He just seems like a good guy. That’s the vibe celebrity chef Guy Fieri, the chummy king of The Food Network, gives off. The way he pals around with guests, contestants, and judges on Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives and Guy’s Grocery Games is electric, down-to-earth, and inviting. The nicknames, the fist bumps, even his gentle razzing all ingratiate viewers into the Flavorverse, the most delicious and welcoming place on the Network since 2006, when Fieri made his debut there. Guy makes and celebrates comfort food, and he himself is comfort food. And like comfort food, he’s long been written off as junk.
The insults directed toward Fieri reached an apex in 2012, when New York Times food critic Pete Wells shellacked his Times Square restaurant, Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, giving the eatery zero stars, the lowest rating in the column’s history. The piece cemented Fieri’s place as the biggest joke in the food industry, the personification of his recipes: overindulgent, flashy, and just plain stupid. But while Wells treated Fieri’s grease factory as a punchline, he may have also inadvertently turned the chef into an underdog. “What did Guy Fieri ever do to anybody?” joked Shane Torres in his viral 2017 defense of the man. The comedian hadn’t been able to escape other stand-ups delivering hacky Fieri jokes while out on tour. Torres told The A.V. Club that hating Fieri became a given in a world where “being negative about something was more valuable than being informed.”
Less than a decade after Wells’ infamous review, the pans have turned into glowing profiles about Fieri’s unpretentious view of food and his charitable efforts. He has an astonishing $80 million contract with the Food Network, legions of fans, and this writer saying that he should replace Ellen on her talk show. But Fieri didn’t change; the culture did. He’s still the same spiky-haired, bowling-shirt-clad junk food carnival barker he’s always been. After a handful of years that have seen #MeToo unearth some Very Clearly Shitty Men, many have determined that maybe wearing sunglasses on the back of your head isn’t the worst thing in the world. There’s the sense that Fieri’s the “one, nice white guy left,” says Emily Contois, an assistant professor of media studies at the University Of Tulsa and author of Diners, Dudes, And Diets: How Gender And Power Collide In Food Media And Culture. As proven by the success of shows like Ted Lasso, Queer Eye, and The Great British Bake Off, viewers have been responding to kindness and a jovial atmosphere on television.
It’s not just Fieri’s congenial attitude that’s been winning people over. Unbothered by the negative perception so many had of him, he began to let his actions speak for him. In 2015, Fieri married 101 same-sex couples simultaneously—both as a tribute to his sister and a dig on opponents of gay marriage. The event became the stuff of legend across the internet, where Flavortown citizens have spread the myth of Fieri and defended him as a misunderstood good dude. Some want to name a town after him; others brag they’re done mocking him. TikTokers drunkenly share the wedding story and bask in the shock (or annoyance) it stirs in detractors.
Since the pandemic began, Fieri has seemed to kicked into overdrive. He’s raised $25 million and counting for restaurant relief. In August, he cooked for firefighters working to put out the Dixie Fire near his home in Northern California. “The pandemic was interesting because he kind of gained a folk hero status, which I was really happy to see,” Jason Diamond told The A.V. Club; he profiled Fieri for Esquire in 2016. “Because he really does seem to care about restaurants and restaurant workers,” he says. Fieri is a Johnny Nachos-seed, planting trashcans of queso and bailing out line cooks across the country.
“The dude deserves a lot of credit for what he does,” Torres says. “It’s pretty impressive. He’s doing it himself, like, as himself. It’s not like that ‘Imagine’ video that came out at the beginning of the pandemic where celebrities were singing. He’s just doing it his way, and everybody else can fuck off.”
Despite his charity work, Guy rarely talks politics, and perhaps as a result, he’s managed to sidestep controversy. Who’s going to quibble with someone feeding firefighters, showcasing small businesses, or raising money for restaurant workers? But while Fieri is more than happy to provide relief for those putting out wildfires, he goes quiet when it comes to the cause of such disasters. Outside of punning on the spiciness of a chicken wing, you’re not going to hear him even say phrases like “global warming” or “climate change.”
This apolitical bent is part of his appeal. “That’s kind of the brilliance of him. He kind of leaves a gray area that you’re sort of like, ‘Maybe I don’t have to care about this,’” says Diamond. “That’s sort of the escapism thing. Maybe that’s a reason I keep watching him, because he’s been so good about hiding his political affiliation while still doing good things.” For some, Fieri’s brand of “no politics at the dinner table” is easier to swallow than a Bar Rescue marathon starring Fox News regular Jon Taffer.
Remaining both apolitical and likable isn’t easy to do. “A lot of that coverage during the fires and then also right during the fundraising during the pandemic, people want to compare him to Chef Jose Andres, which I don’t think is fair,” Contois says. “Jose Andres took his restaurant out of Trump Tower. He was openly critical of the Trump Administration.” Even the smallest gestures, ones that celebrities seem all too eager to jump in on (and get endlessly mocked for), don’t appeal to Fieri. When it came to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, his social media account “goes dark. Not a black square box. There’s silence,” says Contois.
When Guy is asked more directly about politics, his responses leave a lot to be desired. In an interview with Grub Street last year, he took a vague bipartisan stance. “We’re the greatest nation on earth. Can we please just go in one direction?” Things aren’t much better when he does get specific. When speaking to Kara Swisher for The New York Times, he criticized out-of-work restaurant employees collecting unemployment benefits, comparing them to children preferring Doritos over broccoli: “You can’t sit on your ass and expect that it’s going to come to you because it’s not.” When Swisher asked whether workers should be able to unionize, the often-motormouth Fieri grew cagey. “Oh, you’re up an alley. You’re up an alley,” he flailed. New York magazine food writer Chris Crowley compared Fieri’s “Can we just go in one direction” to Michael Jordan’s famed “Republicans buy sneakers, too” remark. “Even the fundraising. There’s a certain way in which people talk about it. That makes me feel like people think that he’s out there knocking door-to-door,” Crowley told The A.V. Club. “It’s not that he lent his name to it, but that he is doing this.”
The vagueness in Fieri’s political beliefs has allowed fans to project whatever they want onto him. People do this all the time to celebrities, but Guy has benefited from this phenomenon more than most. “When I looked at all the feature articles that were written about him after Pete Wells’ review, every single one of them says that he’s this good guy,” says Contois. “I’ve seen that only expand.” Last winter, when the meme of Bernie Sanders sitting in a chair at President Joe Biden’s inauguration took centerstage, Fieri posted an image of the Democratic Socialist senator in the passenger’s seat of Fieri’s Flavortown ride. “Within that, there was this hopeful embrace from the left,” says Contois. “He’s remained this very flexible culinary persona that people from all sorts of political beliefs can find something to appreciate.”
Fieri seems happy to exist in that blurry state. He leaves enough space in his public persona where people can bring what they want to him. Whether you read his actions as philanthropic or socialist or the end of food culture as we know it, Guy fits the bill. He shows up, puts on a show, and leaves it to his audience to define who he is to them. But part of one’s investment in watching someone like Fieri is that they are who they claim to be. He’s not a folk hero, though. He’s a millionaire sitting atop an empire. And while it’s nice to pretend in Flavortown for a while, one wishes that Guy would put two and two together—that climate change creates wildfires, that social programs like unemployment aren’t the ones burying the restaurant industry. Trying to figure him out can leave you with a stomachache. Comfort food has a way of doing that.