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.