In the field of culinary arts, my skills rank somewhere between an untrained monkey and a dead, rotting corpse. There are about five things I can make, and only four of them really well, all of them no more difficult than opening a package and heating its contents in a saucepan. One of the few dishes I can cook with dependable quality that demands a small bit of finesse is blackened chicken. I mix the blend of spices by hand, and then carefully time the cooking, both on the stove top and in the oven. It's the one delicious part of my cooking repertoire, and it's served me well at dinner parties and family gatherings. People who know me sometimes refer to it as "Matt's blackened chicken," but the truth is it's not mine; I got the recipe online — from Guy Fieri.
Fieri is best known as a gregarious television personality on the Food Network. When my wife and I had cable, we used to watch him host "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives," in which Fieri travels the country visiting offbeat cooking spots. We enjoyed learning about unique regional cuisine, and we appreciated the show's recommendations. Each one we've tried turned out to be delicious — like Tocabe, a Native American taco joint in Denver, Colorado my family visited last summer. I recommend the bison ribs — which were featured on Tocabe's "Guy's Menu," inspired by the food he ate during his visit.
But while I know him as a TV host, Fieri says he considers himself a chef. Before he was plucked from obscurity by Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star" reality show, he was a restauranteur with a chain of eateries in California. Earlier this fall, Fieri opened his first restaurant in New York City, a Times Square tourist destination called Guy's American Kitchen & Bar. It's now the subject of one of the most high profile debates about criticism in recent memory as the result of the absolutely brutal excoriation it received in the pages of The New York Times by food critic Pete Wells.
The piece, entitled "As Not Seen on TV," ultimately bestowed a "POOR" rating on Guy's American Kitchen, and consists entirely of pointed, sarcastic questions aimed directly at Fieri himself, including:
"Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn't come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air? Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret — a lunch-only sandwich of chopped soy-flazed pork with coleslaw and cucumbers — called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?"
The article, unusual for the Times in its level of vitriol, quickly spread across social media, attracting thousands of readers and prompting dozens of reactions — including one from Fieri himself, who went on "The Today Show" this morning to defend his restaurant's reputation and take a few shots at Wells':
On several occasions, Fieri alludes to Wells' "agenda" — implying that he came to the restaurant expressly to hate it, and deliberately trashed Guy's American Kitchen without giving it a fair chance to raise his own profile. The piece is certainly harsh, but Wells' resume, which according to the New York Times' website includes five James Beard Foundation journalism awards, suggests otherwise.
Certainly, there are different nuances to the worlds of film and food criticism — and I know as much about the latter as I do about cooking anything other than blackened chicken. But there are also some clear parallels, including the excuse Fieri uses to delegitimize Woods' review, which I've also seen directors use to strike back against critics they don't agree with it. Specifically, I'm referring to what Fieri says in response to a question about whether anything in Wells' review struck a chord in spite of its "agenda:"
"Without question. I've been in the restaurant business 25 years. This is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process. You get new guys in, some guys out, different timings that go on. Do we do it perfect? No. Are we striving to do it perfect? Yes. But that's what we're all doing in the business."
I could be wrong, but I interpret that statement as Fieri's admission that while he might not like the review he does, in some ways, agree with it. We're not perfect, he admits, but we're trying to be perfect, and that should be good enough.
This sounds an awful lot like what sometimes happens when an independent director lashes out at a critic for panning their film while not taking into account the amount of hard work and good intentions that had gone into the project. In any field, I call this excuse The Critical Fallacy of High Quality Effort. Fieri all but acknowledges the restaurant is still a work-in-progress, but he insists they're at least putting forth their best effort. As long as the motives are pure, his thinking goes, the artist should be given a break.
But well-meant input doesn't necessarily equal well-executed output, and the audience — whether it's a diner or a viewer — is paying for good food or a good movie, not for good effort. It's nice when the fruits of someone's labors are evident in their work, but the fact of the matter is whether the chef is pure of heart or a cyncial mercenary — or whether the director took a job for a paycheck or for passion — is largely irrelevant. In either case, the critic's job is to serve the reader, not to coddle the artist.
I think Guy Fieri is a nice guy. Even as he defends himself and half-heartedly tries to take a few shots at Wells, he comes across as a jovial, likeable fellow. That's why he's so good on television; he seems like everybody's friend. But criticism is not about niceness.
It's funny; stepping back from this whole controversy, I've started to see "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" as a form of criticisim — Fieri acts as a curator as he travels around, trying spots, recommending the ones he likes to viewers. Of course "Triple D" (as Fieri often calls the show) doesn't go to restaurants to insult them; any establishment that's not up to snuff doesn't make it to air. That's the sort of criticism Fieri wants from the New York Times, but that's not the way things work. I still hope the blackened chicken at Guy's American Kitchen is delicious. But loving the recipe or the guy who made it doesn't help matters if it tastes like garbage when it comes out of the kitchen.
Read more of "As Not Seen on TV."