What will Steve Ells invest in next? America's Next Great Restaurant premiere serves up ten possibilities

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2011 promises to be a big year for hometown restaurateur Steve Ells. While his Denver-based Chipotle keeps expanding, Ells also has a new fast-casual Asian concept (possibly called ShopHouse) in the works, which is opening somewhere in the states -- most likely in Washington, D.C.

And come May 1, he'll also be an investor in another budding restaurant chain: on that date, the winner of America's Next Great Restaurant, which premiered on NBC last night, will open locations in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York City.

Ells convened with fellow judges Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone and Lorena Garcia -- all of whom have made bazillions of dollars in the restaurant biz, according to themselves -- to take the top 21 restaurant concepts pitched to them around the country and whittle them down to ten.

To do that, the panel asked the contestants to cook a dish indicative of what they'd serve in their restaurants and then present those dishes along with their pitches. That, of course, caused some problems for the restaurateur-hopefuls without culinary backgrounds, who burned themselves, melted plastic on the stove and received plenty of derisive comments from the competitors who actually do own or manage eateries (most of whom, interestingly enough, were eliminated).

Predictably, some of the pitches went terribly. Private chef Anita served a mac & cheese cupcake that the judges deemed inedible -- and that sent her packing; Brianne inflated an enormous, colorful bubble that had nothing to do with her restaurant; and Joe, who said all of about three lines on camera, still managed to come off as a total d-bag and was kicked out for boring chicken wings. And even Aimee's Colorado-residency status won her no points with Ells after she vapidly pitched Soupz -- and served terrible soup.

Of the concepts that survived elimination, some, like Sudhir's southern Indian food and Krystal and Greg's southern American small plates, sold the judges based on the quality of the food. Others, like Fran's Sports Wrap, moved on primarily because the potential business owner had the right personality. And we're happy to report that our trailer favorite, Saucy Balls, made it to the next round, too -- and that the "balls" jokes were already flying. We're now also rooting for the chicken and waffles eatery, because, um, delicious.

In the end, the panel chose nine concepts, and picked the last entrant with a tie-breaker: Eric had to cook as many grilled cheese sandwiches as he could in fifteen minutes to overcome the judges' doubts that the item could be made fast enough, and Jason had to cook a burger to prove that his burgers-and-wings concept had something special.

Grilled cheese triumphed.

Generally, the show feels a lot like The Apprentice meets Top Chef, with Ells and company dropping as many nuggets of business wisdom on their potential investees as thoughts about the food. That'll continue as the entrepreneurs hire chefs, design uniforms and build their restaurants. The panel will eliminate one contestant a week until the last one standing opens three restaurants in just two short months.

Ultimately, Ells will put his name on one of these ten restaurant chains:

Sports Wrap, healthy wraps Saucy Balls, meatballs and macaroni Hicks, Southern food served tapas style Wok, healthy stir fry W3's, chicken and waffles Compleat, fast meals within fixed calorie ranges Tiffin Box, southern Indian food Hard n' Soft, fusion tacos Limbo, healthy and indulgent dishes Meltworks, grown-up grilled cheese

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