As much as I despise the celebrity-chef industry, there are a few people who I have a level of tolerance for. Alton Brown. Anthony Bourdain. Guy Fieri. I have my reasons for all of them, but since Guy Fieri is currently front and center in the news, I would like to throw a few thoughts out there.
The background is that NY Times food critic Pete Wells wrote the mother of all poison-pen reviews, and it was Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar that was in the crosshairs. The review is priceless, by the way. Written almost entirely in rhetorical interrogatives, it is the kind of review that professionals write when they feel that it is the only way to convey their extreme disappointment. Pete Wells has nothing, and I mean nothing, to gain from slagging a restaurant that is making an honest effort. I think “honest effort” might be the thing that is going unsaid in the current web-frenzy on this situation.
First things first [do I have to even say that this is opinion and conjecture?]: Guy Fieri does not have the personal capital to open a 500-seat, three-floor, three-bar monument to the fryolator in Times Square, Manhattan. He is well paid, and is doing well on a personal basis, but the location in question is the apex of high-roller real estate, and even the best backed restaurant ventures are still low-odds propositions. GFKaB is a high cost, high risk venture, and it has many people with a financial interest. Guy was part of a deal to be involved in branding, menu design, consulting, etc… brought in by an investment group. He is the “face guy”. If there are any notions that this is Guy Fieri’s pet project and he had intimate involvement in the food and beverage production, disabuse yourself of those notions now. Guy Fieri has a large stake in seeing the place succeed, because he has a lot to gain if it goes right. It most likely isn’t make or break for him, but it could (temporarily) ankle his career in a way that only Rocco DiSpirito could empathize with (and even Rocco only had himself to blame).
It is apparent that after four separate visits to the establishment by the NYT food critic, they were all badly received. Wells slams the bulk of the menu, the service, the bar, and the decor. If you can, please go read the review. It is crystalline wrath for subjecting a reviewer’s palate to overpriced swill. For all of Fieri’s protestations, he is currently finding out that he trusted the wrong people. Fieri made his mark by championing the food of the common man, executed with great care by good cooks, often with a strong regional sensibility, in the low-rent venues that dot this great nation. Pete Wells knows EXACTLY what this kind of food is supposed to look, smell, and taste like, and the kind of people that make and serve it. If the execution at GAKaB was even within horseshoe-close distance of hitting the mark, Wells would have written a very different review. It wasn’t close. It was offensively off the mark.
As much as I think he pushes entertainment over substance, and his chain restaurants are tweaked Applebee’s clones, Fieri deserves credit for his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show. He gets what is cool about regional fare and does a great job of showing it the appropriate respect. I was impressed by how he handled one of my favorite local diners: He did an awesome job of profiling O’Rourkes in Middletown, CT, and the quirky and inventive Brian O’Rourke, and he fit right in with Brian… that is hard to fake. So I don’t have it in for Fieri, nor do I cheer this smackdown. But, again, it looks very much like Wells couldn’t let Fieri slide with a slap on the wrist. His experiences must have been soul-destroyingly bad. Fieri can bitch at Wells and the NYT all he likes, but he got sold out by some guy with an MBA, not a fellow traveler in the cooking trade, and Pete Wells is just the messenger. Don’t shoot the messenger.
[much smarter blog post from TIME… ]