Published on August 20th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Guy Fieri VS. The Food Network
Yes, we can all agree that Guy Fieri sucks, but he can hardly be blamed for single-handedly causing the downfall of the entire Food Network.
I like to cook. I like to go out to eat. I like food. I don’t just eat to survive, which is a pretty gosh darn good reason to eat, I do it because I genuinely enjoy it. I love to read about food. Sometimes, I even write about food. And I definitely watch shows about food.
Shows about cooking and food have been around for a long time, starting with I Love to Eat starring James Beard in 1946. Beard was a writer, a cook, a TV presenter, and a true icon in the world of professional and celebrity chefs. And Julia Child was no slouch either, inspiring generations of chefs with her writing and TV shows. These were two of the earliest stars of the cooking TV scene and the people everyone patterned themselves after since, whether they want to admit it or not. And their work ultimately led to the existence of The Food Network.
Which is now primarily a Guy Fieri delivery system.
I’m no fan of Fieri, as a chef, restaurateur, or host. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives but more for the unintentionally anthropological nature of the series as Fieri unearths the comfort food of various regions in the US. It’s an unwitting dissection of American culture through its food. But I enjoy it while simultaneously trying to ignore his antics.
My Food Network preferences has always leaned towards the likes of Mario Batali or towards those chefs who have found homes on other networks, like Éric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, and José Andrés. And then there’s Alton Brown. I learned more about the entomology and science of cooking and food from one episode of Good Eats than anywhere else. As Anthony Bourdain said, “I think Alton Brown’s Good Eats was really valuable and smart. If the intention is to inform and get people to eat a little bit better, and possibly cook a little bit better, then I’m for you.” Good Eats was less about being a cooking show and more about cooking education. It was kind of like Bill Nye for food lovers.
Now, we’re in the era of Guy Fieri and Rachel Ray. While the cooking network used to give you something to aspire to food-wise, now it’s targeting the lowest common denominator. But don’t be so quick to blame Guy.
A piece posted on Salon recently nailed the blame for the state of The Food Network squarely onto the back of Fieri’s over-bleached, blinged-out head and, to an extent, those that choose to employ him. Again, I’m no fan of his work but it seems unfair to single the man out. The writer continues to point out the cadre of Food Network hosts ruining the serene cooking space it used to be, including Sandra Lee and Bobby Flay.
First and foremost, I don’t like Bobby Flay’s TV work and have been even less impressed by his restaurants. I ate at his Las Vegas outpost and found it to be marginally better than an Applebees. While I know the man wasn’t in the kitchen, if you put your name on it I expect it to be up to your standards and that meal was not a great showing in that regard. Alternatively, the meals I’ve had at Vegas restaurants from Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, and Joël Robuchon have been mind blowing. As a TV host, I’ve always found Flay lacking. There’s an air of arrogance and condescension around him I have trouble dealing with. Regardless, he’s been a mainstay of The Food Network for years and predates Fieri on it.
The way the piece is written seems to indicate that the author is blaming Fieri for Flay having a Food Network presence. Given that Flay had several shows before Fieri was even a factor, wouldn’t the opposite be true? If one personality can be blamed for the other, the trail of blames starts with Flay and leads to Fieri. But The Food Network’s problems go far deeper than its choices in hosts. The blame for the lowest common denominator state of Food Network programming can and should be placed on their addiction to cooking competition shows.
Like TLC before it, the Food Network used to have an educational bent to it that has faded away in the search for ratings. You tuned in to learn about the art of cooking and the nature of food. But with the rise of programming that focuses on competition over education, a lot of that has been lost. It’s hard to understand what works in the kitchen when a chef is given 20 minutes to make a dessert out of hot sauce, strawberries, and thumbtacks. It has become a spectacle, which is what Guy Fieri is feeding off. He is, for better or worse, part of the natural progression of what The Food Network has been building up to for years.
Beyond that, looking back wistfully on the days of people cooking serenely in perfect kitchens while the room bathes in morning sunlight is an idealization of that era. Programming on The Food Network frequently used to look the same, with someone behind the counter in an impossible kitchen cooking pre-measured portions of food and inevitably leading to the almost pornographic, self-congratulatory money shot of them loving their own work. The format was the same over and over again. Not everyone looks back on those shows fondly. They aren’t an accurate representation of what goes on in my kitchen or in any of the restaurants I’ve cooked in over the years. The advent of cooking competition shows, programs like Good Eats, and bringing in hosts with another style gave some variety to the type of programming you get to watch. If they stuck to the traditional format, great shows like Good Eats or Ace of Cakes may never have existed. Unfortunately, The Food Network got addicted to the competition show buzz and has beaten the format like they’re tenderizing it for the grill. And it was a competition show that brought Fieri to The Food Network in the first place.
Keeping in mind that I enjoy the show in spite of its host, the Salon piece does a severe disservice to Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Fieri is frequently obnoxious and condescending to the chefs and restaurateurs he meets with, second guessing/judging dishes they’ve been making for years and making well. His mocking tone is as grating on the ears as his wardrobe is on the eyes. Regardless, I like the restaurants he goes to and I like the food they serve. The Salon author seems to think that every episode is about the same type of food, all beer batter and deep frying. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives makes its way to an impressive variety of restaurants representing not just the different regions of the US but also the world, at everything from truck stop diners to fine dining. Slamming the host is one thing but this piece is an indirect slam on all of the restaurants featured on the show and that’s just straight up wrong. While it’s surprising how rarely Fieri cooks on his shows, like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, The Food Network has a long history of programming not focused on cooking but on exploration of food on different levels that predates Fieri. As such, criticizing the shows Fieri hosts without cooking on is an odd, misinformed statement. He did not create the current state of the Food Network; his TV career was birthed by it.
Don’t get me wrong; I agree with the author of the Salon article in that the dearth of programming featuring Fieri’s dubious talents is off-putting at best and channel-change-inducing at worst. He is the personification of the new era of The Food Network that has moved towards a lack of substance in its programming to bolster ratings. But to hold him responsible for the programming currently offered on The Food Network, facetiously or otherwise, is a misnomer and ignores the real issues at hand. He is a symptom and not a cause. Blaming him for the state of the Food Network is roughly the same as blaming your fever for the flu that caused it.