Anthony Bourdain was right about Guy Fieri

Bourdain knew that food was political. Here's why the Mayor of Flavortown’s politics matter, too

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 17, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When a photo published online last weekend of celebrity chef Guy Fieri warmly greeting former president Donald Trump ringside at Las Vegas' UFC 290, hosted in the T-Mobile Arena, Seattle-based chef Eric Rivera posted it on Twitter with a simple caption: "I've been trying to tell you about Guy Fieri, but a lot of you didn't want to listen." 

Since Fieri first hit the national culinary scene during his successful run on the second season of "The Next Food Network Star," which aired in 2006, there have been clues to his political beliefs, the most memorable of which veer unsavory. About a decade ago, for instance, a former producer on "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," one of Fieri's long-running Food Network programs, alleged via a lawsuit that the host was openly homophobic and lewd on set. 

As Gothamist reported in 2011, the producer, David Page, said that "anytime any woman mentioned 'cream,' Guy went into a sexual riff" and that Fieri reportedly told show producers, "You can't send me to talk to gay people without warning! Those people weird me out!" However, unlike some other culinary personalities — like José Andrés, Padma Lakshmi or even the late Anthony Bourdain — Fieri has by and large remained pretty tightlipped about his personal politics in the way that is very much de rigueur for Food Network celebrities

Yet embracing Trump was blatant enough to force even Fieri's most politically disinterested fans to confront the fact that, in order for someone to become mayor of anything — even if it's just the Mayor of Flavortown — they have to run on a platform, and in the case of Fieri, what that actually is has been muffled by years of tired debates about the aesthetic merits of bleached tips and Donkey Sauce. 

* * *

Much of the criticism that was leveled at Fieri early in his career did smack of classism. Compared to the pressed chef whites of a young Jacques Pépin or Ina Garten's understated custom-made button-downs, Fieri's spiked hair and flame decal-style shirts were a departure from perceived industry standards (or, as a tweet from 2010 put it, "Guy Fieri is proof that Ed Hardy has started manufacturing actual human beings.") 

But when combined with an incendiary review of Fieri's Time Square restaurant by New York Times' food critic Pete Wells — who pointedly asked "Is it all an act? Is that why the kind of cooking you celebrate on television is treated with so little respect at Guy's American Kitchen & Bar?"— a familiar narrative began to develop, one that constantly cycles through the worlds of music, literature, film and art. 

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On one side, you have the establishment, whose tastes are grounded in, or perhaps stymied by, an understanding of craft, technique and tradition. On the other, you have disruptors, who don't necessarily think all that is important in the pursuit of a good time. Inevitably, when these two sides collide, it sparks conversations about snobbery. This isn't a bad thing, but it feels like culturally we have defaulted to the idiom "don't yuck someone's yum" as a guiding societal principle, to the point that it's almost regarded as snobby, at least among the terminally online, to criticize certain things with a certain level of mainstream appeal. 

In order for someone to become mayor of anything — even if it's just the Mayor of Flavortown — they have to run on a platform

And the thing is, we could caught get in the cycle of discussing the tension between what is critically slammed and culturally embraced almost indefinitely — art and film historians certainly have — but that conversation at large seems to have stalled out on this flawed belief that it is somehow radical to say, "Hey, I like nachos served in a trash can and Pete Wells can shove it." 

Fieri has embodied that upbeat "live and let live" ethos well on television. He's gone, with the help of a few well-placed profiles in the right magazines, from being a kind of culinary world sideshow to having his own prayer candle (Saint Guy, Lord of Flavortown) sold alongside the likes of Julia Child (Patron Saint of the Kitchen). He's been reclaimed by some as a kind of camp icon-turned-populist hero in studded denim who also happens to do charitable work, like when he raised $25 million for restaurant workers left unemployed by the pandemic. 

But you know what is even more radical than that? Recognizing you can have taste without being a snob, but you can't be a "Guy of the People" while pretending food is apolitical. 

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During his lifetime, Anthony Bourdain was not a fan of Guy Fieri. 

In fact, before the chef and author's death in 2018, the two had been involved in what the media had teased out as a multi-year feud. There were hints of its beginnings in 2008 when Bourdain said to TV Guide that Fieri looked like a "Simpsons" character who had "been designed by committee," but it really kicked off when Bourdain said in 2011

I look at Guy Fieri and I just think, 'Jesus, I'm glad that's not me.' You work that hard and there's not a single show of yours that you'd want to sit down and say, 'Hey, I made that last week. Look at that camera work. It's really good, huh?' I'm proud of what I do.

The pair traded pointed barbs back and forth until 2015, when Fieri told GQ that he "didn't like [Bourdain] making fun of people." 

"And I don't like him talking s**t," Fieri said. "And he's never talked s**t to my face. I know he's definitely gotta have issues, 'cos the average person doesn't behave that way. It's not that I'm not open to the reality that the food world was like this from a few people's perspective. It's just, What are you doing? What is your instigation? You have nothing else to fucking worry about than if I have bleached hair or not? I mean, f**k."

When it was playing out in real time, the conflict between Bourdain and Fieri was certainly painted as a stand-off between traditionalism (or snobbery) and disruption (or commercial garbage). However, in retrospect, it's interesting to consider the differences in how the two food personalities allowed politics to intersect with their careers. 

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Bourdain was a complicated man in his own right, but through "Parts Unknown," "No Reservations" and his own writing, he was always a shining example of how understanding both the sociopolitical origins of food — even if difficult or uncomfortable — and the hard-won techniques that go into making them can actually augment someone's dining experience. 

In a 2016 interview with CBC News, he said of food: "There is nothing more political." 

One of my favorite images of Bourdain is one you've probably seen before. It's of him and former president Barack Obama in Vietnam, sitting on electric blue plastic stools, eating noodles and drinking cold beer. The weight that image, which is seven years old, still holds is apparent every time I walk through my neighborhood, which is sometimes called Chicago's Little Vietnam. 

Four or five restaurants along the main drag have the image displayed under glass, just like the table where Bourdain and Obama ate. I wonder what kind of restaurants will hang a framed photograph of Donald Trump and Guy Fieri shaking hands? 

Fieri has mostly kept mum about his thoughts on politics, and if or how they connected to food, unless it slipped, like when he slammed the same restaurant workers that were struggling during COVID for collecting unemployment, likening them to kids filling up on Doritos instead of eating their broccoli. 

I wonder what kind of restaurants will hang a framed photograph of Donald Trump and Guy Fieri shaking hands?

However, as a country, I think we grew to understand exponentially more during the pandemic — as supply chain disruptions and food insecurity rocked the nation —  how inherently political food has always been, which is why it was potentially so jarring for some to see Trump and Fieri shaking hands. 

Zoom out a bit beyond the incessant "Triple D" re-runs, and perhaps it's not really a surprise that the multi-millionaire Guy of the People would be a fan of the former president who continues to pretend he is an everyman, but it does crystallize that there are systems underpinning what we eat and confronting those is often uncomfortable.

Absent Bourdain's thoughts on the matter, musician Jack White (who participated in the "Parts Unknown" episode filmed in Nashville) delivered a statement that I imagine would be similar to what the late chef would've said. 

"Anybody who 'normalizes' or treats this disgusting fascist, racist, con man, disgusting piece of s**t Trump with any level of respect is ALSO disgusting in my book," White wrote. "That's you Joe Rogan, you Mel Gibson, you Mark Wahlberg, you Guy Fieri." 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Anthony Bourdain Commentary Donald Trump Guy Fieri Jack White