Saturday, November 24, 2012

An Unexpected Defense of a Big D

     I once had a boss whose personality was so over-the-top he seemed destined for Food Network stardom. He was a caricature of a Nor-Cal bro: Spiky bleach-blond hair, goatee, Dickies attire, gruff voice and flushed cheeks. I rarely saw him in the restaurant, but when he was there he made an impression. He'd pull up in his jeep, which was painted with flames, give an animated pep talk to the staff at line-up, then cruise the floor, wowing customers with his jovial antics. His cooking style was similarly flashy, comfort-food done with California flavor, with such eye-catching menu items as "Volcano Chicken," and the "Hunter's Creations," which featured exotic game meats like ostrich and alligator.

     When I saw him years later, slightly plumper and even more flushed, appear on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, I had to palm myself in the forehead. What had my hometown unleashed upon the world? 

     I've always been quick to roll my eyes when people ask me about my experience working at Johnny Garlic's, and the BF and I routinely refer to the Food Network gig as "Triple Douche." Yet recently I've had an odd change of heart. You've probably heard about the recent scathing reviews of the newly opened New York Times Square spot, Guy Fieri's American Kitchen and Grill, and the ensuing bashing that has occurred on blogs, opinion articles and social media. I should be gleeful but I'm more WTF? I'm finding the level of beat down to be unwarranted.

     As you can imagine with such a big personality at the helm, the server culture at Johnny Garlic's was one of peacocks; The website even today says "Now Hiring Super Stars." I'm not sure why the fuck they hired me, because I was extremely timid back then. I was wide-eyed with terror when, on one of my first nights of training, a star server began hooting and hollering, getting the whole restaurant's attention to announce a birthday; he cracked a few jokes and then led a loud sing-along. The manager nodded approvingly at all this: "[Rockstar] is the best. The customers love him." The circus act was the gold standard.

     Ironically, in spite of the emphasis on personality, the training was the strictest I've encountered in the business. Even at the truly fancy-pants restaurant that I recently subbed at, my training was only fractionally as arduous. Johnny Garlic's required two weeks training on the floor, with an additional week for me since I was such a newbie  (this was 12 years ago), and a three-hour long menu test. I was hovered over so closely that I began to feel like I would be graded on stepping two inches in the wrong direction. Considering my huge insecurities at the time, being constantly made to feel inferior never gave me the confidence to fly.

     I quit when I was told I had to give up brunch shifts at my other job to attend JG's staff meetings. I'd already lost so much money going through the training process that this was the last straw. I was tired of not fitting in and feeling like a crap server every time I stepped through the door.

     So, while Guy Fieri appears to the world as a cartoon character, I had the opportunity to see what a stone-cold perfectionist he truly is. Harsh as it was at the time, I've come to appreciate the training I went through, and even the tough love. Was it stupid I got sent home once for wearing white socks? Maybe, but I've never not worn a black pair to work since. Guy expected absolutely everyone around him to give 120% effort.

     I know, New York foodies, that the "Bro Kitchen" style offends you. And I know too, that some of his fanciful creations don't always work‒ I remember one line-up where we sampled the alligator sausage Hunter's special; All of us save one, in unison, spit it out into the trash (fishy AND gamey, shudder). But on the whole, the creative twist on meat-and-potatoes worked with our customers, as the continuing popularity of JG attests. When this style of food became the focus of Food Network's programming, I wasn't surprised to see someone like Guy Fieri chosen to be its mascot.

     By the morose, melodramatic tone of the NY Times review, you'd think that Guy Fieri was the harbinger of the End of Days. I also read another review where the writer went on a long diatribe about the obesity epidemic, America's poor food choices and blah blah blah. I hate to tell you guys, but cutting the head off this beast will not stop it. Also, it's not like Guy opened this Hard Rock Cafe-style concept in a trendy neighborhood‒He is keeping it contained to Times Square, to be trafficked by the tourist masses. Taking this place seriously is like trying to review Sponge Bob Squarepants as an art house drama.

     I yawn at you, New York Times, for missing the point. I'm annoyed at 'Merica too sometimes, and I enjoy a cheap shot in its general direction like any college-educated liberal foodie, but Guy Fieri is not the root of all evil that you claim. Unfortunately, I know that underneath all those obnoxious layers of bro, Guy is a hard-working and crafty business person who has earned his success.

Washington Post review: "It's not that bad, actually"
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  1. Replies
    1. I know! I will, of course, take Anthony Bourdain any day as my TV personality of choice. Everyone identifies with different things I guess

  2. I agree with Bitchy on this one. I think the NYT review was more of a response to his over-the-top ridiculousness than the restaurant itself. To equate Guy Fieri with being a chef is like mistaking Justin Bieber for a heterosexual.

    1. Oh, I know he's not a five-star chef, he's a businessman who has used his cartoon-like personality to attract attention. It worked, but of course it hasn't always been the good kind.

  3. Wino, I'm with you on this. Guy is, as you say, a triple douche, and I'd like to smash his sunglasses into the fat fold on the back of his neck. HOWEVER that does not make me want to stoop to the pathetic antics of this NYTimes writer. Shame they needed to slaughter someone else for the village of idiots to notice they were there. Oh well. I, for one, am appreciative of the work Guy does on DDD. The restaurant I work at has profited greatly from the episode we were featured on. They're not always my favorite customers, especially since we've changed ownership since the episode, and the shift I work (dinner) is a very different world from the breakfast/lunch fare featured. Getting people into the tiny, hidden neighbourhood we are located in to try us out is worth it. I'll never eat at one of Mr. Fieri's places, but I can appreciate him for the obnoxious cartoon character that he is.

    1. I definitely laughed when I read the reviews, but I was shocked by how excessively negative they were. Fieri is far from being personally responsible for the poor eating habits of Americans. We should be worrying about thieving politicians, not portly chicken wing enthusiasts anyways.

  4. Check this out...

    1. I'd heard about this but hadn't seen it yet, thanks for the link! So many excellent quotes:
      "My food is best served through a cloud of weed smoke"
      "Grouping me in with regular NY restaurants is like comparing apples and fat dirt"

  5. Great post ... an insider's look that takes us beyond the review and its target's response. Terrific read.