The problem: Starting a new restaurant is a huge undertaking, requiring the would-be restaurateur to raise a large amount of capital, find a good location, buy furniture, hire staff, get the word out, etc. All of this overhead severely limits risk-taking in the kitchen since it distracts from the mission of creating great food.
My proposal: Apply concepts from technology startup incubators (such as Y Combinator) to the restaurant industry. Give up-and-coming young chefs the opportunity to focus on cooking and creativity, and leverage shared infrastructure to reduce overheads.
I'm a big fan of Top Chef. (See my earlier proposal for a reality TV show for junior computer science faculty -- Top Prof. Bravo should be calling any minute now...) So naturally I see parallels between what the aspiring young chefs on that show are doing and what tech entrepreneurs face when starting a company. The tech industry has found ways to make it much easier for a new idea to get out into the real world, leveraging technologies such as universal Internet access and cloud computing. Why not apply the same ideas to the restaurant industry?
Here's my concept. Open a restaurant called, say, Restaurant Wars, after the popular Top Chef challenge. On a given night, three or four independent chefs each prepare and serve their own menu to the guests. They share a (large) kitchen, some amount of the ingredients, prep staff, wait staff, front of house, perhaps even the wine list. The space, tables, chairs, china, etc. are all owned by the restaurant. Guests can order from any of the chef's menus and are encouraged to provide feedback after the meal.
Get a big-name chef like Tom Colicchio or Ferran Adrià (he needs something new to do, anyway) to serve as in-kitchen mentor for the chefs.
The owners are investing in the future of the participating chefs and take, say, a 15% ownership in any independent restaurant venture that they launch after participating. Chefs spend up to, say, 3 months at Restaurant Wars, ensuring that there is constant turnover and thereby renewed interest from diners.
Of course there are a couple of kinks to work out (one of which is that my wife thinks this is a really dumb idea). The first is that it's hard to serve radically different styles of cuisine side-by-side. It sets up for some odd comparisons. Also, there needs to be a way to manage food costs across the "competing" chefs; if one is cooking with ridiculously expensive ingredients (say, a terrine of abalone served with a civet-cat coffee foam topped with Beluga caviar ) you need a way to limit costs and keep things equitable. Another is whether potential diners would go for a place with so much turnover in the kitchen, although that's the whole idea. Maybe Tom or Ferran can guest chef one night a month to maintain street cred.
If anyone has $20 million lying around and wants to go in with me on this, drop me a line. I'll be happy to help with the cocktail menu.