The first time I ever saw him, I wondered why that Fieri dude was yelling at me. Seriously, I just flipped to the Food Network while there was a commercial on a baseball game, and here was someone who looked like like the spokesperson for Abercrombie and Fitch’s husky retail concept; possibly a human display rack for Sunglass Hut, yelling at me. The screaming, in fairness, he probably orders Starbucks with that voice, was bad enough but more disturbing there was just something inordinately false about him, as if he was the result of a focus group, his persona is what you get when you have to design something safe and edgy at the same time.
His mission, seeking out small places that are good at one thing, one that they do it better than anyone else and he gives the owners some free publicity - this is something I should've at least conceptually enjoyed: A chance to do explore the glory of American Regional cuisine in all its iterations, interpretations and influences just as Charles Kuralt, Calvin Trillin have done, albeit in a louder manner.
Except I didn’t. And it isn’t because I align myself with the Michael Pollan tsk-tskers who feel cooking shows should show one how to cook - TV shows should be judged on how well they work as TV shows, not as mission statements. I regularly learn new things from America’s Test Kitchen, yet the show reduces the audio + visual experience of TV to the formula of a Garrison Keillor sermon.
Just as I don’t believe Keillor is folksy or in anyway kind or particularly interested in the Prairie, I don’t buy into Fieri’s act. Channel hopping one night I saw Fieri claim the favorite part of his job is driving around small towns. Fair enough, except he wasn’t really driving, not while speaking into a camera - cars are towed while the driver is talking into the camera and this small town rolling behind the camera was one boarded up store front after another. Not actually driving and in a town that appeared to be in death throes, a town Mr. West Coast restauranteur isn’t going to be in 5 seconds after the camera equipment is struck.
Fine. Whatever, he has his schtick, there is nothing wrong with being entertained. It doesn’t anger me. He’s not Colin Cowherd or anything. Rather it shouldn’t bother me.
Then came the NY Times’ Pete Wells ruefully cruel review of Fieri’s Time Square enterprise, Guy’s American Kitchen, containing the line, “The well-meaning staff seems to realize that this is not a real restaurant”. Now that’s entertainment. I would have included the price of an XXL t-shirt along with the cost of entrees but maybe it’s enough the gift shop is featured in the accompanying photo.
Then there was a backlash against the Times. Even I was moved a bit - what if your tired and hungry and don't have a Zagat app on your phone and/or want to eat something familiar? What if NY, being overwhelming enough, offered a tourist a name that is so synonymous with a type of food, you knew what you’d be getting before looking at a menu? What’s it to us if people want to eat there: not every meal is a culinary tour de force and isn't the the excitement of traveling in media cities the possibility of associating with the people you see on TV & movies? Besides what’s the least offensive place to eat in Times Square anyway, ESPN Zone? Was Wells review stating the restaurant wasn’t succeeding at what it aspired to be or was Guy's bad in the same way NY Times might not like a Hooters menu? The review never set its own expectations, it was funny, it was mean but it failed in setting the standards.
Recently, Deadspin pointed out, “It’s not OK to be shitty: Guy Fieri...and the tyranny of stupid popular things.” Will Leitch argues that it’s not a proper defense to argue, what do you expect, it’s Guy Fieri? Shortly after that post, I was flipping through Karen Brook’s The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland and saw a heading called “Why Guy Fieri Matters.” Ms. Brooks gave space to Bunk Sandwiches proprietors to explain why Guy matters. The bunkers felt Fieri matters because he seeks out the plainly good food and elevates it, pointing out a cook who makes the common fare is just as important as so-called high cuisine.
How can a sentiment I pretty much agree with aggravate me so much? I got angry because this opinion was placed in a gaudy Guy Fieri frame. Fieri matters because he’s on TV. And then it’s arguable Fieri seeks out good food, let alone elevates it. He takes calorie dense food that is deep-fried, smothered in heavy sauces, and/or is spicy (never differentiating whether the spice serves the dish or the heat is a mas-macho gimmick). Fieri spotlights the familiar and because he loves everything he tastes, he reinforces the notion you don’t have to try anything but what you already like.
Emeril used to bother me with his incessant bamming and his insatiable need to kick it up a notch. I once watched Lagasse badger a man into tasting pate, because the gentleman, who was older, had never tried it. And here is the crux of my Fieri problem, in a world that is dynamic and our ability to understand it constantly changing; eating is simple - culturally one of the first ways to understand a different worldview is tasting what someone else cooks and eats . Yet I couldn’t see Fieri asking people to stretch their horizon any further than reaching for the ketchup bottle.