Leave Guy Fieri alone: Why he has nothing to do with the Food Network’s decline

The king of donkey sauce isn't to blame for the network's slow slide into irrelevance – its problems go much deeper

Topics: Guy Fieri, Food Network, justin warner, Editor's Picks,

Leave Guy Fieri alone: Why he has nothing to do with the Food Network's decline Guy Fieri (Credit: Reuters/Matt Sullivan)

Give Guy a break. The Food Network is not in the business of improving the world’s eating habits or shrinking the American waistline. Its main goal, in fact, is to sell toothpaste and Lexuses.

Those who bemoan the network’s loss of good old-fashioned cooking shows or who want to drag their talons across Guy Fieri’s oddly cherubic face, as Farsh Askari did so charmingly in this publication last week, are missing issues at the Food Network that are much more deep-seated.

But this isn’t surprising. The owners of the network, fat with ever-rising revenues — $238 million in the last quarter, a 6.4 percent hike (add it up: nearly a billion annually) — are behaving as if they are blind to the tragic problem at their cash cow as well.

As the author of the unauthorized history of Food Network, I’m hardly a zombie cheerleader for it and Mr. Fieri. But let’s get one thing out of the way. Guy Fieri is actually a man with an impressive background in food and a sensibility that inspires non-food people to come to the table.

Consider that just as Julia Child had her fateful sole meunière experience in northern France (when she was in her thirties), Fieri had his biggest mind-expanding food experience in the south of France when he was a high school exchange student.

In sixth grade, Guy worked at the Ferndale meat market in his native Northern California. The first meal he ever cooked for his parents was a steak when he was 10. But France opened him up. (Yes, take a breath. I’m actually talking about Guy Fieri here). He was as enthusiastic about the chicken feet soup and escargot served at school lunch as he would be later at the sight of jalapeño cheeseburgers.

But the food experience that led him to write home and tell his parents he wanted to someday open restaurants was a plate of steak frites. He was driving through small villages with a European family, and they stopped at a house for dinner. There, he was served beef so rich and flavorful he could think nothing other than “Oh, my God!”  He loved it and then, increasingly, nearly everything else he ate in France. “The vinaigrette, the mustard, the bread, the cheese — oh, God!” Fieri told me during an interview for the book. “At the end of the day, eating cheese was so overwhelming.”



He attended a hotel management program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the late 1980s. The spicier foods he was exposed to there influenced his palate. He won a cooking competition in one UNLV class with his invented Cajun Chicken Alfredo.

After college, Fieri moved to Los Angeles and found work at Louise’s Trattoria, a string of Italian family restaurants across Southern California. Fieri got into a conflict with an executive at the Louise’s chain, Robert Kissinger. As the sophistication of diners in California deepened through the mid-1990s, the chain had spent heavily to improve the authenticity of its Italian menu. When Guy added tortilla soup to the lunch menu at the Louise’s locations he was managing, Kissinger phoned him, furious. “What the hell are you doing? This is an Italian restaurant chain!”

Guy was unintimidated. “Listen, I got a lot of businesspeople that come in here every day and want soup and salad for lunch. And I can’t feed ’em pasta fagiole and Italian wedding soup every day!”

This is a creative dude, an American original. By his mid-20s, he and a friend, Steve Gruber, moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., and opened Johnny Garlic’s. It featured the Jackass Roll, a sushi-style maki with pulled pork and green chili, and a recipe he’d been saving, Cajun Chicken Alfredo. Locals loved the place.

It would be a decade before he was on the Food Network, but early one morning in 1996 or 1997, Guy was, uncharacteristically, watching television with his wife before work. A “Good Morning America” host announced “Chef Emeril Lagasse” and mentioned that the chef had a show on the Food Network. Guy had never watched it.

Unusual name, Guy thought. Then he saw a performer who stopped him cold. Emeril strutted out to a gush of loud blues music, with a towel draped over his shoulder. “Oh, baby, yeah!” Emeril praised his suddenly sizzling array of pots. In Emeril, Guy recognized the showmanship of his childhood heroes, Evel Knievel and Elvis Presley. The New Orleans chef used a sauté pan to do what Evel did with a motorcycle: reveal its inherent power.

This is who Guy is: a product of all of his influences and passions — and genetics. He is what a television star should be. If he’s on-screen, love him or hate him, you can’t take your eyes off him. When it comes to food knowledge, compared to Sandra Lee and any number of personalities the network has foisted on viewers in recent years, he’s Jacques Pepin. What’s more, many people genuinely love him. I meet them at every book signing and see them lining up for autographs wherever Fieri appears. The dream: to get in that Camaro with him and tour around like best buddies. Guy celebrates a part of the food world that had not been celebrated before. No one is saying it’s the healthiest food. But the food on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” is worth looking at as an expression of human spirit and creativity. Guy sings the song of the little guy, and that’s what makes people love him.

I’m certainly not 100 percent pro-Fieri. To my taste his Time Square restaurant sucks as bad as a restaurant has ever sucked. But I think its suckiness says more about Guy’s swollen ego than his culinary abilities. He signed a deal with a New York company to open a Times Square joint, a deal that required him to make a certain number of visits annually, to allow his image and his recipe concepts to be used. What he didn’t do was spend enough time overseeing the place. The New York Times’ Pete Wells, author of the famously scathing and hilarious takedown of Fieri’s Times Square joint, recently visited the Vegas outpost and Tweeted that “it’s easily twice as good as his restaurant in Times Square,” leading me to believe either that Fieri is working to improve the formula or that he loves spending time in Vegas so much he’s tasting the Donkey Sauce regularly to make sure it has just the right amount of donkeyness.

Emeril, who understood that exacting New York critics might savage a TV star who opened a restaurant but was not regularly on the premises, never opened a New York outpost. Note how Bobby Flay spent every night cooking in his new restaurant, Gato, for month after month. Wells gave it a rave.

Even if I can’t convince you that Guy Fieri is a worthwhile presence on television, please consider that he isn’t the real problem at Food Network: The real problem is a loss of inventiveness at the company’s core.

***

There was a time when Food Network presented revolutionary television like ”Iron Chef” and ”Good Eats.” This was before the billion-dollar years, when chances were being taken by an earlier generation of network presidents like Eric Ober and Judy Girard. And even when it wasn’t revolutionary, it was at least pleasant. Back then the goofy David Rosengarten of “Taste,” the sweet-faced, knowledgable ”Two Hot Tamales“ Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, and others were nice people who stood in as surrogate family members for viewers. These stars were performing the second-oldest activity on earth: cooking. As humans we couldn’t help but be transfixed by someone who seemed as nurturing as The Barefoot Contessa, as indulgent and grandmotherly (we thought) as Paula Deen, and as wholesomely appealing as Giada De Laurentiis and Tyler Florence.

But then, as the 1970s passed into the 1980s and Rock and Roll mostly died, the Food Network lost its creative momentum sometime in the mid 2000s. Perhaps it’s just that we all know how to grate our own Parmesan now. We’ve learned to fold our fingertips under when chopping onions. Something new was needed. But nothing new was provided. The era of revolutionary television formats ended when Tennessee-based Scripps Interactive tightened its control over the Food Network. As the profits increased to over $100 million a year then to over $300 million and beyond, its ownership became more conservative.

In a conference call announcing the company’s financial results this month, CEO Kenneth Lowe raved that “Our family-friendly networks in the home, food and travel content categories are extremely popular with viewers of all ages, but they particularly appeal to upscale women who watch our programming live.” What Lowe meant was: The non-DVR watchers love us. These are rich women who actually watch the commercials, increasingly rare birds who are the golden geese of the cable TV biosphere. Every programming gatekeeper seeks to woo them. Commercials for Lexuses, toothpaste, dog food and cruises are what make profits.

If running back-to-back episodes of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” on a Friday night gets an extra few thousand live viewers, that’s the way Food Network goes, instead of trying to break in a new star’s cooking show, someone like the rather charming “Food Network Star” winner Jeff Mauro or the maternal Amy Thielen. The network is letting the seed corn go to waste and taking fewer and fewer chances.

The real problem is not too much Guy. It’s too little Justin Warner. One of the most common questions I am asked at book appearances is whatever happened to Justin, the winner of “Food Network Star” two years ago. A mad-scientist-type Brooklyn chef who came off as a more charming Alton Brown type on TV, he was supposed to have won the right to host a TV series on the network. But after conflicts between Brown and the Food Network, and a struggle to find a format that would fit Justin, they eventually made one episode of a road-trip type show for him. It was called “Rebel Eats” and was like a hybrid of “Good Eats” and “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” The Dives were punkier and the Eats were more molecular. The network aired it during a dead time, a Saturday night.

Justin has since appeared on “Beat Bobby Flay,” but has never managed to break through the conservatism of Food Network programmers, like the man who has come to be known in the industry for saying no to risky ideas, Food Network programming chief Bob Tuschman. As the network ignores Justin, it breaks its faith with viewers who fell in love with him during “Food Network Star” and expected him to be the future of food TV. Prime time instead features negative dreck like “Mystery Diners” and “Restaurant Stakeout,” where every week seems to feature a batch of fake employees who are actually actors hired by the production company. They steal beer by rolling kegs out the back, only to be caught and scolded by some rough-talking “consultant” with a pugnacious Long Island accent.

People can get any recipe they like on the Web — even on FoodNetwork.com, which also has a nice library of instructional videos. Why should the casual viewer or even the food-centric viewer watch the Food Network if it isn’t a hearth that warms the heart like it used to, especially during its peak creative years in the wake of 9/11, when the nation craved warmth?

The network is being irresponsibly careless with what’s left of its cultural momentum. Days after it crowned Lenny McNab the winner of this year’s “Food Network Star,” it was revealed that he is a foul-fingered Web commenter who, amongst a cavalcade of inane racist, sexist and homophobic postings and videos once wrote of The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, a rare bright spot in the network’s recent history, that “I’d f**** her…IN THE ASS!!!!! that’s right…I said it!!!”

This comes long after the mess that was Robert Irvine’s trumped-up résumé nearly torpedoed the muscleman’s career (it seems he did not actually work on Princess Di’s wedding cake, etc.); after the host of “Calorie Commando,” Juan-Carlos Cruz, put out a hit on his wife; after a “Star” contestant was removed late in another season due to problems with his military service record; and after the series of devastating public relations cluster bombs that was Paula Deen’s greedy diabetes drug endorsement cash grab followed by her N-word self-immolation.

Do you think Food Network president Brooke Johnson, the marketing department, or the overlords at Scripps might think about hiring a more effective private investigator to vet the humans who are the key representatives of their billion-dollar brand? If not five years ago, then when?

People used to watch the Food Network at the gym. It eased pain. For some viewers, Guy still does. But since 2006, when he won “Food Network Star,” very few new household names have been created by the network. The Pioneer Woman created her own fame via a blog. Even before someone started — too-late — digging up McNab’s Internet history, did anyone seriously think he was going to someday have a line of hamburgers at Wal-Mart like Fieri does?

Sure, giant hamburgers are bad for the planet. Yes, Paula Deen turned out to be a greedy monster. Of course, not everybody on TV is perfect. But for a little while they can make us happy. I’d rather ride along with Guy than be told for the zillionth time to eat more dark leafy greens. I do it already. That’s not why I watch TV.

Allen Salkin is the author of “From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network,” out in paperback Oct. 7 from Berkley Trade.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...