Occasionally, in the sphere of popular discussion, there happens into view a target so big, so juicy, so hard to not see1 that people don’t even try to resist taking shots at it. Here, in 2014, that target is Guy Fieri.
Complaints about his existence can be found just about anywhere, but the “serious” foodosphere began treating him as anything more than the latest Food-Network-Marketed Food Personality in earnest after Pete Wells’ (admittedly hilarious) restaurant review in the form of a series of questions, extending to include, a couple of weeks ago, NPR’s critique of an absurd dessert at a different restaurant, and including, most recently, Eater’s Flavortown Generator. Each of them is, to varying degrees, an entertaining piece of work, and each of them is created by someone whose work, generally, I’m more interested in than Guy Fieri’s. In between those were any number of “analyses” or “opinion pieces” or “clickbait bullshit” examining the menus, press profile, or general raison of his various enormous, heavily-commercialized restaurants.
Some of the wings of the food press are doing this because this is part of the cycle: a person becomes famous as a chef2, then builds their brand more than their food, then becomes successful at that, opens a series of increasingly-meaningless profit-generators, and the food press points out that, while once any of these things might have been a real dish, they are now simulacra, doing an impression of the dishes they may have once resembled3. Some of them are doing it because there has been, for the last fifteen years or so, a wing of the food press devoted to hating whomever was the point person for The Food Network.
I’ve not eaten at a single one of his restaurants4, but I’m willing to believe Pete Wells, and I’m willing to believe other people that eat there. The menus belie a reliance on hugeness and weird flavor-combinations that belie their owner’s day job as an eater at the kind of places that serve that food as a matter of course (rather than as a matter of engineering), and I have very little interest in that kind of thing, for the same reason I have little interest in film comedies that exist as a result of focus-marketing, or records that are constructed toward specific marketing demographics by teams of unconcerned producers: it’s not real, and I see no reason to evaluate it as though it was real. Is half a cheesecake, studded with potato chips and pretzels then slathered in chocolate sauce really the thing that we want to spend our critical faculties on? The only person I can imagine thinking that was an actual good idea is a stoned twelve-year-old, and, frankly, I’m not interested in operating on the same evaluatory level as a stoned twelve-year-old.
What is worth evaluating, and what almost never actually is, is the fairly-interesting trend that his menus seem to point toward, and to talk about that I’m going to have to digress for a spell. Traditional “fine dining,” as developed by the French and taught at the higher class of culinary school (at least most of the time), tends to lean heavily on the “traditional” French composition: protein, starch ,vegetable, sauce. In its way, this format has influenced an enormous amount of western eating, from the way we expect food to exist in a restaurant to the way we eat at home5. A couple of decades after it took hold in the US (which happened due to a confluence of factors, mostly stemming from the end of World War II, but this is about Guy Fieri, it’s not a history lesson), Alice Waters and nouvelle cuisine happened, with its modernized sauces (vinaigrette and jus instead of bechamel and espagnole, for example), and its focus on freshness, and simplicity, and all sorts of things that snooty restaurant-types are still accused of being concerned with6.
But the major shift post-nouvelle is the change of focus from the decadence of the experience as arranged by the chef6 – the size and scale of the meal, the number of courses, the richness of the food – to the refinement and awareness of the meal on the part of the eater. That shift would resonate through the following major movements – the incorporation of “Asian Fusion”, the modernists/molecular gastronomists, the “rustic”-inspired faux-traditionalists, the farm-to-table folks. With rare exception, the idea there is that the burden of appreciation is on the eater – satisfaction cannot be assumed, the chef is not accomodating, only providing. In its way, Guy Fieri’s pepperoni-wrapped breadsticks, or chocolate-covered cheesecake, or donkey sauce, are the refutation: you don’t have to be able to appreciate this, because unlike something delicate or subtle or that requires some bit of esoterica to understand or eat or even consider, everyone knows why wrapping a piece of bread in pepperoni and then dipping it in cheese is a good idea – everyone has already done it.
Even more interestingly is that, as much as that refutation is a natural part of the back-and-forth that’s always part of the culinary landscape, when you dig into Guy Fieri’s dishes, what you’re actually looking at is a rise of the things that were lost when people turned away from traditional Fine Dining – cream sauces, mandatory sauces, dishes that are decadent not because of the number of them, but the amount of food in them. These ideas are basically the foundations of old-style restaurant cooking, and nobody seems to be talking about that7.
But the reason to be an apologist for Guy Fieri actually has nothing to do with his place in the vorocultural landscape as a restaurateur, and everything to do with his position as a television figure. Ironically, this is the job that’s harder to ignore: if I don’t want to consider “donkey sauce”, I don’t have to step foot into one of his restaurants, and I can live a life free of it. His television shows, however, are all over everything. Omnipresent on The Food Network, promoed endlessly on the other Scripps and Tribune networks, and parodied on one of my favorite TV shows, it’s hard not to get an idea for what they look, sound and feel like. He’s a monolith – other Food Network personalities have been big, but Fieri – the unicorn that manages to grab male viewers, a rarity among Food Network personalities – is especially outsized, both in presentation and visibility.
And that’s great. See, unlike with his restaurants, which are the kind of food-mangling vanity projects that basically everyone that cares about such things knows enough to avoid, his television shows are focused on one of two things: going to locally-owned, small-time restaurants, or normal people cooking (with one exception, an outlier that I’ll get to toward the end, here), and certainly neither of these things is something to complain about.
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a ratings demon, and is, perhaps, the most laudable of his shows – encouraging people to pay attention to places that have local favorites, sure, and, for the intrepid, to look for places that might become similarly-beloved, but the show is also surprisingly willing to show things like “where the restaurant is” or “what the people eating there look and sound like,” factors that come to bear in a realm where real estate prices (which drive so much of the restaurant business) mean that places run by well-intentioned, high-minded (or at least high-concept) operators tend to be in neighborhoods that aren’t precisely frequented by the sort of people who sit and watch Food Network. Increased traffic to the businesses in those areas increases the money in those areas, which makes everything better for everyone.
Slightly more abstract, but still a positive effect, is the fact that Guy Fieri’s show relies heavily on the already-existing language of food8. For all of his faults as a restaurateur and slang-maker-upper, he’s not talking down to either his audience or the restaurant folk who appear on his show. This means that people who are interested in big-ass sandwiches, or fried chicken constructions of the most clogging sort, or even just people that like the flame-headed corvette-driven seeking-a-new-way-to-ingest-something-somewhat-absurd aspect of it9, have had conversations with me, or with other food-oriented people in my sphere of jabbering, about aspects of food culture that, prior to Guy Fieri, we were only having with each other.
Obviously, there’s no real argument for everyone knowing about the vagaries of technique, or the minutiae of any given set of ingredients or methods or whatever. The upside to food being a necessity is that pretty much everyone can learn how to make as much or as little of it as they want – someone whose interest goes basically no further than knowing how to make, say, fifteen things so they can cook for themselves and not get too bored is going to be as happy with their knowledge as the guy who made soylent, or Alice Waters. Everyone gets to decide that for themselves. But there’s no harm in making the knowledge, or at least the language, available to people who would otherwise dismiss it as so much pretentious claptrap – an especially useful concern since there’s so much overlap between the groups “are not willing to consider that the way we talk, culturally, about food” and “will reject any talk of a higher-minded, more mindful way of eating as needlessly elitist”.
It seems unlikely that people are learning to look at food and consider how it’s made by someone who is then going to stuff his face with several pounds of deeply unhealthful food10, but sometimes the world is a strange and wonderful place.
The various Guy and Rachael challenges, the Food Network Stars, whatever other show he may be hosting this year, and the constant endorsements are also generally not worthy of further consideration, but a special consideration must also be given to Guy’s Grocery Games. While good food competitions shows are pretty thick on the ground over at The Food Network, Guy’s Grocery Games11, in which the conceit is that professionals are limited to the ingredients they’d be able to find in a grocery store, which takes away the self-contained aspects of both Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen, and places the show in the world. Futhermore, often the chefs are limited in the challenges by time, space, and cost, which, more than anything else, are the three things that most limit the home cook. The idea of Guy’s Grocery Games, more than any other cooking competition show is: here is what happens when these trained people have to cook like you do. Whether it ends up better or worse, what it ends up as is accessible, and it remains the only show on the entirety of the network (and, indeed, most of the Scripps family of networks) that acknowledges the economics of making food. And how can that be a bad thing?
In a world where people eat a diet that is widely accepted to be a pretty terrible way to eat, in a world where people unthinkingly accept the craftily-marketed idea that the world outside the corporate food bubble is an unsafe wild place that only maniacal hippies and trained professionals can operate in, in a world where the idea of “fanciness” might as well be an act of war, it takes the lowest of low-brow, heavily-branded, seemingly-thoughtless personalities on television to show what has shown to be, for all practical purposes, a way through.
So for heaven’s sake, quite ordering those cheesecakes, they’re gross. And absolutely shudder and gasp at every mention of “donkey sauce,” and stay away from his restaurantstrosities. But remember that there’s always implications, and if thinking about flavortown gets people actually thinking about flavor, about food, about what and how and why they eat, then, ultimately, there is no number of shitty, untenable restaurants that can undo that worthiness.
1 in this case, literally, because he looks like a testicle someone set on fire.
2 I am, in this case, going to use the term. “Chef” means “boss,” and he’s run kitchens at Stouffer’s, Louise’s Trattoria and, presumable, any of his own restaurants. A better job title is probably “operator” or “restaurant manager,” and indeed it’s the latter term that wikipedia sticks with. But in his role as menu-creator and creative driving force of his restaurants, he is acting as a chef, and, therefore, is a chef.
3 this is, actually, not a hard thing to witness yourself, albeit going in the other direction – nearly everyone has an example of a local spot that they loved until they fell on hard times/opened a second location/was inherited by money-hungry relatives, and they’ve watched the dishes, once made a certain way in a certain place with certain ingredients, become less and less distinctive as the people, the ingredients and the methods change to try to scrape together whatever economic benefit the operator thinks can be salvaged from cutting corners. On the large scale, this is streamlining to make more like a production line, on the smaller scale it’s to try to make more money where there isn’t any, but it’s the same action, and it’s why it’s disappointing to people that eat fancy.
4 nor do I have any real or specific intention to do so.
5 the easiest way to see how pervasive, and how non-universal, this is is to look at Italian-American food as opposed to Italian-Italian food, and pay special attention to the roles of protein and sauce in the eating. In its own way, nouvelle cuisine made it easier to appreciate a dish like fettucine con aglio e olio, by dint of leaving room for something so small in scale.
6 sometimes because they are
7 nb: I consider this neither good nor bad – it was going to happen someday anyway, it might as well be Guy Fieri that does it.
8 that is, when he’s not making up new words or portmanteaux.
9 for all that he can be annoying, he’s a charismatic dude who seems pretty amiable. There’s no wondering about why he’s on television, certainly.
10 on a more personal note, I find it difficult not to get all the way behind Guy Fieri’s appreciation for real fats, given that margarine is second only to the mass production of white bread in terms of “crimes against the american conception of food”.
11 I would love to abbreviate this, but frankly, Guy already calls it “Triple Gs,” and I can’t deal with giving him the satisfaction.