Few restaurant openings in New York City attract the kind of anticipation and media scrutiny that greeted Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar. But Guy’s American is no ordinary restaurant: With 500 seats, three full bars, and its own gift shop, the restaurant is gargantuan, even by Times Square standards.
Unlike similarly sized competitors, such as Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday’s, Guy’s American is not the flagship location of a national chain, but rather the first East Coast restaurant from one of the most famous food icons in the country: Guy Fieri, the platinum-haired, taco-grease-touting Food Network star of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives fame.
Fieri’s colorful personality plays into his heavy, fusion-style dishes, featuring names like “Guy-talian Nachos” and “Chinatown Chicken Crunch” that have attracted criticism and even outright satire from food writers. Legendary critic Gael Greene lambasted Fieri as a “white trash troll” in a blog post, concluding her review by telling readers she visited Guy’s American “so you don’t have to.” The New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo was even more caustic, claiming he “wouldn’t feed the mess to a cat.” Eater NY, a popular dining and restaurant blog, anticipated the opening with a Guy Fieri Dish Generator that produced results like “you-kill-it-we-grill-it cod jambalaya with Uncle Dino’s aioli.”
Fieri is not the first celebrity chef to cash in on the Manhattan dining scene. Mario Batali’s Babbo, OTTO, and Del Posto continue to attract crowds, and Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain sits just eight blocks north of Guy’s American. But the main difference is that Batali and Flay’s critical success in the restaurant world predated and provided the foundation for their media presence. Fieri and contemporaries like Ina Garten and Paula Deen represent a kind of celebrity chef that has emerged over the past decade as the new face of American cooking: the chef-entertainer who builds his or her success on a personal brand rather than a reputation for technique or teaching ability.
Popularized by television programs on channels such as the Food Network, celebrity chefs build enthusiastic fan bases by creating a product that is, above all, entertaining. “People enjoy their personalities,” Greg Morabito, editor of Eater NY, says. “They cook food that’s usually very fun to think about and look at on TV.”
An episode of Guy’s Big Bite provides a textbook example of the Food Network’s cooking show model. Fieri routinely breaks the fourth wall by chatting with the audience in the conversational tone that has made Guy’s Big Bite one of the Food Network’s most popular shows. On his equally popular reality show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, Fieri tours cheap and down-home restaurants that will likely resonate with the American public. Both shows demonstrate Fieri’s appeal as an accessible figure and his food as both fun and easy to make—peeling vegetables and washing dishes are left off-screen.
J. Bryan Lowder, a writer who covers food and culture for Slate, describes the appeal of Fieri and other celebrity chefs as “lifestyle porn.” Using Ina Garten, the Hamptons-dwelling hostess of Barefoot Contessa, as an example, Lowder explains, “I think what her show is about is not really about learning to cook so much as it is about presenting a lifestyle that a lot of people aspire to ... her particular version of that lifestyle is this upper-middle-class, lower-upper-class dinner-party-throwing, very elegant, money’s-not-really-an-issue, just free-wheeling kind of life that is very appealing.”
By focusing on cooking as entertainment and an extension of personality, restaurants like Guy’s American become more about the chef’s personal brand than about the food. Amelia Rosen, a sophomore at Barnard and treasurer of the Columbia Culinary Society, recounts a visit to Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons restaurant in Savannah, Georgia: “You know that it’s definitely not about the food. It’s definitely about her as a celebrity image,” Rosen says. “The second you walk in: giant cutout of her. There’s pictures of her everywhere, and all this memorabilia with her face all over it.” The décor at Guy’s American is similarly grounded in Fieri’s signature aesthetic: Murals on the wall read “Flavor Town” and “Love, Peace, & Taco Grease,” while paintings of hot rods and decorative pot racks directly recall Fieri’s on-set kitchen.
The rise of chef-entertainers like Fieri, however, also represents a departure from the original purpose of cooking shows: education. Julia Child popularized the format with The French Chef, her PBS show that debuted in 1963. Like her encyclopedic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the show featured a rigorous focus on teaching home cooks applicable techniques. “She took teaching very seriously and thought that there was a skill set that you should learn to become a good cook,” Lowder says. “Her show, then, was all about that. It was really bare bones, no budget.”
Despite the popularity of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, there is evidence to suggest that the appeal of more down-to-earth presenters is experiencing a resurgence. In a recent article for Slate, Lowder praised Martha Stewart’s Cooking School, the domestic goddess’s new cooking show on PBS, for doing away “with all the frills we’ve become accustomed to and instead present[ing] cooking with clarity, precision, and honesty.” Meanwhile, like Batali and Flay in the early stages of their Food Network fame, more and more chef-restaurateurs—from Thomas Keller of Per Se to David Chang of Momofuku—are garnering attention simply for the critical success of their food.
Whether Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar represents the peak of the celebrity chef phenomenon or the beginning of its end, the chef has given midtown Manhattan the most talked-about restaurant opening of 2012— and ultimately, whether the restaurant’s a critical darling or universally panned, it’s unmistakably Fieri’s.