Guy Fieri's Culinary Populism Is No Joke

An investigation into the success of America's polarizing purveyor of comfort food

Getty Images / Ethan Miller

Bay Ridge, nestled in the far southeastern tip of Brooklyn, has been spared the most radical effects of the borough’s rapid gentrification. It is still dotted with local restaurants and families who spend Sundays together eating Italian dinners. It is not a place movie stars visit on press tours, or the part of Brooklyn where rising indie bands perform for hipster tastemakers. But for the right celebrity, the neighborhood will turn out in full force, and on a chilly Wednesday evening in mid-October, a line snaked around several blocks off Third Avenue with excited fans waiting for their chance to meet Guy Fieri.

A chef, entrepreneur, and ubiquitous television personality, Fieri has spent the last decade becoming the biggest, tallest lightning rod in the growing food and lifestyle space. After his winning run on the 2006 season of Next Food Network Star, he rocketed to fame as the host of TV shows, anchored by the road trip foodie series Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It didn’t take him long to jump from host to full-on lifestyle brand, with an ever-broadening portfolio of restaurants and lines of designer kitchenware and groceries carried by Walmart and QVC. Fieri even has a series of eateries on Carnival Cruise Lines ships; between his near-constant place on TV, restaurants, and products across the country — and now maritime presence — there may be no more quietly ubiquitous celebrity.

In a politically and culturally polarized country, Fieri has channeled a natural populist appeal and used it to build a business empire. American food culture has been colonized by elitists, and Fieri is leading a rebellion by trumpeting the pleasure of consumption and highlighting the hard work of the local restaurants at which a vast majority of Americans actually eat. He often explores ethnic cuisines and flavors unfamiliar to a core part of his most obvious audience, but those seemingly foreign flavors are usually are integrated into or sprinkled atop gigantic sandwiches and pasta dishes.

“In some ways, he’s doing exactly what the Brooklyn hipster foodies are doing; he’s just appealing to a broader audience and appealing to a red-state audience,” says Amy Bentley, a professor at NYU’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. “Diners can cross class lines, age lines, and political lines.”

Instead of kale and vinaigrette, Fieri promotes “real food for real people,” which often translates to heavy dishes for hungry, middle class customers. This has earned him plenty of derision from peers like former Food Network colleague Anthony Bourdain, but in Bay Ridge, Fieri’s role as the people’s foodie was frequently and enthusiastically emphasized by fans waiting in line to met him. Sure, he’s a multi-millionaire with a business empire, but many felt a true connection with the 48-year-old host, who looks less like a successful capitalist than the goofiest dad in the PTA with his bleached hair, sleeve of tattoos and cargo shorts.

His mere presence is comforting to people; one woman told Inverse that the first thing she requested after coming out of lap band surgery was that the nurse find her Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on TV in the recovery room. Many others shared their own stories of habitually marathoning the program, many of which took place in bed after a long day of hard work.

“He’s a very relatable guy, and he’s fun,” a woman named Laura, who was in line for the event with her son and father, said. “You feel like you’re hanging out with him when you’re watching the show. That’s why it’s cool to meet him: You feel like, ‘Hey, I know you, you’re in my living room all the time.’ He seems like a regular guy, which is awesome.”

Several weeks ago, during the NY Food and Wine Festival, hundreds of fans shelled out $99 a pop to spend an evening in the same ballroom as Fieri. The sell out was no surprise, because fan devotion to Fieri runs very, very deep. There is always an element of irrationality when it comes to celebrity — why care about someone you don’t know? — but there is a perceived quid pro quo with Fieri, if not an individual basis, then at least spiritually. He is a culinary Robin Hood, stealing air time and the cultural focus from culinary snobs and famous chefs, and delivering it to those mom and pop restaurant owners who are struggling to get by.

In addition to seeming like a regular person, Fieri is seen as a champion of the little guy thanks to the format of Diners, which sees him travel around the country, visiting mom and pop restaurants instead of Michelin Star dining establishments.

“The way he speaks, the way he presents the food, it’s letting unheard people have a voice, have a say, Fabio Parasecoli, an associate professor and Director of Food Studies Initiatives at the New School, says. “In a way it really reflects an underlying populism we see in politics, the sense that the elites are not there for us, they’re just there for themselves, and we should deeply change that relationship. He presents a way for the everyman to have a voice, to have a say, to be acknowledged and applauded for his or her creativity or chutzpah.”

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that a visit from the show can send business soaring, as both locals and tourists pile in to try the food that Fieri and his crew made look delicious as sin on television. The boon, which can and has tripled a business’s receipts, even has a name: the Fieri Effect. And to organize the restaurants highlighted over 365 episodes, there are more than a handful of independently managed smartphone apps that track and provide information about each and every one of them.

Rick Graner runs FlavortownUSA, the most successful of these apps. It’s been in business since 2009, and predates Food Network’s own web-based guide to the various diners, drive-ins, and dives. He says he’s rewritten his website four times, the mobile app three times, and has to often update his bandwidth to keep up with all the new additions. The featured map continues to grow more dense, but it’s a labor of love for the long-time programmer.

“These restaurants don’t have the manpower or even the know-how when it comes to the web,” he says. “They still struggle to use all the social media that is out there, so it’s helpful to have sites like us pick up the slack.”

Graner himself has been to over 100 of the restaurants across the country with his wife, who originally introduced him to the show. “You really have to go to these places, because these folks are just trying to make a buck, and with rising food costs, real estate costs, they get squeezed from all sides,” he says. “So I like to think that as a fan, I just keep the site alive and help any way I can.”

The site has received thousands of recommendations, which he dutifully passes on to Citizen Pictures, the production company behind Diners (at one point skeptical of the app and its utility, the company has since come around). And many fans in line in Bay Ridge arrived armed with their own suggestions for new locales for the show to visit, hoping to connect their friends and neighbors with the Fieri boost. He is a bleach-blonde, tattoo-covered stimulus package offering his blessing and the financial benefits that come with it. There is a trickle-down effect, too; the creators of several other DDD curation apps have been able to monetize the demand for a handy guide to featured restaurants.

Guy Fieri poses with guests at the 2016 Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival Presented By FOOD & WINE at Surfcomber Hotel on February 27, 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Dylan Rives/Getty Images for SOBEWFF®)

Getty Images / Dylan Rives

And yet, Graner’s devotion, while impressive, pales in comparison to the personal dedication to Fieri exhibited by Jane and Roger Holm. Retirees from Minnesota, the Holms have spent the last half-decade following the traveling Fieri road show. Avid motorcyclists, they’ve biked across the western part of the country, visiting DDD-featured restaurants and getting to know Fieri’s long-time crew. They’re all on a first-name basis, and the Holms stay connected with all the restaurant owners they meet, too.

“We have thoroughly enjoyed their friendships,” Holm told Inverse. “One crew member had nowhere to go for Christmas a few years ago so he spent the day with our family at our house. We have met another crew member at the Minnesota State Fair to peruse the eats there. We have grinned as someone mentioned to a crew member that Roger and I are DDD groupies. He bristled and said, They are NOT groupies! They are our greatest supporters and our friends!’”

The Holms have visited hundreds of DDD-featured restaurants, gone to funerals for restaurateurs, and volunteered alongside Fieri’s crew. They’ve also appeared in episodes of the show that highlighted their travel. And they’ve documented it all in an ongoing series of 60-pound scrapbooks, each of which Fieri has personally autographed.

“I said to the crew one time, this has been life changing not only for you, but for us,” Holm explained. “We have made lifelong friends. It’s usually the owners, but sometimes it’s the staff. We even keep in touch with several customers.”

The Holms are far from the only fans who travel the country in search of featured restaurants. Most people in line in Bay Ridge mentioned having made an effort when out of town to visit eateries highlighted on the show, and some even plan vacations around spots that Fieri has visited. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is part Americana anthropology, and part food porn, which is why many people — like Laura from Bay Ridge — tend to watch so many episodes in one sitting.

“He never takes the role of the cook,” Bentley notes. “Sometimes he helps participate in the production a little bit, but he’s always the interviewer and the consumer of the food at the end, and so I think the audience identifies with him.”

Indeed, while so much of food media has become about a healthy lifestyle, and the remarkably plain — and/or expensive — recipes that are more familiar and delicious to the vast majority of Americans. “A lot of people are trying to eat healthy, but it’s very difficult,” Bentley says. “It’s time poverty, it takes a lot of psychological effort and physical effort, and that is hard to fit in with an already difficult and busy life for people of lesser economic means. We’re tempted all the time, everywhere we look, with food that is often highly processed and filled with sugar, fat, and salt. It’s part of our culture.”

Adds Paresecoli: “There is a reaction to always being told what you’re eating is wrong and is unhealthy and that you’ll be overweight and sick. Which is in many ways unfortunately the reality, but I think the language to discuss these issues comes out as judgment. It completely excludes the experience of people, there is no actual dialogue, which is a problem with nutritional science.”

Fieri, while a highly trained chef, is best known for the episodes in which he embraces the cheesiest, meatiest, most gluttonous menu items, which are far more rewarding to watch being eaten than salad. He’s offered up plenty of relatively healthy items in his cookbooks and on his shows, but those are not the images that have stuck. It’s the big, bold dishes — Parescoli calls it “State Fair” food — that fill the menus of Fieri’s many restaurants, which has led to both great business success and flat out scorn from critics and upscale diners. He is to many a punchline, a Halloween costume and meme, an easy symbol of what’s wrong with America.

His big flagship eatery in New York’s Times Square — Guy’s American Kitchen was the subject of an infamously cruel review by the New York Times critic Pete Wells, and Fieri is the subject of ongoing mockery. Any profile of him in any major magazine asks him to confront the contempt, though as Bentley suggests, none of it is particularly surprising.

“In the food world, chefs and culinary personalities, in some ways the more popular they are, the less credibility they have, or the more their credibility is questioned among the community of trained chefs,” she says.

The review made news for weeks, but in a way, the scorn from such a seemingly elitist critic only served to burnish his mainstream, regular guy credentials. That he was clearly hurt by the takedown helped humanize him, too.

“Why do some people have such animosity toward him? Dunno. Envy perhaps? Those who truly know him knows how hard he works,” Holm said. “He’s human. He has a family and friends. He has cares and concerns. We have seen him laugh until he cries. We have also seen him grieving with tears in his eyes — more than once.”

The Donkey Sauce might be delicious, but ultimately, it’s Fieri’s unvarnished and very unironic humanity that keeps the Holms — and the rest of his many fans — loyal.

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