Fodder, not food: New York’s Guy Fieri problem

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David Roth

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You will know that this isn't a boast by the end of this sentence, but I've written more words about Guy Fieri—the Food Network star and Juggalo-Themed Muppet whose new restaurant and enduring personal brand were recently, famously and virally the victim of shock-and-awe snark-assault by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells—than anyone else I know of.

I've semi-seriously considered the impacted and idiosyncratically punctuated prose on the menu of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar as its own kind of high-calorie literature. I have, less seriously, imagined Fieri into various ridiculous situations: accidentally dropping his sunglasses into a deep-fryer at San Diego's Petco Park; creating an elaborately traif Passover menu; working with former Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey on a line of signature appetizers.

I'm something of a collector of Fieriana, too—the time Kansas City Royals broadcasters interviewed on air a fan who was, for reasons unknown, impersonating Fieri at a Royals home game; the since-excised, turkey-based "Screamin' Gobbler" sushi roll that Fieri served for years at Tex Wasabi's Rock n' Roll Sushi-BBQ, his California mini-chain of maximalist eateries. There is more, but it's probably best to stop here.

Suffice it to say that I have spent many hours pondering this squat, cartoonish self-proclaimed "Food Dude"—a man with the improbable orange-and-white coloration of a photographic negative, a man who almost certainly has some sort of sriracha mayonnaise in his goatee as you read these words, a man who is more readily understood as a beer-battered meme or leading man in a long-running situationist prank on American excess than as a person.

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I won't pretend to understand Fieri, at least at any level beyond a constant giddy revulsion. Our National Guy Fieri Problem, for all the idle time I've spent trying to parsing his personal aesthetic or taxonomizing his catch-phrases or just watching his mostly enjoyable Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, is not one I expect to solve. But I've spent enough time on it, I think, to know what the problem is. At the very least, I understand that it has little to do with cold fries or insipid Cajun Chicken Alfredo entrees.

Which is not to say that Wells was demonstrably wrong in any or all of his judgments. I haven't eaten at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, but I have no problem at all imagining a meal there as a frenetic and robustly air-conditioned descent into diabetic shock, the long path down paved with sugar-slicked meats and marked by sweating brown clots of fried ice cream.

While Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives works as a show—and it does, despite the cannonball-off-the-high-dive way in which Fieri interrupts the proceedings—it works mostly as a celebration of regional food done unpretentiously and well. That idea is good enough to survive Fieri's kamikaze punning and mugging, and to Fieri's credit, he does seem enthusiastic about the show's mission, if occasionally so enthusiastic as to wind up with au jus in his eyebrows after a particularly passionate sandwich-bite.

But that show's aesthetic isn't really what Fieri is about. Fieri is, finally, more a manifestation of the Food Network's own television aesthetic than the apostle of deep-fried locavorism he appears to be on TV. Given that the Food Network is not really about food, it shouldn't really be surprising—to Wells or anyone else—if Fieri's restaurant isn't, either.

There are some actual cooking programs on the Food Network, although it's a stretch to say that they're about food being cooked. The network, instead, is more about its stars—jug-eared English beefcake Robert Irvine, a sort of off-brand Gordon Ramsey; players like Paula Deen, Anne Burrell and Fieri, all of whom speak very loudly and have the disturbing coloration of the glazed ducks that hang in Chinatown shop-windows.

They all can cook at least a little, at least in theory, but to watch the Food Network is mostly to watch these people do things and act in a certain way. Food is their métier, but their appearances and outsize reality-television personalities instantly mark them as characters; a rational person would no more eat one of Paula Deen's signature Donut Burgers than he or she would allow, say, Alec Baldwin to actually run a television network.

Fieri has a Food Network cooking show of his own, called Guy's Big Bite, in which he cooks food that, despite the expected WTF-factor—the Cookie Sandwich Cocktail is built around vodka, Oreos and pineapple juice—is far less strange than the setting and manner in which it is prepared. The set of Guy's Big Bite is a rendering of what a certain type of nine-year-old's mind looks like—the refrigerator is also a stock car; a big TV in the background shows drag racing footage on a loop—with a kitchen in the middle of it, from which kitchen Fieri mostly makes things like marinated steak sandwiches and mostly calls them things like "The Baltimore Beef Bad Boy."

While it's not quite a match for the cackling linen-swathed avant-garde shockfest that is Paula Deen's show, Fieri's show is similarly a show: something meant to be watched, not emulated. To actually eat the food that Fieri makes on his show—which, in many cases, is the food served in his restaurant—is to miss the point. To be surprised, let alone incensed, that the food on offer in the restaurant doesn't taste quite enough like actual food—"Why," Wells wonders at one point, "did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?"—is like nothing so much as complaining that the plastic apple in your great-aunt's display of ornamental fruit was, despite solid crunch, sadly lacking in flavor.

Fieri, in an aggrieved and mirthless appearance on The Today Show in the wake of the review, suggested that there was "another agenda" at work in Wells' review.

"I think we all know what's going on here," Fieri said. "It's a great way to make a name for yourself: go after a celebrity chef, who's not a New Yorker."

The most uncharitable reading of this is that Fieri was resorting to huffy Palinism as a last resort, and that it's a bit rich for a multi-millionaire to sell himself as an earnest and unjustly maligned populist being bullied by pompous elites when he's charging $22.50 for a bowl of Tequila Turkey Fettucine.

In the most basic sense, though, Fieri is clearly right, both about the lack of risk in making him a target and the iffy, smirky tone of the review. But whatever Wells' agenda—be it the "defending Manhattan from America" snobbery-with-a-purpose that The Awl's Choire Sicha diagnosed or actual disappointment at how roughly Fieri's restaurant treated the American comfort food canon or simply For The LULZ—the review clearly reflects a category error, first and foremost.

The Food Network, and Fieri, are mostly about playing with food, or more precisely food as play—a decadent and queasy joke in a world full of hunger, maybe, but a game all the same. That aspect, the idea of being closer to a brand or experience you like, is what will bring tourists, ironists and masochists alike to Guy's American Kitchen and Bar.

Of course the food tasted bad to Pete Wells: it's not really food, after all. You're not supposed to eat what Guy Fieri is serving, you're supposed to consume it.