We’ve all been an asshole to Guy Fieri, even if we’ve never expressed it outwardly. In particular the insufferable fooderati, the people who request a window table solely for better Instagram lighting—my tribe—owe him an apology. The source of that distaste is that he doesn’t dress or act like us, period and full stop.
Guy Fieri is a book judged solely by his cover, long the lowest of hanging fruits in food media. He is a perfect creation of the television medium, his character fully formed and realized: That of the party-hard, tatted-up, I’m-gonna-live-forever former jock who believes the solution to the world’s ills is more gravy. And our national pastime is to shit on the poor guy, all because the man born Guy Ramsay Ferry dares to portray Guy Fieri on TV. (He changed his Anglicized last name “Ferry” back to the original “Fieri” in honor of his Italian great-grandfather.)
This isn’t to say I’m not guilty of get-a-load-of-this-dude judgment the first time I saw Fieri on the Food Network. One’s visceral reaction to him depends on their opinion of the band Smash Mouth. I, as the coolest human to ever walk the face of Earth, dismissed him as too mainstream for my sensibilities. He seemed like a Stifler at his 30-year high school reunion. But then I started watching Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives, and unlike other food shows at the time—increasingly highlighting drama and conflict—Fieri was a beacon of positivity and commendation, showering the restaurant’s dishes with praise no matter how delicious or gross the food actually tastes. There are enough stories of mom-and-pop businesses, many on the verge of shuttering, whose fortunes changed overnight once Fieri blessed their restaurant with a six-minute national TV spot. You can criticize the show’s production for being color-by-numbers formulaic—every segment is filmed the same way, the same beats, shots, and cadences—but that’s not a reason to presume Guy Fieri must be a douchebag.
We also can’t shit on him for glorifying “low food” either. (Incidentally, Fieri spent a year as an exchange student in France, where his interest in cooking was born.) While there’s something to the argument that renaming aioli as “donkey sauce” is branding gone amok, this bro-terizing of food has greater effect on meme culture than it does our dining habits. He’s not actually bending to the lower common denominator if we’re not ingesting the stuff on a regular basis. I don’t think I’ll ever eat in one of Fieri’s nine restaurants—but I can separate my tastes in food from being a dick on the internet.
If Fieri has a lasting effect on American gastronomy, it’s in providing a platform for family-owned restaurants in so-called flyover states—places that would otherwise not have the marketing or P.R. budget to garner buzz. In fact, the type of places Fieri showcases are the very restaurants glossy food magazine like to devote multi-page spreads to flash their indie cachet. These aren’t cookie cutter chains or effete tweezer-composed food (though I have no problem with either), but battered, slow roasted, doused with sauce, wrapped with bacon and deep fried-American road food.
Last June, I attended the taping of Patton Oswalt’s Netflix special (a show produced by The A.V. Club). The comic that opened for Oswalt was named Shane Torres, and he began his set with a pregnant pause, before diving in:
“This may be somewhat of a controversial opinion, but can someone please explain to me what the fuck Guy Fieri ever did to anyone? Because people shit on that dude all the time, and as far as I can tell, all he ever did was follow his dreams.”
As a comedy bit, it was five minutes of brilliant, almost Oswalt-like construction—building his case, flipping expectations on its head, embracing the truth-is-comedy tenet:
“Here’s what he did do, liberal Chicago: He started a company where he hires everybody. He pays more than minimum wage. He gives health before he has to. He has a non-profit where he gives pretzel-making machines to inner-city schools so they can fundraise—I know that one sounds like I made it up but I swear to Christ it’s true. He’s worked with Special Olympics athletes, and on top of all that, he’s officiated a gay wedding. But because he has flames on his shirts, everyone shits all over him like he’s a member of Nickelback… and by the way, what the fuck did Nickleback ever do?”
Torres’ bit was uploaded to Soundcloud last month, which was picked up by a number of sites (this one included), and has racked up 94,000 hits to date—a notable number for a stand-up track on Soundcloud. Now you can’t type “Shane Torres” into Google without it autocompleting with “Shane Torres Guy Fieri.”
Torres tells me that, as he was testing the bit in front of audiences, people shared their personal Fieri interactions after the show: “I was in Portland, and this guy comes to me and says how Guy Fieri spent the whole day with Special Olympics kids for his organization,” said Torres, whose debut album with Comedy Central, Established 1981, comes out Friday. “For whatever reason, he’s become this punchline. The reason is how he looks, clearly. If there’s another reason to hate him, I’d like to know. I think people are just bullies to him now.”
Is it Fieri’s personal life that we find objectionable? A former Triple D producer embroiled in a legal fight with Fieri accused him of being a lecher and homophobe, though Eater sources called those accusations “fantasies.” (Fieri—a father of two—has maintained a 22-year marriage with his wife Lori, and fellow food television personality Andrew Zimmern vouches for Fieri: “He’s a great dude, he’s a great dad, he’s a great husband.”) Rain down hell and fury if video emerges of Fieri kicking a puppy; calling him out for his attire and parlance seems shallow and disingenuous.
I don’t know Fieri personally, but I did interview him once. Perhaps he wasn’t as high-energy as he is when the cameras are on, but we spent a solid hour on the phone and I found him engaging. We even spent a few minutes talking molecular gastronomy, completely antithetical to Fieri’s culinary ethos, but he held up his end of the conversation with thoughtful and considered responses. A week after the interview, I received a letter in the mail: It was a handwritten note from Fieri thanking me for my time. To this date I’ve not received another thank you card from any interview subject, much less a multi-millionaire celebrity chef. Now I couldn’t give two shits how often he frosts his tips.