Emeril Live taught me to cook. During university, I was a devoted fan of the program that transformed the burly New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse into a global superstar and begat the celebrity-chef craze of the past decade. Each night, as Emeril bammed(!) his way through Southern recipes, imploring viewers to “kick it up a notch,” I was learning how to hold a knife, season fish, heat a pan, sear a steak and mince garlic. By the end of my second year, while my friends were still figuring out stir-fry, I was serving them turkey gumbo and crab cakes.
A few years ago, I finally ate at one of the chef’s restaurants, in Miami Beach. Greeted by a giant portrait of Lagasse’s face, I was escorted past the wrought-iron gate embossed with his florid signature onto a vast seaside terrace. The food was supposed to be the summation of Lagasse’s career: the greatest hits of his nouveau Creole cooking, but it was underwhelming and overpriced. Picking around gummy scallops and a tough pork chop, I could see the restaurant for what it was … a blatant bank withdrawal on Emeril’s fame. I didn’t pick up a commemorative cooking apron on the way out.
That meal came to my mind last week after reading Pete Wells’s scorched-earth review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, in The New York Times. The Guy in question is Guy Fieri, Food Network’s current catchphrase-slinging poster boy, whose Times Square flagship was designed as a destination for fans of his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Wells gutted the place with a barrage of zingers: “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” It is already one of the most-read restaurant reviews of all time.
For Fieri haters, who see him as the culinary Antichrist, responsible for every aspect of bad taste – from clothing to language, from health to flavour – Wells’s evisceration was sweet vindication. To Fieri’s fans, it was elitist sniping at a man who celebrates the very unpretentious, blue-collar food that makes American dining great. Either way, it was inevitable this would happen. Every chef who moves from the kitchen to the limelight lives in the crosshairs, and Fieri, the most bombastic, polarizing food-television personality ever to grace the screen, knowingly waltzed into the kill zone when he opened up in Times Square.
Let’s give Fieri his due. Beyond his frosted highlights, the Christian Audigier of chili dogs has done remarkable things for American popular food. Fieri shines the spotlight on earnest family businesses, many of which are struggling to survive. His fans will take road trips thousands of miles to sample the taco salads and giant burgers he showcases, raising the fortunes of those restaurants overnight.
There’s a threshold a chef crosses when become he or she becomes a celebrity. In their transition from slicing shallots to signing autographs, they need to make a choice. Will they remain a kitchen chef first and foremost, like David Chang, Thomas Keller and Martin Picard, or will they be entertainers, who leave their restaurants behind like Rachel Ray or Paula Deen, bringing joy to the masses? Julia Child could have opened a whole chain of cafés, but she didn’t. Not everyone has such will power.
Fieri is, above all, a host and entertainer, and he is one of the best in the business. His culinary talents (or lack thereof) are, essentially, irrelevant. Fieri spent his career in California’s suburban bar-restaurants, and he still owns places like Tex Wasabi’s (finally, sushi and barbecue under one roof!), but he’s never been lauded as a great kitchen talent.
The same goes for Anthony Bourdain, who vocally despises Fieri and all he stands for. Bourdain wondered recently to an audience whether age would force Fieri to “de-douche” (become less obnoxious). I remember a lacklustre meal I had at the Washington, D.C., location of Brasserie Les Halles when Bourdain was still its executive chef. In no way did the sinewy steak frites and weak service that day diminish my admiration of Bourdain’s razor-sharp writing and wry observations. He’d moved beyond the need to prove himself in the kitchen, and we, as a food culture, are richer for it.