It should come as no surprise that a ferocious review in the New York Times of Guy Fieri’s Kitchen + Bar unleashed Internet mayhem when it hit the Gray Lady’s website yesterday afternoon. The kneejerk reactions, at least among NYC’s famously vocal chefs and food writers (ourselves included), was something akin to the mob scene at a public execution. Off with his head, seemed to be a popular sentiment, though in today’s Twitter parlance that became, “Guy Fieri takes it in the ass from the NY Times. So awesome.”
But as the infectious bloodlust of the spectacle began to wear off today (yes, the restaurant world is now on a 24-hour news cycle, too), some deeper questions began to emerge from the chatter. Most notably, Why’d you go in like that, Pete?
Reading a New York Times critic dressing down Guy Fieri—the Max Patkin of American Eating, a human Koopa Troopa whose sole calling in life is profiteering from the pleasure of unnecessary human bloat and decay—is what we imagine it would be like to watch Lester Bangs explain to Taylor Swift everything that’s wrong with her and what she does. Sure, it’s good for a laugh, but the latent elitism and misanthropy are perhaps even more unappetizing than any plate of Guy-talian Nachos could ever be.
As the infectious bloodlust of the spectacle began to wear off today, some deeper questions began to emerge from the chatter. Most notably, Why’d you go in like that, Pete?
At the end of the day, the New York Times is the great and classical arbiter of cultural taste in New York City, and Pete Wells is an editor and writer with all the chops necessary to be its mouthpiece. We all read him religiously even when he pisses us off, because we know there’s rigor to his assessments and because, frankly, the Times is the Times and it demands—often convincingly—to be taken seriously. Which is why, now that the feeding frenzy is over, the review ultimately feels like empty calories. Dignifying Fieri’s restaurant in the Dining section is the equivalent of weighing in on Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, or the Hard Rock Cafe. Nobody would expect Wells to review those places (that’s a job for Marilyn Hagerty), so why did Guy’s joint get called up to the guillotine?
Because Fieri is a great symbol of Fat America, of Big Food, of Unnecessary Food Celebrity, and then some. To the Michael Pollans and the Anthony Bourdains of America—and even the Alice Waters of America, dare we put those last two together—Fieri is an agent of destruction hellbent on turning us all into grease incubators for the moment when the alien race he leads descends on New York City, a la Independence Day, and begins to harvest our country’s pickled livers through our gullets for pâté. (This is, to be fair, not entirely improbable.)
But the main problem with the review, besides it’s staunch refusal to contextualize the target, is that Wells didn’t advocate against Fieri. In fact, Wells didn’t advocate for or against anything in the slam, other than perhaps expressing his personal proclivity for a good old curbside beatdown. Satire—the real-deal, Jonathan Swift type—is distinguished by its ability to offer an alternate vision for the future, to use humor as a tool to expose all that is false and malicious. But this isn’t satire; instead, it comes off as a creative writing exercise with no real purpose but to prove the author’s rhetorical dexterity.
A beatdown of Fieri without advocacy or context functions as nothing but 1) A publicity boon for the Times; 2) A lowering of the bar for what the Times sees as a shitty restaurant; 3) Pageviews.
And that’s why the initial satisfaction of the smackdown seems to have worn off so quickly. Coming off last week’s magnanimous turn—a well-intentioned but ultimately hollow rallying cry for downtown restaurants in the wake of the hurricane—it’s becoming increasingly difficult to figure out where the review column is going these days. The fact is, there are other people who can passionately advocate for eating downtown in a time when downtown needs it. Enter Bourdain, enter Pollan, enter Frank Bruni, who still can’t seem to shake his desire to write about food long after he’s vacated the position of critic. But it’s not the job of the Times critic to be a booster, at least not traditionally. The role is to be an arbiter of taste and a chronicler of how the city dines. When that gilded bullhorn is turned on something as irrelevant to the readership as a Big Box restaurant in Times Square, it begins to loose its power.
Wells is too smart to not know full well what he was doing with this broad-daylight flogging. In fact, just last month, he opened a review of the ‘21’ Club with the following proclamation:
How did that tune change so quickly? A beatdown of Fieri without advocacy or context, with the unnecessary flourish of breaking the fourth wall to write an entire review in question-verse, functions as nothing but 1) A publicity boon for the Times; 2) A lowering of the bar for what the Times sees as a shitty restaurant; 3) Pageviews.
At the end of the Fieri review, Wells is like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, surrounded by dead bodies in an arena of men he’s just slain. In the movie, Crowe screams at the crowd: Are you not entertained? Is this not why you’re here? Wells, today, wouldn’t be the one asking those questions. Even if we know he’s not bloodthirsty (and we believe him), he seems to have no problem taking on the part of bloodletting entertainer. And it’s certainly entertaining. But like any massacre, it’s ultimately savage and undignified.