Food for No Thought

By Chez Pazienza: Anyone who’s listened to me and Bob Cesca rail like bitter old guys against the various tyrannies of the world on our podcast knows that there’s one subject besides politics that we bring up over and over again. Something that elicits from us both anger and outrage and which we can’t stop moaning about no matter how hard we try: the Food Network. Granted, it would be easy to take the advice of many wise men and women who came before us and simply change the channel rather than allowing the steady stream of foodie-fellating nonsense unleashed by this one particular network to wash over us, but what fun would that be? I can’t speak entirely for Bob, but I know that there is such a thing as hate-watching — and I know I often do it to the Food Network.

Last week, when the cult-of-the-culinary world exploded in a giant ball of hair gel, silver rings, Oakley sunglasses worn backward and of course flames — so many flames — there was a lot of grousing online about what it meant for the age of the celebrity chef. Whether you loved the instantly legendary New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s apparent disaster of a restaurant in Times Square or hated it — whether you thought it was well-deserved or an unfair low blow — there’s no doubt that it exposed probably the biggest peril of turning one’s ability to cook an ostensibly decent plate of food into a brand and nothing more. I knew ahead of time that there was no way I’d ever set foot inside Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, even on a dare — and that’s because I can’t stand Guy Fieri. I wouldn’t have cared less if the Times review of the thing had been glowing, I can’t imagine a worse experience than submitting to a 500-seat megalopolis of pasty tourists wolfing down buckets of Vegas Fries covered in Donkey Sauce while the oversized personality of a guy who looks, as Anthony Bourdain says, like Ed Hardy fucked a Juggalo assaults every one of my senses from every direction.

Fieri’s not a chef, he’s a cartoon character. But that’s the point, the thing Fieri couldn’t admit to when he went on his little network morning show indignation tour following the beating he’d taken: Fieri’s restaurant isn’t about the food. Nothing about him is about food. The chef part of “celebrity chef” merely denotes the medium he’s chosen to work in to achieve his primary goal, which is to make himself a millionaire by turning himself into a product and nothing more. I’m sure Fieri was genuinely insulted that he’s been getting pounded in the press — and for the record, the Times review was actually nowhere near as scathing as others have been, it simply had the virtue of being the most high-profile and the most creative — but he knows full well that no one who goes to his restaurant is going to give a crap about bad reviews; if they’re lining up in droves, it’s because they love Guy.

And that’s exactly what Fieri intended. He’s created a polarizing brand: If you like Guy Fieri, a wholly owned subsidiary of Guy Fieri Productions, then you’re probably going to enjoy his restaurant, even if the food is below average and the entire place has the feel of a low-rent Friday’s at three times the price. On the other hand, if you desperately want to knock that stupid multi-colored goatee off Guy Fieri’s fat, ridiculous face every time he screams onto your television, then you probably couldn’t be waterboarded into subjecting yourself to a temple to all things Guy. The food Guy Fieri makes is incidental to the real product on display and for sale: Guy Fieri.

For those who’ve forgotten what first foisted Guy Fieri on us as a culture, it was the Food Network’s talent competition, The Next Food Network Star. Fieri won the second edition of the show several years ago and has since seen his rise to fame border on meteoric. (I’ve more than once contemplated how history would’ve changed had that one moment never happened. Most people, if allowed to go back and change a single event in time, probably would kill Hitler or something; I’d make sure the other guy won and our society would’ve been spared the torture of Guy Fieri ubiquity.) It was the Food Network that made Fieri a celebrity and then basically flooded the airwaves with the seemingly unrelenting schlock of his Diners, Drive-ins and Dives show. Fieri became the first true breakout star on the network, meaning someone who didn’t have a reputation before and who cultivated one specifically within the purview of network execs and their largess. Since then, though, the Food Network has tried desperately to recapture lightning in a bottle and make somebody the kind of mega-celebrity chef Fieri became, if for no other reason than that it would be great for ratings.

And so we get what the Food Network has delivered over and over again throughout the past several years: a rehashing of the same people cooking the same food, all jammed down the audience’s collective throat in the hope that somebody sticks. There’s no better shameless example of this than the latest offering the network is pushing hard, The Next Iron Chef: Redemption. In case you haven’t been following along, the show is exactly what it sounds like — it’s a recycling of all the people you’ve seen on the Food Network time and time again who’ve failed to become the next big thing, hysterically hyped in the hope of making one or all of them finally turn into full-fledged brands. So there’s Marcel Vigneron and Spike Mendelsohn, each now taking his third or fourth crack at becoming an honest-to-god TV star; pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner, who has the personality of a parking meter; perennial Food Network bridesmaid Alex Guarnaschelli; Bond villain Jehangir Mehta; Chopped veteran Nate Appleman, who scored big on his initial at-bat by acknowledging the first rule of any Food Network competition show: remind everyone at every opportunity that you have a sick kid; and generally a host of others you’ve seen before on the network. In other words, the chefs on this thing are characters — the network figures you already know who you want to win and will be tuning in accordingly.

The problem is that more and more the Food Network is becoming like Taco Bell — the same six or seven ingredients repackaged in different ways and served up to an audience it assumes is too dumb or docile to know the difference. Sometimes the cheese goes on top of the meat; sometimes the meat goes on top of the sour cream; sometimes the whole thing is deep-fried; either way it all tastes the same. Granted, I realize that I’m contradicting myself by arguing that the Food Network should try to cull new talent, given that it was that effort years ago that gave us Guy Fieri, but there are ways to do it other than through competition shows. There are a million talented, pop culture-savvy chefs out there who deserve a national platform and who could and would assume it without becoming nothing more than a product. You have to concede, though, that, again as Bourdain says, the Food Network would never allow anyone it digs its hooks into to succeed without becoming a brand — one at least initially owned by the Food Network.

So while no one will likely ever be as obnoxious as, say, a Guy Fieri — that takes a special kind of lack of self-awareness — eventually everyone who becomes a Food Network star will be beholden to the network ethos. And that ethos is all about television and almost nothing about cooking.

So, who’s up for a Thanksgiving dinner of Mama Fieri’s Too-Hot Twice-Fried Turkey with Drunken Monkey Cranberry Jizz and Rawkin’ Basmati Garlic Tater Tots Stuffing? See you all in Flavor Town.