If You Can’t Take the Heat

The Dueling Brands of Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri

We have reached a point in our lengthy cultural reckoning with food at which we can agree that cooking is an art; still, it is an art of an undeniably different sort than, say, marble sculpture or fashion design. The relatively low price point of a meal at a great restaurant makes haute cuisine an art of which even a relatively unwealthy person can be a patron. A Birkin bag, that best-known and best-loved icon of fashion excess, costs at least $10,500; a four-course tasting menu at Sirio Maccioni’s celebrated New York restaurant Le Cirque costs $88. Neither is reasonable, but for he who earns only $10 an hour and still longs to bask in the warm glow of luxury, one is achievable, and requires him to spend the wages of only nine hours, rather than a thousand.

As such, chefs live in the presence of a different sort of patronage than other artists, and the nature of their celebrity is accordingly different. Gallery openings and Fashion Week may be legitimate cultural institutions in the cities in which they’re held, and the rest of us who don’t live in New York or Paris may enjoy reading about them the next day, but our access to such occurrences exists only with a degree of removal: we are not, for the most part, art collectors or couture wearers, and when we read about these events, it’s hard not to know our place. The culture of food, though, has been made accessible to us on several fronts. We, the average, can eat great food at the same restaurants as VIPs, albeit at tables much nearer the swinging kitchen doors than theirs and at much less desirable hours. We can meet great food artists at the same bars where we hang out—Mario Batali has built half his career on his aggressive campaign of constant, approachable visibility. Then, for those of us who lack even this degree of access—those without a Michelin star restaurant nearby, say—there’s the Food Network.

The Food Network has done much to level the playing field for chefs, cooks, and eaters. Since its inception in 1993, its programming has made leaps and bounds; what was once a low budget bunch of instructional cooking shows has exploded into a brand-driven powerhouse including reality shows, travel documentaries, and instructional programs for every conceivable popular American cuisine. Food makes for more powerful branding than anybody dared to suspect before Food Network: its personalities (not cooks or chefs, but personalities) have grown rich, famous, and ubiquitous. At first, Food Network sought out personalities who were already highly regarded chefs. Its early programming includes Emeril Lagasse, who was the executive chef at a beloved local restaurant when the Food Network landed him; Mario Batali, who was approached because of the respect and success he’d earned at his restaurant Pó; and the collected shows of Julia Child, whose legacy needs no explanation. Today, Lagasse and Batali can both be found grinning cloyingly at us from the labels of various products in our supermarkets. I’ve fallen prey to their branding traps myself. Emeril’s Essence, the vaguely “Creole” spice mix, is pretty good; Batali’s eponymous jarred tomato sauce less so.

I hesitate to even call Anthony Bourdain a Food Network personality. He’s so much more closely affiliated with the Travel Channel, but he did have two seasons of A Cook’s Tour on Food Network just after releasing his book Kitchen Confidential, so he counts. Bourdain probably doesn’t want to be called a Food Network personality, either, given the acrimonious relationship that he has with food as the common man’s entertainment: without the obsession with chefs that was largely fostered by the Food Network, Bourdain would be little more than a modestly attractive chef ranting into the void; and also, without that same obsession, which he largely scorns as the province of dilettantes and fusion lovers, he would have little to rant about.

Bourdain exemplifies a macho, belligerent, watch-me-eat-these-sheep’s-balls-dude attitude towards food that I admit to having little patience for. According to a 2007 Serious Eats profile, his favorite “food people” are Fergus Henderson, Martin Picard, Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, Jim Harrison, and Marco Pierre White; for those readers who don’t spend every waking minute voraciously consuming food media, there are a lot of old school screamers on that list, a lot of gentleman divas. Every time I encounter a man who not only loves to cook, but considers that love of cooking a central component of his masculinity, I curse Bourdain and his ilk. Why? Why separate the art of cooking from its longtime relationship with femininity, caretaking, and drudgery? Who cares? The answer, obviously, is that men care, because to be a man and claim any aspects of femininity is to be extremely gay, which is maybe why the men of professional kitchens (including Bourdain’s favorite food people) swagger and swear so much, why they consider the mostly female front-of-house staff to be fair game for harassment: all this horrid behavior reaffirms them as powerfully, heterosexually Masculine.

Please note: there is much to like about Anthony Bourdain. It’s tough to resist the call of an unrepentant Stooges lover who admits to openly using heroin in the kitchen. He is appealingly honest about the multifarious uglinesses of his calling, and on his travel shows, he makes an effort to participate respectfully in the cultures that he visits, his watch-me-eat-these-sheep’s-balls-dude antics notwithstanding. If nothing else, he’s not the worst of his kind. However, he is arguably the first of his kind. Before Bourdain, the men of the Food Network were typified by a certain neutered doofiness. website generate . They were held to the same standard of wholesomeness as the female personalities, at least on air. In Heat, Bill Buford’s memoir of the time he spent as a journalist-cook in Mario Batali’s kitchen, Buford takes a trip to the set of Molto Mario and notes the extraordinary difference in Batali-the-amicable-cooking-show-host and Batali-qua-Batali: the former was as effusive and enthusiastic as the latter, but the X-rated filth that spewed from the latter’s mouth was wholly reined in on TV. Paradoxically, given his disdain for the branding-centric practices of the Food Network, Bourdain’s primary contribution to the zeitgeist has not been one of food appreciation or great cooking, but of personality. His appearance both coincided with the onset of chef-themed reality television and, maybe, precipitated it.

In this sense, Bourdain’s open hatred of Guy Fieri is funny to me. He’s happy to make fun of Fieri’s age, his aesthetic, his seeming inability to “de-douche”—yet he’s twelve years older than Fieri, and has given infinitely more evidence of being a douche. (This much I will admit: Bourdain’s aesthetic is unassailable. But there’s nothing fun about it! Why so hesitant to wear a flame-printed bowling shirt, Tony? Live a little!) Bourdain’s criticism of Fieri pales in comparison to his view that Man vs. Food star Adam Richman is responsible for young people in Syria and Lebanon deciding to join ISIL (!), but there is an obvious theme to the celebrities he hates: they are uncool and unsexy, and so are their shows.

If Anthony Bourdain is the snappily dressed, tastefully handsome sex symbol of the food entertainment world, Guy Fieri is in every conceivable sense the opposite. He wears, as noted above, a consistent uniform of flame-printed bowling shirts. He frosts his tips and has a tendency to sweat unprettily in the kitchens of the diners he visits on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. He is, in short, like you or me, give or take a few pounds, a few bowling shirts, but still—like you or me.

The conceit of his most famous show, the aforementioned Triple D, is simple: Guy Fieri drives to your town and eats at restaurants there. In the kitchen, he watches the signature foods of those restaurants (cheesesteaks in Philly, barbeque in Texas—the limits of stereotypes are not stretched far) being prepared by the restaurants’ proprietor-cooks, who mostly seem faintly baffled by but not ungrateful for Fieri’s noisily effusive attentions. This part is excellent to watch. These chefs are, at most, regionally known; they are not celebrities. They’re not used to having a middle-aged man in a bowling shirt leaning over their shoulders in their kitchens, sweating into their pho. The most common facial expression shared by these chefs is one of lightly mitigated discomfort—the way you feel when your district manager shows up unannounced during a rush, except that one thing is certain with Fieri that is never certain with your district manager: he’s going to love the absolute hell out of your work.

I don’t mind admitting that I feel distinctly affectionate towards Guy Fieri even as I am irritated by Anthony Bourdain. Fieri’s is neither the first nor the best restaurant tour show, but his treatment of this food…! I can’t get enough of it. I could watch Guy Fieri take a first bite out of a regionally popular sandwich all day. His former producer has alleged that Fieri is bigoted, obnoxious, and intensely creepy towards women, which information is technically unconfirmed but unfortunately plausible; the notion that Fieri is nothing but a cheerful, engaging bigot puts a major dent in his populist image, as does the fact that, despite his professed love for good and unpretentious food, the food in his own restaurants is expensive and quantifiably bad. Bourdain may be an elitist with a semi-cool dad’s taste in music, but at points in his career, he has both cooked and promoted top-notch food. And his loudmouthed brutality has been lent to the occasional good cause: when Bourdain bemoaned the simultaneous invisibility and ubiquity of Latinx workers in American kitchens, people listened.

At the end of the day, it being Food Network, this being entertainment, image is important. Bourdain has carefully cultivated a bad boy image alongside all that real food knowledge, and it has made him eminent, respected, and insufferable. Fieri’s own image as a harmless, goofy man of the people is equally convincing, but its effect is more engaging. Guy Fieri has made a career out of going to restaurants that I can also easily afford to eat at, telling me how good their food is and how much I’m going to love it. Given the choice between the intimidating food snob’s culture of New York City and the comfortable one of Flavortown, I’m going to Flavortown, every time.

Art by Jun Joestar. 

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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