed for the title of America's Next Iron Chef. When she was growing up in New Jersey, Amanda's passion for food was fostered by everyone from her grandparents to her high school home economics teacher. They encouraged her to pursue a cooking career and to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. After she graduated from culinary school, Amanda's first position in a New York City kitchen was as rotissier and garde manger at Vong under the guidance of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It was there that she was introduced to marrying French technique with Southeast Asian ingredients and flavors. In 1994, Amanda began working with Chef Diane Forley at Verbena, where she rose quickly through the ranks to become the restaurant's chef de cuisine. Forley taught Amanda the importance of using local, organic ingredients and introduced her to the Union Square Greenmarket. During her time at Verbena, Amanda realized how much she had yet to learn about the culinary world, and in 1999 she traveled extensively through France and Italy to explore the bountiful markets and progressive restaurant scenes. While in Paris, she spent two weeks working under Chef Alain Passard at his venerable Arpège restaurant. While her time there was short, the lessons she learned were life-changing. At Arpège, Passard insisted on the freshest ingredients, so there was nothing left in the walk-in refrigerators at the end of service besides butter. This eye-opening experience helped Amanda to further develop her deep appreciation of superlative ingredients and the flavors of the Mediterranean region. Upon returning to New York, Amanda worked at some of the city's most-popular restaurants, including Cesca, where she cooked alongside Tom Valenti as his chef de cuisine and earned two stars from The New York Times. Following Cesca, Amanda accepted the position of executive chef at Gusto in the West Village, where her food was met with critical acclaim. In January 2008, Amanda took over as the executive chef at The Harrison in Tribeca. Over the three years that she helmed the kitchen, The Harrison received numerous accolades from local and national media, including a two-star review from The New York Times. Amanda's first cookbook, The Chef Next Door: A Pro Chef's Recipes for Fun, Fearless Home Cooking, was released in September 2015. When she is not in the kitchen, Amanda enjoys traveling the world and collecting restaurant menus to add to her ever-growing collection.

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