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Kitchen Nightmares Into Kitchen Dreams

By Michael McDonnell | Observer Correspondent

Whether it’s serving authentic Spanish cuisine or helping to better the neighborhood, for the past four decades the Fernandez family has been setting their goals at improving their community.

The Spanish Pavillion, in Harrison, whi

ch is owned and operated by Jerry and Michael Fernandez, was featured on the Fox television network’s show “Kitchen Nightmares” on Jan. 21.

The premise of the show features Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsay offering his knowledge and expertise to restaurants that are faltering in one way or another.

Anyone who viewed the show could see

the Spanish Pavillion had its share of difficulties.

“I was a little reluctant at first to go through with it, but my brother, Michael is a huge fan of Gordon Ramsay and finally convinced me,” said Jerry Fernandez, who is a councilman in Sp

ringfield. “We had been stagnant for awhile, and sometimes you need someone to come in and kick-start you.”

Allowing the television viewer a glimp

se into the personal and business workings of a family-owned restaurant wasn’t easy. Since the show aired, the restaurant has experienced a surge of customers.

Admittedly $500,000 in debt and in a perpetual feud with his brother as to what direct

ion the establishment should pursue, Jerry had reservations about letting a TV crew in but was ultimately pleased with the outcome.

“I could tell he (Ramsay) was honestly concerned with how we were running things,” said Jerry. “I knew Gordon was there to help and really wanted to see us succeed.”

Tony Martinez, Jerry and Michael’s grandfather, opened the original Spanish Tavern restaurant in the Ironbound section of Newark in the 1960s. It was hailed as the first Spanish restaurant in New Jersey.

After 10 years Martinez retired, and in 1976 Jerry and Michael along with their mother, Balbina, followed his footsteps and opened the Spanish Pavillion.

“Harrison has always been our second home,” Jerry said.

The restaurant did well over the years and dished out authentic Spanish meals to customers as many similar restaurants sprung up in neighboring areas.

“The crew of ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ really did their homework,” said Jerry. “Gordon and the producers went out and tried to find what could set us apart.”

Within a 2-mile radius, there were 40 Spanish restaurants offering similar dishes to patrons. Chef Ramsay recognized that the Spanish Pavillion needed something new to grace the menu, something to set it apart from the rest, and introduced a tapas dish.

“It’s fresh and vibrant,” Ramsay pronounced on the show. “Something no one else in the area is serving.”

A tapas acccording to Ramsay’s book “Fast Food” is similar to a Chinese dim sum or a Middle Eastern mezze; something delicatable, smart and satisfying.

Since the television show aired Fernandez realized that the faithful customers over the years had still relied on ordering up the traditional favorites.

“We’ve made some big changes since the show aired but realized there are some staples on the menu the have kept us going for 34 years. Now thanks to the show we serve a new wave Spanish cuisine along with the traditional favorites that have kept our customers coming back for years,” Jerry said.

It was a cold Halloween night when the film crew arrived at the Spanish Pavillion.  A Monday.

Videotaping the episode took approximately one week. After cameras and lights were set up on Nov. 1, Ramsay arrived that afternoon.

“The director told us where to be and how to act when he came in,” said Jerry. “This was all new to us, but we were ready for whatever advice he was willing to give us.”

Footage was recorded Nov. 1, 2 and 3 before the crew revitalized the restaurant with a contemporary make-over and finally struck the set Nov. 4.

Did the Spanish Pavillion need help in revitalizing itself? Yes. Was the establishment  transformed because of Ramsay’s commitment to making it better? Sure. But did you see the show?

A little scary, eh?

Was the restaurant in such disarray as the episode displayed it? That’s questionable according to Jerry.

“Kitchen Nightmares” showed decaying food in the freezer, a live pigeon fluttering around the kitchen and a dead lobster in the lobster tank.

“In 15 years, we’ve never failed a health inspection,” Jerry said.  “There’s has never been a pigeon in our kitchen like there was on the show, and moments before the chef arrived, my manager and I noticed a dead lobster in the tank. We had no idea how it got there.

“You have to remember this is reality TV, but they piece it together for entertainment purposes.”

In entertainment, as in politics one must serve up what is best for the people. One must hope the offering will be satisfactory, taste good and go down easy.

As a Springfield councilman, Jerry most recently helped pass a resolution to curtail $1.4 million to local taxpayers by switching health care providers and working side-by-side with the Teamsters union.

“In whatever business you’re in, there comes a time to step back and accept change,” he said. “In the end, I was pleased that we appeared on ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’ And the Fernandez family will do whatever it takes to serve the community the best they can.”

The Spanish Pavillion is still going strong,  so don’t believe all that’s dished out for entertainment purposes. Go and taste it for yourself and make your own vote.

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