Guy Fieri and the butching up of the American kitchen

The celebrity chef's out to make the kitchen into a man cave. Stop him now, or everything will be buffalo-flavored

By John Semley

Published October 19, 2012 11:30PM (EDT)

        (John Lee)
(John Lee)

Everything at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, the new Times Square flagship restaurant engineered by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, signifies its Guy-ness. The words WELCOME TO FLAVOR TOWN are stenciled, graffiti-style on the dark brick near the entrance, flanking a wall of licensed Guy Fieri merchandise. Above one of three bars, there's a huge wall-mounted Cadillac logo. The plank wood flooring and fire-engine red plush booths make it feel like a bowling alley, and the white tablecloths are barely concealed by brown butcher paper, which, in a way, might be all you need to know. Most of the food and drinks on offer are embarrassing to order. Imagine saying the words, “I’ll have the Buffalo Bleu-Sabi wings followed by the Motley Que Ribs and a Big Ol’ Funkin’ Pumpkin Ale.” Hold on to that prickly blaze of shame roiling in your gut, and you’re close to knowing the dull pain of every waking second spent inside this restaurant.

Guy's American Kitchen & Bar isn’t Fieri’s first restaurant. In 1996, he and business partner Steve Gruber opened Johnny Garlic’s California Pasta Grill in Santa Rosa, California. It’s since expanded to five locations. Also located far, far away on the West Coast are two locations of the Fieri and Gruber–owned Tex Wasabi’s Rock n’ Roll Sushi BBQ, a name that sounds, first of all, like nothing but a string of words and, second of all, actually insane, as if the restaurant itself suffers from some schizophrenic identity crisis. Even worse, there’s Guy’s Burger Joint (est. 1968), a united venture between Fieri and Carnival cruise lines. “I know this great little hole-in the-wall burger joint. What? Oh, it’s on a Carnival cruise ship,” you might say to someone ... never.

But Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar feels like the locus of Fieri’s outsize personality; it's not so much a Guy Fieri restaurant as a Guy Fieri–themed restaurant. It’s also, barring the docking of a burger-joint-fitted Carnival cruise ship, his first expedition into New York, America’s hub of celebrity chef–owned eateries working to convey the personality of their namesake cooks, whether or not they’re actually on the line slinging sashimi tacos. Like Fieri, his new Times Square tourist destination feels thoroughly counterfeit and cartoonishly manly, completely bogus down to the last detail. And so it, of course, provides a natural extension of Fieri’s own overcooked, hypermasculine persona.

By mid 2010, Guy Fieri had been lucratively positioned as the Food Network’s banner personality in a bid to capture more male viewers, which has provided significant returns. He hosts two long-running Food Network staples. There’s "Guy’s Big Bite": a cooking program set in a rumpus room/test kitchen supplied with a pinball machine, bumper pool table and huge Viking-brand fridge decaled with a racing stripe. And there’s "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives," a.k.a. “Triple D”: a gastronomic road-trip that rockets Fieri across the U.S. in a ’67 Chevy he doesn’t own, eating his way through “joints” that specialize in eccentric, typically cholesterol-pummeling fare as he takes on down-home American comfort food. He’s presented a half-dozen other Food Network specials, including a forthcoming weeklong miniseries called, naturally, "It’s a Guy Thing," due December 13.

If you watch the Food Network at all, good luck escaping Guy Fieri. Even if you make a calculated effort to duck his shows, his face — round, squinty, smirking like a spray-tanned Californian gargoyle — is liable to pop up on the screen unbidden, a reminder that it’s only T-minus-three-and-a-half-hours until an all-new "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives." The Food Network has become, by and large, a Guy Fieri delivery system.

There’s precedent, of course. Someone as commercially tooled and exactingly workshopped as Guy Fieri doesn’t just waft out of the ether. Superstar chefs-cum-personalities like Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have invested cooking with some (self-)serious masculine currency in recent years. They are chefs of the "Iron Chef" era, where cooking has evolved from a semi-noble profession (or pastime fit for padding out your online dating profile) to a gladiatorial front. For them, the kitchen is a battleground. It’s a dangerous warren dominated by the steady, arrhythmic rat-a-tat of knives chopping and hellacious flambé pans sending blue flashes into the exhaust vents. These “bad boys” have worked to rehabilitate cooking — perhaps unnecessarily, given the longstanding predominance of men among the ranks of professional chefs — as being the province of hard men. “If you can’t take the heat …” and all that.

Take Ramsay’s penchant for the acrobatic cussing and barking-mad, white-apron autocracy that have certified his own reality-TV brand. Momofuku founder-owner Chang, though largely evading TV appearances (save for sitting as a "Top Chef" judge and appearing as himself on HBO’s somewhat food-centric "Treme"), has built his rep on his self-consciously edgy "no reservations, no vegetarian options, no Morrissey" attitude. He’s even managed, somehow, to make fragile, delicate soft-poached eggs seem badass. Bourdain, likewise, has distinguished himself by his impenitent swearing, drug history, two-pack-a-day smoking habit (he’s since quit), punk rock pedigree (he dedicated his book "The Nasty Bits" to the Ramones) and unrepentant put-downs of other celebrity chefs. To wit, Bourdain recently sported a Guy Fieri wig — maybe part of Target’s off-brand Adult Celebrity Chef Wig and Goatee Halloween costume package — during a good-natured roasting at the New York Food and Wine Festival.

At first wince, Guy Fieri fits into this same trend of swelling culinary machismo, not so much riding the wave as washing up waterlogged on the shore. Fieri is second-wave: a bad boy with all that compelling edginess sanded down. Fieri looks like a child’s crayon drawing of what a cool guy is: all bright primary colors, reverse-wraparound sunglasses, and bleached blonde Bart Simpson spikes. Unlike Ramsay, Chang, or Bourdain, Fieri seems made specifically for TV. This is both literally (he came to prominence after winning the second season of "The Next Food Network Star") and figuratively the case. Everything about Fieri, from his hair to his bling and his unbearable catchphrases (e.g., “Off da hook!”; “Killer!”; “Oh, that’s money”) seem focus-grouped to appeal to a certain kind of male viewer. While male chefs may still reign in professional kitchens, the kinds of home cooking programs that have exploded in popularity since the Food Network’s ascendency have catered to stay-at-home moms and professional homemakers. In its pre-Fieri phase, Food Network superstars like Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray succeeded because they combined cooking with the easy-going, let’s-put-on-a-show feel of daytime television.

Fieri’s own rule over the Food Network roost signals a second shift, as much a break from the perceived effeminacy of cooking programs -- the male-centric swell that’s made household names of Ramsay, Chang, Bourdain, Bobby Flay, and the like -- as a mutation into the safer, teddy-bear version of these macho warrior cooks. Fieri belongs to the era of cooking-as-contest, where the shows like "Iron Chef," "Top Chef," and the Ramsay-hosted "Hell’s Kitchen" turned gastronomy into a sport, courting male viewers who are apprehensive about spending half an hour watching Rachel Ray bake a cake. And yet Fieri is more the male Rachel Ray — safe, broadly appealing, pre-loaded with catchphrases — than anything else. He even co-hosted a "Celebrity Cook-Off" six-part special with her, an event that cleaved the Food Network’s viewership along gender lines in a culinary battle of the sexes while simultaneously encouraging the pro homemaker and amateur grill-master to find common ground, like when Gerard Butler is cast in a romantic comedy.

Fieri’s inherent televisual pedigree reaches beyond the realm of celebrity chefs to recall earlier, non-cooking models of TV machismo. He pretty much splits the difference between Bourdain and a "Home Improvement"–era Tim Allen. On that show, Allen’s grunting, not-so-handy man struggled to affirm himself at home, where his wife’s upwardly mobile intellectualism and the burden of raising three rabble-rousing sons posed a tacit affront to his “fathers knows best” ideals. Allen’s character took to the garage to find himself, tinkering on an endless string of bespoke hotrods. Fieri’s domain is the kitchen, making him the fleshy figurehead of man-space masculinity.

In a 2007 Chicago Tribune article, “manspace” was described a “reprieve for guys who are tired of stashing away beloved tacky lamps and beer-can sculptures in the name of marital harmony.” Loosely tied to the weird, usually grossly overstated “men’s movement,” the whole manspace idea is an outgrowth of the notion that men need to reassert their masculine identities, especially on the overly feminized home front.

It’s lead to the increasingly popular idea of man caves: half-finished basements or musty attics retrofitted with gauche recliners, a Pink Floyd back catalogue poster, Civil War memorabilia, and other bric-a-brac of bygone bachelordom; a space unruffled by the domineering feminine touch, where a stale can of Schlitz can be left open on a wire-spool coffee table until you damn well feel like throwing it out. (A corresponding trend, the “Ma’am Cave” has also emerged, inviting images of an ever-escalating household turf war: paisley throw pillows driving Billy the Big Mouth Bass wall-mountings back across enemy lines, competing clouds of flatulence and over-scented potpourri bouquet coiling in the hallways, battling for domestic supremacy.) From his racing-striped refrigerator to his “Off the hook” cooking, Fieri might as well be the executive chef of the loose network of man caves strewn across North America.

Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is the ultimate manspace. Its three bars stocked with watery microbrews, deep fried food, and rock n’ roll bowling alley décor make it the man cave Mecca. It’s all to easy to imagine men — the kind of men with man caves who wax nostalgic at "Home Improvement" reruns — fleeing from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown NYC to the perky comforts of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in search of sanctuary from their alleged cultural dispossession, with beleaguered wives and girlfriends gamely in tow. Hell, move an apostrophe and you’re at Guys’ American Kitchen & Bar.

The restaurant is also the endpoint of my own ironic and resentfully curious pilgrimage. Because, as much as I don’t feel oppressed for not having a designated room in the house I rent with my girlfriend where I can play pinball and listen to Judas Priest’s "Screaming for Vengeance" as loud as I want, whenever I want, and as much as I think “misandry” is a made up word, I get off just as much as any of Guy’s guys on the dripping food porn that is "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives." Like anyone of a certain temperament (or chromosomal disposition, maybe), I want to eat the best cheeseburger I could ever possibly eat and know what it feels to have my teeth glide through brisket that’s been slow-smoked over mesquite -- whatever that is -- for a whole calendar week. And the thing about Fieri — unlike Bourdain, who sidles up to a BBQ and declares, “Prometheus himself could not have envisioned such a masterful harnessing of coal and flame!” — is that he’s so obvious and excessive that there’s no expectation of having to take him seriously. How could you? He wears a wristband for fashion, for heaven’s sake.

At the end of the day, the food at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is garbage. But unlike the food Fieri crowd-sources, pretends to drive to, and then hunches over on "Triple D," it’s not exquisitely garbage. It’s those restaurants steamrolled and streamlined. The spots typically showcased on Fieri’s crapulent roadshow are, for their gut-busting decadence, peddling the hominess of roadside, good-ol’-fashioned cooking. They’re the kinds of places where third-generation proprietors in corn starch–spattered aprons shuffle around the floor saying, “How are ya?” to the regulars. Fieri’s is the corporatized, gaudily upscale version, charging $31.50 for 10 ounces of filet mignon “medallions.” It offers the assembly-line formula for your Nona’s family favorite turkey tequila fettuccine recipe. I mean, the place is in Times Square, which — with the exception of Las Vegas or some tourist-trap minigolf course shaped like the nation itself — is the buzzing neon heart of ersatz Americana: where you can make a conscious decision to buy the world’s largest Reese’s peanut butter cup or tip two dollars to pose for a photo with an official, Naked Cowboy–brand naked cowboy.

In all its patent, semi-surreal silliness -- it’s all-signifying Guy-ness -- Guy's American Kitchen & Bar signals something else. It’s that idea of manspace and of the phony pressure on men everywhere to carve out of those little nooks of untouched masculinity: a bearskin rug here, a light-up Miller High Life sign there. In its consuming falsity, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar bares something of the fictitiousness of this “need” for male reassertion. It’s a manspace fantasy camp. And among all the rigorously upholstered, self-consciously eclectic man cave touches mentioned above, there’s one more: a loose phalanx of exactly seven mock stag heads arranged on the wall, effectively taking the ennobled, Hemingway-esque ideal of tracking and bagging (with a rifle, a crossbow, your bare hands) a prize buck, mocking it up in lightweight wood, and multiplying it by lucky seven. It’s a guy thing. And it’s almost too much.

John Semley

John Semley is a regular contributor to Salon and the author of "This Is A Book About The Kids in the Hall" (ECW Press) and the forthcoming "Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability" (Penguin).

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