It's an article of faith among the food cognoscenti: Guy Fieri, he of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," and man behind many new and much-maligned restaurants, is a loudmouth overbearing clown, a self-promoting and preening philistine, an ass.
Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television's answer to Calvin Trilling, if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro and drank Boozy Creamsicles? When you cruise around the country for your show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy, do you really mean it?
In response to the many similar anti-Fieri diatribes that sprang from Wells' piece, I offer the following defense of Guy Fieri, because there needs to be some balance in this discussion, because I object in principle to the internet pile-on (having been at the bottom of such piles myself), and because I believe, fundamentally, that this guy – however irritating he may be -- has done good for food in the United States.
* First, in direct response to Wells, there's no denying that Fieri does indeed popularize "unfancy places," but that is, of itself, admirable. First, in direct response to Wells, there's no denying that Fieri does indeed popularize "unfancy places," but that is, of itself, admirable. Big posh $400/meal restaurants get all the publicity they need – it's the smaller mom n' pops places that need help, that could use some media attention, and Fieri provides that focus on lesser known food zones. Does he "really mean it"? I dunno and I don't care – and it's a bad question to begin with because, ultimately, we'll never know if he or Jacques Pepin or Rick Bayless really mean everything they say, really feel all the excitement they seem to evince. It doesn't matter. Television is full of actors, even when, like Rahm in "Chicagoland," they're playing real life roles.
* Second, in an age when much headline-grabbing cuisine is out of reach for the average pocket book, Fieri says you can have fun dining on a few bucks. Alinea, Grace and Chicago's other fantastic restaurants can be mind-bending dining experiences, but if you can't do the sum, for the price of one meal at those places you can get about 100 meals at most of the local joints that Fieri celebrates on his shows. I'm talking about places like Big and Little's, Honky Tonk BBQ and Cemitas Puebla, all of whom are proud to feature on their site a video of Fieri's wild endorsements of their place. If Fieri is to be so roundly despised and discounted, why do these little and undeniably worthy restaurants publicize their connection to the man? The answer is simple: many average eaters, unlike many of us who write endlessly for newspapers and broadcast programs and websites, are actually inspired to try restaurants – usually smaller, borderline obscure, places – because Fieri said he had a good bite there. It's better for the general health of our restaurant scene that Fieri prompts people to visit Big and Little's rather than, say, big chains that already have the marketing pull to draw big crowds. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Fieri in his own, sometimes heavy-handed way, levels the playing field, giving the little places some of the attention that might otherwise go to the bigger, better funded places.
* Third, and perhaps most importantly, Fieri pushes the boundaries of the American palate. Granted, some of his food combinations seem more than just a little off-the-hook, but better that than the same old hot dog and hamburger. Plus, some of the criticism aimed at his menu items is wrong-headed, the writers so blinded by their dislike for the man that they fail to see what he's actually doing.. Case in point: week before last, in Jezebel, a reviewer slammed Fieri's new menu pointing to, for instance, dishes like "Greens & Chili Beans," to which the reviewer slyly remarks "Well, it rhymes. That's why those go together, apparently. Totally logical." Except it's not illogical, as the reviewer implies, and those things may very well go together. Broccoli rabe and white beans is a classic Italian dish; the bitter greens and rich beans mesh beautifully. If some civilian eats at Fieri's, has the Greens and Beans, and is then more likely to try what seems very close to the same thing at some little Italian joint, I'd say that's a big step toward more adventurous eating, facilitated by Fieri.
So, yes, Fieri may be obnoxious – no, I'll admit it, he is, definitely, obnoxious – but the result of his food-goofing may very well make for a richer food culture, where little places can serve fun, reasonably priced food that broadens the culinary perspective of the average guy. And that, to quote the equally maligned Martha Stewart, is a good thing.
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