Guy Fieri allowed me to ask: who do I fear noise and brightness for? Who do I fear food for? And he gave me the answer: I fear it for myself.
2012 was also the year that Pete Wells’ famous New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, Guy’s American, was published. This review raised valid concerns about the restaurant’s poor quality and overambitious size, but what stuck with me was the sneer of it. It was less a review than a series of mean, pointed questions directed to the man himself:
“When you cruise around the country for your show ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’ rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy, do you really mean it?”
“Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? . . . Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”
and worst of all:
“Is the entire restaurant a very expensive piece of conceptual art? Is the shapeless, structureless Baked Alaska that droops and slumps and collapses while you eat it, or don’t eat it, supposed to be a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane?”
In 2012, while I was supposedly poisoning my husband, Guy Fieri was doing the same to the husbands of Times Square. I read this review the same night I stormed out of my husband’s house in tears, unable to pinpoint how, exactly, a box of fucking Texas Toasts had undone years of therapy, unable even to slam the door behind me, unable, really, to speak.
The day I left my husband I devoted myself, with the single-minded purpose of a Talmud scholar, to the show that made Guy Fieri famous: Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
The world of the showis Technicolor majesty. Big, splashy primary colors abound; the host drives a Camaro whose red is the reason that color TV exists. His hair is canary fluff. The premise is that Fieri is on an endless, nationwide restaurant crawl. No town is too small. In fact, the more obscure the site, the happier he is. One restaurant, Hillbilly Hot Dogs, comprises two remodeled school buses in Lesage, West Virginia. And Guy Fieri boards one of those buses without reservation.
Fieri’s voice is a constant, low-grade bark that lies somewhere between a boom and a screech. His guests, all owners of locally appreciated restaurants that are not famous (yet), seem cowed by him. Their quietness only has the effect of amplifying him further.
He is uncool. Does anyone dispute this? The bowling shirts, the Camaro, that incredible hair—he’s the concierge of Margaritaville. His hugs look like they hurt. His palette is all reds and oranges. When he’s sunburnt, the camera doubles down on that crisped up skin as if he’s a particularly tempting chicken tender. He’s often sunburnt. His Oakleys tattoo a white raccoon’s mask across the top of his face. The sound editing is generous; the sizzle of any pan is extra bacony. Flavortown, the mythical province from which Fieri claims all great food comes, is butter crackling in a pan. Flavortown is a red Camaro painting a gray hamlet pink.
At home, in my dirty sweatpants and a threadbare sports bra, I unwrap my burger and enter my sixth hour of a marathon of Triple-D (as the insiders call it). There is so much that I love. There is so much that I would be afraid of, if it were anybody else, but it’s Guy Fieri; there is so much that I love.
In 2019, I avoid arguments, I avoid cooking, I avoid loud voices. I especially avoid those roundtable shows where feisty pundits interrupt each other. I eat heaps of greasy food, I eat no food at all. I shower twice-ish a week and never shave. I seethe in a terrible rage that drives me to snarl at my loved ones, sneer in their faces, insult them in someone else’s voice. I don’t know where the rage comes from and I cry when it’s gone, tears like the breaking of a great fever. I still watch Triple-D for hours at every opportunity.
Guy Fieri beguiles survivors other than just me. Why? We hate shouting but not his shouting; we fear the loudest, biggest man in the room unless it’s him. Many of us have forgotten how to eat properly, how to feel the simple joy of food; swallow it and keep it down. But when he gobbles his beloved fried chicken sandwiches, his oxtails, his waffles, the pleasure evident on his face, we’re hypnotized. We hear the road-trippish wailing of the electric guitar that plays over the show’s B-roll. We nod.
People are most comfortable encountering the illness first and symptoms second. “You may have PTSD if you experience constant irritability, anxiety, self-destructive tendencies, emotional detachment.” It’s comforting to demystify any diagnosis with a list. But when it’s you, you look like your illness long before you ever know it by name. I’d already spent months on a Triple-D bender by the time I understood what I needed Guy Fieri to protect me from.
My husband must have been feeling flush the day he took me to dinner. I wore a dress with cutouts in the sides, a good deal of make-up, a hairless lower half. I blow-dried my hair, but the humidity wrought it into steel wool within minutes of my stepping outside.
Guy Fieri beguiles survivors other than just me. Why? We hate shouting but not his shouting; we fear the loudest, biggest man in the room unless it’s him.
At the restaurant, I ordered a burger. My husband caught the server’s eye. “Actually, can you give us another couple minutes?” When she obliged, he looked at me as if I’d just lied about an empty cookie jar. “Do you really need a burger when everyone in this restaurant can see your disgusting body spilling out of your dress?”
I instinctively pressed my arms over the cutouts. During one of our phone calls, my father had begged me to stop apologizing to my husband when he said things like this, so I said, “Excuse me.”
I cried for a prim few seconds in the bathroom. When I returned, I ordered a salad. The server brought it with the dressing on the side, unasked. I used just enough to make the curly kale palatable and left half of the leaves on my plate.
Leaning on scenes like this is easy. I could write whole gratuitous novels’ worth of behavior like this, enraging people on my behalf. But looking back, what angers me isn’t what he said. It’s that I didn’t just get a burger anyway, a double, with extra cheese.
The New York Times food critic rates restaurants on a scale of zero to four stars, and positive ratings begin at one. Guy’s American received a predictable zero. If zero stars is for any place that's “poor, fair, or satisfactory,” then who gets to be “extraordinary”?
Only five restaurants have four stars: Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, Jean-Georges, Le Bernardin, and Sushi Nakazawa. The most affordable of these will set back a thrifty dinner-seeker no less than $138. At least, I think that's the case—their websites are cagey, burying the prix fixe cost in the small print if they mention it at all, giving the impression that it's gauche to inquire about money when art is on the line.
My ex-husband championed these experiences, though he could never afford them. One night, he made me dine-and-dash a local restaurant to which the Times might have awarded two stars (“very good”), so desperate was he for a fancy night out—or at least 3/4 of one, minus dessert and tip. “Go warm up the car,” he told me and, unaware of his plan, I did. Then, “Go! Go! Go!” as he jogged to the car. Even though I only had a learner’s permit, I took off as soon as he was in the passenger’s seat.
Sometimes, I imagine the way Guy Fieri would guffaw if I told him this story, throwing his head back, slapping his thighs. He’d hear it from me at a crab boil, maybe, or in a greasy spoon. Someplace loud, where the melted butter flows like river rapids and every voice is jolly.
I did not initially believe that my love for Triple-D stemmed from my history with my husband. Here was a man whose speaking voice was a low shout and yet here I was, who cried whenever anybody yelled. Guy Fieri’s whole project was to adore food and I was reduced to rubble by a box of Texas Toasts and a burger that I never got to eat. Even I believed I watched the show as a joke.
But loving Guy Fieri was a safe, simple rebellion against the memory of my husband. My husband the preppy man-boy in Sperrys, who never saw a bleached blond man he didn’t sneer at, who pruned at my too-soft body like it was a troublesome topiary, who only believed in loudness when he was employing it against me. On the other hand, Guy Fieri, uncool and bold and tacky as hell, offered such generosity and praise to the restaurant owners on his show. He was uncouth for a cause. The timbre of his voice was the exact opposite of a disappointed murmur and a handful of my hair.
Guy Fieri allowed me to ask: who do I fear noise and brightness for? Who do I fear food for? And he gave me the answer: I fear it for myself, and yet someday, I’m going to need to take those parts of me back.
He takes the burger in his hands. A gargantuan thing, more sculpture than sandwich; a behemoth of glittering brioche, patties, slab bacon, palm-sized lettuce leaves, Edenfruit tomatoes. No toothpick could hold it together. A sword might stand a chance.
It’s a beautiful moment whenever he takes a bite. I love to watch cheese, sauce, and blood congeal on the hairs of his beard, to see his chin weeping the juice of the food he loves best, to hear the slobbering sounds of his triumph. Who knows how long he chews, but after a respectful few moments, the camera cuts away and now he’s wiping his face. After that one bite, maybe half the burger is left.
“Wow,” Guy Fieri says, expertly speaking around the sides of his mouth so that he can finish chewing. “That is money.”
“It is money,” I say to nobody, and I raise my own burger to the screen.
Rax King is a James Beard Award-nominated bitch. Her work can also be found in Glamour, MEL Magazine, Catapult, and elsewhere. Look out for her monthly column Store-Bought Is Fine for hot takes about the Food Network, and her essay collection Tacky (Vintage 2021).