Food Fight

Guy Fieri Battles Scathing New York Times Review by Pete Wells

It’s war between the critic and the TV chef! Katie Baker asks: why are foodie tensions running so high?

Jeff Christensen / AP Photo

The duel began with a single question. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” asked Pete Wells, The New York Times dining critic, in his scathing takedown of celebrity chef Fieri’s latest joint, a 500-seat Times Square behemoth wedged between Broadway theaters and red-sauce Italian trattorias, just around the corner from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. “Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?”

Wells published his review, titled “As Not Seen On TV,” in the Times dining section on Wednesday as a series of pointed queries, each more mordant than the last, aimed at the baby-faced peroxide blond Food Network star, whose tattooed surfer-dude persona has won him legions of male viewers and a dedicated following at his California restaurants, Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s.

“Did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita?” Wells wrote. “Any idea why it tasted like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” Wells seemed incensed that, over the course of four visits to Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, orders routinely went missing. When the food did make it to the table, it was apparently “pale and unsalted,” at best, and at worst, “one chaotic mess.”

“Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?” “When we hear the words Donkey Sauce, which part of the donkey are we supposed to think about?” “Does this make it sounds as if everything at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is inedible?” “Is this how you roll in Flavor Town?”

The hatchet job quickly went viral, with the twitterverse agreeing that it was terribly funny and horrendously mean. Squeamish onlookers called it “the most brutal restaurant review ever,” while partisans on both sides rushed to cheer Wells on (“@petewells, your keyboard has been perfectly honed for butchery”) or tell off the journalistic bully (“@petewells Are you serious with the Guys [sic] Fieri review?? You sound like an asshole!”). Online fans called the piece the “Stairway to Heaven” of food criticism and “the magnum opus of #snark,” while Fieri’s defenders shot back that he was “a genuine nice guy, a real dude that loves big flavor, leave him alone.”

Tensions escalated when Fieri decided to throw down a gauntlet of his own on the Today show on Thursday morning. In an interview, Fieri scored a publicity coup by coming across as an unflappable average Joe just working hard to serve up good grub to the American people, and by questioning the Times’ ulterior motives. “It went so overboard, it really seemed like there was another agenda,” he said. “The tone, the sarcasm, the question style. I mean, I think we all know what’s goin’ on here … it’s a great way to make a name for yourself—go after a celebrity chef that’s not a New Yorker.” Later in the program, a panel that included Star Jones and Dr. Phil called the piece mean-spirited and let loose the bombshell that, if the place was so bad, why did the Times sales department host some 200 clients there for a dinner even as the review hit the presses?

Meanwhile, the Times public editor weighed in on the issue and put herself squarely in her colleague’s camp, pronouncing Wells’s review “brilliantly negative,” “fun to read,” and “a masterpiece of scorn,” before concluding that Wells was perfectly within his rights as a critic to speak his mind.

Remaining mysterious in all the back-and-forth between Team Pete and Team Guy was why the review had touched such a raw nerve on both sides. After all, it certainly wasn’t the first time that a Gray Lady food critic had penned a withering screed in the Internet age. Who could forget Frank Bruni’s infamous write-up of Ninja, “a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping”? He advised diners to flee “right back out the door … you will be spared an infinitely larger measure of tedium.” His smackdown was so deadly, certain fans still refer to Bruni as “The Ninja” seven years on.

Or what about Sam Sifton’s zero-star pan of Lavo, which he kicked off with a spoof letter from an imaginary jock before proceeding to lambast the city’s Tom Buchanan-esque One Percenters? “I’m a 35-year-old professional in Manhattan and I am looking for a place where I can take my boys from the office to meet this smoking-hot girl I hooked up with at Lily Pond in the Hamptons this summer,” the faux-bro wrote. Sifton assured him that Lavo was the perfect place, a hotbed of thin, tan bodies and social-climbing aspirations. “The socialites and reality- television personalities Tinsley Mortimer and Kelly Bensimon were both there on the first night and apparently put some kind of spell on the place, because roughly 70 percent of the women who eat at the restaurant look like one or the other of them.”

So maybe it was the fact of Fieri’s celebrity that got everyone hot and bothered. Then again, Bruni handed a tepid one star to Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in 2008, calling it an “overly familiar, somewhat tired production” and noting the tacos contained “the most shriveled, desiccated pieces of meat I’ve seen outside a bodega buffet at 3 a.m.” And back in 2002, Bill Grimes wrote a lugubrious column about Anthony Bourdain’s downtown offshoot of Les Halles, lamenting that “it doesn’t aim very high” and seeming to question, like Wells did of Fieri, whether the celebrity chef had even set foot in the place.

As the war of words went on, though, it quickly devolved into a red-state blue-state showdown for a nation still smarting from Election Day wounds. In this narrative, Wells was the entitled, dismissive voice of the East Coast media elite while Fieri, with his big gold chains and his recipes for Mojito Chicken and tequila-soaked “No Can Beato This Taquito,” was the face of rough-and-tumble Middle America (never mind that his other restaurants were located in the vaunted GOP bastions of Sonoma County and San Francisco). “Ignore all those critics in New York,” one fan tweeted at Fieri. “Guy Fieri served me my first pork slider w/cole slaw ever, from a trailer booth at our county fair,” posted a second. “For free, told me to pay if I loved it.” Whatta guy, the tweeters said. A real American who likes downhome comfort food—a guy you could kick back and eat ribs and po’ boys with while watching the big game. Certainly, his restaurant couldn’t “be as bad as all those snooty New Yorkers say.”

Fieri’s supporters also questioned why Wells had, just the week before, opened his no-star review of 21 Club by solemnly advising “readers who look forward to the dark thrill of a public execution on days when there are no stars attached to this column” to “turn elsewhere to satisfy their blood lust.” Woah there, Fieri’s fans said, but what changed in the course of a week? Was it because 21 Club didn’t ooze redneck as much as red Burgundy? Was it because 21 Club was so very classic old Manhattan? The olives in the martinis “are as cold as a walk along Park Avenue in January,” Wells rhapsodized. The venison on the meat platter was pretty icy, too, “as cold as if it had been carried all the way from the hunting lodge”—but no matter. It still was a place where the chattering classes could go to don a jacket and tie, gaze at the art deco-era murals, and relax to “the gentle swirl of old Bordeaux.” A place, let’s be honest, very far from the “Rawk and roll” (Wells’s words) rowdiness and sticky-sweet margaritas of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar.

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Behind the frontlines of the other side, Wells’s centurions were busy garlanding him the conquering cultural hero for taking the air out of Fieri’s “greasy, good-old-boy” persona and calling the new restaurant a “fatty tumor” choking the nation. Fieri was “a great symbol of Fat America, of Big Food, of Unnecessary Food Celebrity,” one foodie wrote, “hellbent on turning us all into grease incubators.”

Fieri, for one, seemed eager to play into the Heartland versus Harvard stereotypes. In a statement, he reiterated his belief that Wells “went into my restaurant with his mind already made up” before triumphantly noting that “countless people … yes, even New Yorkers” enjoyed his restaurant. Fieri would not be cowed by a review that more than half of all Today show viewers deemed too harsh.

But Wells was a little more reluctant to get into further mud-slinging. In a conversation with the Times public editor and with Poynter, he painted his beef as merely a wish that Fieri had paid more accurate, and more tasty, homage to the American classics the chef purported to love on his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives treks through America. “This is important American food that makes a lot of people very happy. And since that’s the case, you ought to do it right,” Wells said, before noting, “I did go in hoping there would be good things on the menu. I would have liked to write the ‘man-bites-dog’ review.”

These themes do appear in Wells’s piece, it’s true, though perhaps in a less lofty tone. “Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television’s answer to Calvin Trillin,” Wells wrote to Fieri, “if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro, and drank Boozy Creamsicles?”

“When you cruise around the country for your show … rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy, do you really mean it? Or is it all an act? Is that why the kind of cooking you celebrate on television is treated with so little respect at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar?”

When asked about these questions, Wells told Poynter that they were certainly not meant to be mocking, and all made in the most grave earnestness. “I really did have a lot of questions,” he avowed. “There was so much about the restaurant I couldn’t figure out.”

If one goes by the gadfly nature of the Internet cycle these days, the Wells-Fieri fight will likely be brief. It will probably generate great traffic for both parties involved—both in terms of foot-soldiers flocking to chow down on Fieri’s Donkey Sauce burgers in a show of solidarity, and in terms of feverish page views at the Times. But long after the specifics of the smackdown fade, we’ll likely still be wrestling with the fallout from the famous foodie rumble of ’12.

For one thing, it will be difficult for critics (and their bosses) seeking page views to steer clear of the temptations of cruel personal attacks and witty snark bombs. Wells has written some lovely, thoughtful, and evocative reviews over the past year. And it’s a safe bet that not one of them garnered the number of clicks that his Fieri piece did. Even outside of the restaurant world, sniping between critics and their targets is fast becoming yet another blood sport in our gladiatorial cyber-arena. (Witness the tiff last summer between a New York theater critic and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence over a less-than-glowing review of a Zach Braff play.) In our online crucible where the spat or scandal of the day tends to dominate the news cycle—and where both writers and chefs are expected to be brand names in their own right—how can a critic hope to keep up, except for jumping on the bandwagon of hyperbole?

Then again, maybe we’re just heading in the direction that literary ingenue Rebecca West envisioned in 1914, when she longed for a “new and abusive school of criticism” to cut through all the sycophants and charlatans. Erring on the side of cruelty was desirable—it allowed one to approach a more objective rendering of the subject under consideration. All great critics have understood that being disliked is part and parcel of the job, which is, as Matthew Arnold once said, to see “the object as in itself it really is.” (“We have no friends,” Baudelaire reflected as he embarked upon his day job as an art critic. “This is a great thing.”)

It’s a mantra that food critics on the other side of the Atlantic have long embraced. London writers such as A.A. Gill and Michael Winner have been called “the most feared men in London,” “vicious” fellows with “poison pens” whose eviscerations of restaurants are carried about in the most cold-blooded and pitiless of terms. They swagger into a restaurant on its opening night, surrounded by a group of rowdy friends, boldly announcing their presence and watching headwaiters scurry around in terror. No darting about in wigs à la Ruth Reichl for them. Restaurateurs are lucky if their food even gets reviewed at all. Gill is infamous for writing about everything but the cuisine, and if he does comment on the grub, it’s usually a bad sign. When Gill ventured over to New York to skewer a Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant in Vanity Fair one year, he noted that the shrimp-and-foie dumplings resembled nothing so much as “fishy, liver-filled condoms.”

So, moral of the story: Guy Fieri, maybe you got off easy in New York. Think twice, though, about opening a place in London.