The chef steps away for a moment, and the duck begins to burn.
Julia Moskin published an excellent piece in The New York Times this morning on the subject of a Guy Fieri show she’d witnessed in Atlantic City recently. As luck would have it, I attended the same show. Here are my personal impressions.
Recently, I had a chance to sneak into a Guy Fieri show at the Circus Maximus in Atlantic City’s Caesars Palace. It confirmed all my opinions about the dude, and then some.
Fieri is one of the most popular figures on the Food Network. In fact, when onstage, he often refers to himself as a “rock star.” On a network obsessed with creating its own bankable celebrities, Fieri is a notable success story. Born Guy Ramsay Ferry in 1968 of Irish and Italian ancestry, he grew up in Northern California and attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he majored in hospitality management. He launched a successful career as co-owner and manager of several restaurants with jokey names like Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s, the latter offering a surreal combination of sushi and Southern barbecue.
But his big break came in 2006 when he won the second season of The Next Food Network Star , in which he was already honing the cartoonish appearance that he cultivates today: a platinum spiky hairdo, wraparound shades, bowling shirts, and lots of punk jewelry, a look he calls “kulinary gangsta.” In the four years since his victory, he’s hosted a series of Food Network shows, the most famous of which is Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, an in-your-face celebration of the greasiest — and most obvious — vernacular dining establishments in a number of cities. He’s also dutifully served as a utility player for the network, making guest appearances on its shows and crossing over to do a non-food game show on NBC, while rounding out his career with celebrity endorsements of T.G.I Friday’s and Flowmaster, an auto-parts company.
The immense, arena-shaped Circus Maximus, which holds 1,500, was sold out for the Saturday afternoon performance. I waited with a paunchy crowd, mainly in their 60s. The show started a half-hour past the advertised time, and lasted a scant 55 minutes. The stage was set with gleaming chrome kitchen equipment, the Viking brand prominently displayed: a double-door fridge, microwave, conventional oven, induction stove-top (about which he jokingly bitched, “I’ve got to see a flame!”), and long countertop, on which an elaborate mis-en-place had already been arrayed.
Fieri not so much entered as flew onto the stage, a bantam bundle of energy, rapid-firing jokes and quips that left the audience alternately abashed and roaring with laughter. He wore an embroidered red chef’s tunic that might have been made by Nudie’s of Hollywood, and was followed by a cameraman, whose efforts were projected onto a Jumbotron above the stage. Fieri jollied up the audience by asking where they were from, recounted his career, and then delivered shtick about the fast-paced life of celebrity chefs and his love of cars, junk food, and designer clothing. He had a series of branded plastic squeeze sauce bottles that he periodically flung into the audience, shouting “Watch out!” and “Heads up!”
“Chefs on Stage: Guy Fieri” attracted an older crowd in Atlantic City.
Twenty minutes later he made it to the counter to cook a pair of dishes he said hadn’t been seen on TV yet. But cooking seemed like a distraction for him, and he continually came out from behind the counter to the edge of the stage to deliver more jokes. “Anyone have any questions?” he asked a number of times. When someone shouted one, he’d reply, “Did I ask for a question?” But much of his banter was brilliant, and it seemed at least partly improvised.
The first recipe was duck fried rice. He had trouble ripping the skin from a pair of breasts, noting, “This is really difficult to do, which is why I have assistants.” He launched into a lecture about searing duck breast, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was using it in fried rice. As he came from behind the counter for the umpteenth time, the breasts started to burn, and great clouds of smoke rose up. “Hey, the breasts are burning,” someone shouted from the audience. “Does it really matter?” he snapped, stepping out of character for a moment.
He touted his own brand of knives before throwing one into the audience. Though the knife was still in its sheath, it seemed like a dodgy move. Eventually, he returned to the kitchenette to make the second dish, a sesame-encrusted salmon fillet on a rice-noodle salad. As he cooked, an assistant named “Panini Pete” jumped off the stage to get questions from the audience. He mainly called on five-year-old girls, who lisped their prepared queries. At some point, another Food Network chef, Robert Irvine, made a cameo appearance, and a series of lame jokes about him wanting to eat the entire platter of duck fried rice ensued.
The recipes onstage were never fully fleshed out, and nobody in the audience seemed to be taking notes. Moreover, Fieri appeared to expect very little in the way of culinary experience on the part of his audience; at one point during the duck searing, he shouted out, “I know you don’t like duck [audience groans], but you’re gonna love this dish.” While the performance had outwardly resembled a cooking show, the recipes were entirely derivative, like something you might find at T.G.I. Friday’s, constituting an amalgam of contemporary notions about cooking, rather than something original and exciting. The show was over almost before it began, but the audience seemed quite satisfied with the TV-length format. And who was Fieri anyway? He wasn’t really a chef, but more of a stand-up comedian using food as his material. He was the natural result of food being treated as entertainment, rather than as an end in itself, the most perfect creation of a network whose current objective seems to be cultivating imitation chefs for merchandising to a wider audience, with the actual food on the back burner.
As I was swept out the door by a very satisfied crowd, down the stairs and onto the gaming floor, I reflected that I’d been well entertained despite my foodie misgivings, and that I was glad to have seen Fieri’s show — especially since I hadn’t ponied up the $100 ticket price.