LEO Weekly: Dankness on the Edge of Flavortown

[Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts on Guy Fieri, his impact on food culture and his new restaurant. To read the second part, by LEO food critic Robin Garr, click here.]

On a balmy early September evening, the last vestiges of summer clinging to the air, I found myself in a room partitioned off from the rest of Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse restaurant at Fourth Street Live, the first concept restaurant from a major celebrity chef in Louisville. It opened less than 48 hours prior, and tonight the Smokehouse welcomed regional media for a special press event and dinner featuring the man himself. His 1968 Camaro ZZ502 sat outside for a photo op. A local artist presented a chainsaw sculpture of it. Jeff Ruby was there in his best Dick Tracy. A real soiree.

If the humidity didn’t make the room stuffy enough, the media present more than helped — with furrowed brows, and seriousness, they jotted notes, capturing just the right angles with their phones, pushing their glasses up the bridge of their noses and acting generally unimpressed and perhaps even a bit gloomy.

Not me, though. I’m in Flavortown, baby, and I couldn’t have been happier to be in this emporium of kitschy Vegas spectacle and aging Cool Dad taste (neither descriptor meant pejoratively, of course). To pair with dinner, I ordered a Crazy Hagar, based on the much-maligned Van Halen member’s Beach Bar Rum and a Lemon Drop…Not, which mixed Smirnoff Citrus and St. Germain with lemon and real sugar (both were refreshing and not too sweet). My plus-one ordered the Hangover Recovery Bloody Mary, garnished with half a charcuterie board. And we then proceeded to wild out because, 1) I am good at fun and having it, and, 2) Guy continuously approached our table to chat, answer questions, cut up and act exactly like he does on television. I also truly enjoyed the novelty of Guy watching us eat, after watching him eat for years. The rest of #loumedia can act morose and own their snobbery if they choose to. But for me, I found myself in the curious position of having a real good time on Fourth Street, a thing I usually don’t say.

You see, I’m an unironic fan and an unabashed defender of Guy Fieri. I love the man. In the world of food critics, especially those at an alt-weekly, this makes me a minority. And, when it comes to the internet, which has catapulted Guy Fieri into the annals of the most memeable of personalities along with the Ancient Aliens guy and Harambe, I’m an extreme minority.

Guy outside of Smokehouse, which is located in Fourth Street Live (photo by Michael Powell)
Guy outside of Smokehouse, which is located in Fourth Street Live (photo by Michael Powell)

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Spikes

It’s the stuff of legend, passed around amongst friends and colleagues like samizdat or a really good mixtape. In November 2012, The New York Times utterly excoriated Guy Fieri’s massive Manhattan restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen. It was absolute scorched earth. And, as a piece of criticism, Pete Wells provided a touchstone for what thoughtful, almost beautiful evisceration looks like. As entertaining as it was to read the savagery, the element of surprise was entirely missing: Of course, the effete and entirely-predictable New York Times would give Guy Fieri the business. Honestly, would anyone feel shocked to discover that a preconceived narrative developed long before Wells savored his first drop of Donkey Sauce, especially considering The Times knows its readership, and the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” audience doesn’t exactly overlap? The ironic part, of course, is that pretentiousness is a tough leg to stand on when your publication ain’t exactly cool.

Further bolstering my argument in last month’s Welp, that Louisville’s food scene is moving in directions a little too precious for comfort, a similar groundswell of refined foodies from the Pinterest-Kinfolk complex took to social media last spring to proclaim their displeasure after the announcement that the bad boy of Food Network’s celebrity chef corral planned to open a new concept. This sect of extremely mad online folks leaked over to Welp!’s own Facebook page. “We are going down hill quickly now,” one commenter wrote. “I hate that our mayor is being seen with people who are such embarrassments to their professions, and to our town,” wrote another.

Why?

On the surface, it might seem Guy draws ire from the haters through his constructed television personality — frosted tips, flamed shirts, a brazen and outlandish personality rife with Ed Hardy bravado and the aesthetic to match. In the subtext, however, perhaps we hate Guy because we hate ourselves.

Guy Fieri is the personification of the outsized American appetite, a totem of the American gastronomy — artificial dyes and all. Guy is the avatar of our collective vision quest, Route 66-style, toward Flavortown — satiating an insatiable appetite in the land of plenty, which includes the buffets, endless apps promotions, State Fair fare, Epic Meal Time recipes, pizza-stuffed pizza and every other slice of Americana, pushing continental cuisine to its gluttonous limit. Guy Fieri is a mirror of what our palate actually looks like — and we don’t like what we see.

Jason Diamond, author of the trenchant analysis for Esquire The Genius of Guy Fieri, might be the world’s best carpenter since Jesus Christ for all the nails he’s hitting right on the head. He knows what it’s like to be shamed for paying respect to the Bleached One. “[W]hen I tell any of my friends how much time I spend watching Triple D, and I see the look they give me in response, I feel the need to also mention that I really enjoyed reading Dan Fox’s ‘Pretentiousness’ [and] that I love to work to William Basinski’s minimalist masterpiece ‘The Disintegration Loops.’” More importantly, Diamond identifies the why of Guy more than the who. “[W]hile Bourdain looks at the bigger picture on his shows, examining the political economy of every city he visits, Fieri visits the real unknown. He takes that bright red convertible to little spots that are uniquely unexciting, places that aren’t owned by celebrity chefs, and parks firmly outside of the hype stream that steers the bastions of good taste.” The show is called ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ and, like ‘Naked and Afraid,’ its title is as literal as possible — showcasing exclusively no frills, mom and pop, down-home purveyors of comfort food on every episode. Do you really think Alton Brown is the best host to take the camera crew through that roadside greasy spoon kitchen for a glimpse of how they make  five-alarm chili that’s truly worthy of an “outta bounds!” proclamation. That distinction rightly belongs to the Frost King himself, the working man’s gourmand — Guy Fieri.

And those family-owned joints feel the Fieri Effect. In Minneapolis, for example, restaurants featured on Triple D have reported long-term revenue increases anywhere from 50% to 300%. The show has visited over 800 eateries, and many of them will tell you Guy Fieri tourism is absolutely a real thing. In his piece, Diamond recounts his visit to Brooklyn’s Sidecar, a location the show had recently filmed. “I finally had enough drinks at the bar one night to ask why the hell they’ve kept [their chalkboard art of Guy] up so long. The bartender looked at me and smiled. ‘A lot of us pay our rent because Guy Fieri tourists come here to eat’.”

So to you, young grasshopper, cracking wise on Fieri’s fighting colors even though you wear cargo shorts to dinner — what have you done lately?

In her succinct personal essay My Kind of Guy for the always-on-point Lucky Peach, Julia Turshen ushers the Guy ideal (“Guydeal”) from microeconomics to socioeconomics. “Triple D has shown an incredibly diverse range of people operating restaurants all over the country. Watching Guy—who is, for all intents and purposes, a famous, wealthy, white, straight, cisgender guy—come to Holy Land [a Mediterranean restaurant featured on the show] and celebrate its story, food, and culture is a welcome sight during this election season,” she writes. “Food allows the show to highlight inclusivity without being about inclusivity. Guy is not at all political on the show. He’s not making statements. He’s not asking about the political story of hummus; he’s discovering the personal story behind a specific hummus. (And then just devouring said hummus.)”

Indeed, Triple D fans know the score — you’re not seeing the folks who host ‘Mind of a Chef’ in front of the camera. The residents of Flavortown are multi-generational, blue-collar families and salt-of-the-earth folks and immigrants from every corner and idiosyncratic characters who are relatable in every way sharing absolutely awesome recipes and serving food tied to their culture or locale in the name of sustenance, community and heritage. “Food becomes the great equalizer — and the great access point. It’s how we get to know the people behind the dishes. It’s an invitation,” Turshen writes. To wit, Fieri is truly one of the least #problematic celebrities hosting a popular television show today. The perpetually positive Triple D and Fieri are the ambassadors of “real food for real people,” as Guy stated in his original audition tape for Food Network, and not foodies. The show and the man are zealots of lunchpail chic, with the palate of the idealized “real America” who give back by boosting local economies throughout the country.

Is Guy Fieri’s distinct brand highly memeable? Indeed. Is PacSun’s walking incarnate packed with the gingerly excitability of a golden retriever worthy of satire? You bet. But does this celebrity chef’s persona and success truly warrant grown-ass adults who pay taxes and mortgages to get mad online? Absolutely not.

The inside of Smokehouse (photo by Michael Powell)
The inside of Smokehouse (photo by Michael Powell)

Dankness on the Edge of Flavortown

“I’m sitting in front of a location right now getting ready to do Triple D. We’re gonna do six here,” Fieri tells me over the phone the next morning, bright and early. “You guys have a great food scene here. People really appreciate great food here. It’s a small big city in that there’s a lot of influence here, people all over the world visiting here, and it shows with the great restaurants giving the representation.”

Fieri frequently attends the Kentucky Derby. It was there he met Jeff Ruby and people from The Cordish Group, the owners and developers of Fourth Street Live! who helped get the ball rolling, and the smokers smoking, on the restaurant. “If you told me I’d be opening a restaurant here, I’d think it’s too big of a dream. How is a guy from California going to have an opportunity to come and open a restaurant not just in Louisville, but on Fourth Street Live! — I couldn’t even put that together,” Fieri said, portraying the type of palpable humility of a master showman who, much to his haters’ chagrin, is also sincere about it. “If you’re not part of the community and with an operating ground force here, there’s no way to do it right.”

Opening a new barbecue joint in town is a tall order. There’s a lot of really incredible takes on the cuisine throughout the city. In my neighborhood of Butchertown alone, Against the Grain, Feast and hidden gem Freddie’s Market are all walkable to me. In Louisville, because of the expectations we’ve set, the barbecue must be remarkable to not feel disappointing.

Guy gets that. “Being a guy that’s a huge barbecue fan and competes in barbecue competitions, I understand the barbecue personality of different regions. It’s really not something you can come in as an outsider and just do, because you’ve got your tried-and-true favorites that generations have gone to. That’s why I didn’t want to do just barbecue, I wanted to have other facets that highlight Southern culture and Americana that recognize and celebrate the smoker.”

The smokehouse concept, thus, gave Guy, as he says, “more bandwidth” to experiment. While some of the signature items on the Smokehouse menu can be found at his other concepts, roughly half the menu seems unique to the Louisville restaurant. Asked how his restaurant would incorporate local food and culture, a characteristic unequivocally valued by Louisvillians, he elaborated on some of his recipe twists. “Where we started to dial in to fine tune [the local culture] is with bringing sorghum into the recipes, bringing in okra to the recipes. Let’s see if we can not deep fry okra, or put it in a gumbo. Let’s see if we can show how great okra can be cooked, in a searing hot cask iron skillet and brightening it up with a little roasted shallot vinaigrette.”

“[It’s] about taking the highlights of the area, recognizing the key ingredients, and trying to a real give a nice profile of scratch-made food [with] handmade technique and attitude,” Fieri said.

I didn’t get to try that okra yet, but the Smokehouse did treat media to a cross-menu spread on Monday night. A large table immediately to the left of the entrance provided a visual reference for the chief exports of Flavortown. With names such as the “Tatted Up Turkey Burger,” “Mac Daddy Mac ’n Cheese,” and “Motley Que,” the menu is completely absurd and silly, but also amazing. I mean, it’s totally on brand, like the painted walls with radiant flames and demon-evoking animal head portraits peering through the fire like the cover art to a lost Slayer album and the sailor tattoo fonts across the tops of every menu. I have to respect it.

During our phone conversation in the morning, Fieri carries an almost untarnished lust for life in his voice that I wish I had a little more of. He mentioned he grabbed a red-eye flight the night before to make his special appearance, and then hit the ground running. Which makes it all the more impressive that Guy, later that evening, was a perennially-affable force of nature at dinner. He frequently visited each media table throughout the night and personally introduced the dishes with his trademark exhilaration for bold flavors and decadent, patchwork meals — adorned in a denim chef’s jacket, his “Knuckle Sandwich” logo emblazoned on the back.

One of the cool things about being the only press in the room who’s a legitimate and unapologetic Guy Fieri fan is that I didn’t have to compete for his attention, save for the small group of contest winners there for a special meet and greet. He was more than happy to riff with me about Louisville’s pronunciation and how the Trashcan Nachos resembled an edible form of Jenga — which is sort of an improvement of both the game and the food. “Most nachos, you get near the bottom of the plate, and it’s just chips,” Guy explained to our table before revealing a layered stack of nachos constructed in a bucket. Rather than all the nacho toppings spread across the top, the Trashcan Nachos are patterned in layers — chips, brisket, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, repeat. As for the flavor profile, if you’re a fan of the nacho offerings from The Back Door or Zanzabar, which I am, these should resonate with you.

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The Mac Daddy Mac ’n Cheese Burger (photo by Michael Powell)

As small samples passed around the table, I overheard one member of the press actually complain about not getting enough food to try. That’s because you weren’t talking with Guy, fool! I posed a couple questions about his Bacon Mac ’n Cheese Burger, because how could you not, and approximately a minute into our exchange he says “You know what, you need to try the burger — get this guy the burger!” No one else got that treatment, to my knowledge. And man, it’s … well, have a look at the photo. Stacked with onions, the Mac Daddy Mac ’n Cheese, additional cheese, and the almighty Donkey Sauce (Guy’s version of an aioli), it’s quite good, but I had to go to the gym for two hours the next morning to zero it out. But, I’d have it again. I have officially filled out my voter registration form in Flavortown.

 

We also tried the ribs from the Smokehouse’s trademark smoker. Speaking to cameras shortly before the dinner, Guy said placing a smoker right on Fourth Street, wafting through the open air plaza, was one of his first ideas for the concept. The ribs are a Memphis-style dry rub-only, 86 sauce, caked in spices and, impressive to me, coarse pepper. I would’ve dialed back the salt a bit, as I downed at least a pint and a half of water after eating a couple, but I appreciated that the ribs did not fall off the bone. Pro tip: ribs are not supposed to fall off the bone, folks.

So here’s me, Mr. Cool Man Writer for the Alt-Weekly, who rode his bike to Smokehouse in my vintage sneakers and Kurt Vile baseball tee pondering which craft beer nightcap to drink, a veritable Portlandia sketch in the flesh, finding himself with a reason to drop by the colossally corny popped-collar neon wasteland known as Fourth Street Live! I may not own a restaurant featured on Triple D, but I too have felt the Fieri Effect.

Love in the Time of Barbacoa

“What I think I could do as a Food Network host is to teach people about real food, real people,”  Fieri said, laying out his gospel in his original audition for Food Network a decade ago, before showing off his Jackass roll, packed with pork butt, french fries and avocado inside sushi rice. “Bringing it back to the basics. Great product, great ideas. Anybody can read a cookbook. The idea is bringing it to the table. I take people’s imaginations and put it on the plate.” Part of me wanted to ask how it felt to be, essentially, a living meme, or how long he would continue to rock the flames. But I already knew the answers — he doesn’t care, and this is who is he.

And people, it turns out, were hungry for that. While Anthony Bourdain’s international culinary exploits feels exotic and fascinating, Guy’s is the familiar, a champion of the underdog and the blue plate lunch. While Fieri’s sartorial choices might resemble the product of a race car driver and a Hawaiian shirt entering the telepod together, chances are there are more Guy Fieris than Anthony Bourdains in your own life — an everyman truly unencumbered. And in the end, who cares? We could all stand to present ourselves a little more candidly.

Though the gastronomic gymnastics presented on Triple D offer a glimpse into how truly greasy a plate can get and how many disparate ingredients can amalgam into a culinary Frankenstein monster, Guy Fieri gave me an interesting answer when I asked about his personal favorite barbecue. The question gave him pause, and then he offered up specific instructions on a South American-style spare rib dish he prepares at home for his family. It might be the simplest recipe anyone has ever shared with me.