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Fear and Loathing in Flavortown

Can’t travel because of the pandemic? You still have a passport to Flavortown. I ate my way through ‘Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It’ — aka Guy Fieri’s cookbook — and lived to tell the tale.

Have you ever wanted to eat a SummerSlam main event? Have you ever thought, “Man, if only this monster truck rally was deep-fried, dipped in tequila and drizzled with donkey sauce, I would chow down”? Or: “I sure wish someone would pour rum and cinnamon on this pizza and set it on fire”? 

Well, if so, I have good news: You would love Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It, aka Guy Fieri’s cookbook. 

It’s more than a cookbook, it’s like a dare yelled across a sports bar. It’s a collection of recipes filled with all kinds of fun new ways for you to play chicken with your GI tract. It’s a cookbook that spits while it talks, as it asks you if you want to go to Mexico tonight, but that you later find asleep in your front yard, spooning your neighbor’s dog. This cookbook likes to… use ellipses… to indicate… that it has suffered major brain damage… from how hard… it loves to party!!! It’s like learning to cook from a sentient… Wolf howl!!!

Okay, I know, I’m punching down. At the very least, I’m being no better than that infamous assessment of Fieri’s Time Square restaurant by New York Times food critic Pete Wells. In his blistering review, Wells addressed the man directly, “GUY FIERI, have you eaten at your new restaurant? Have you pulled up at one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations? Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as ‘Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,’ did your mind touch the void for a minute?”

The thing is, it’s way too easy to make fun of Guy Fieri for being Guy Fieri. I certainly have no defense for myself. Other than to say that ridiculing his cuisine is reflexive at this point (so much so that even the fact that it’s both piling on and mean-spirited can’t stop it). But that’s a mistake. Because it overlooks what Fieri is — not as a chef, but as a human being. And honest to God, I feel very differently about Fieri the Man than I do Fieri the Chef. As someone who grew up in Northern California, it’s hard not to love the guy, if only for all the times he’s made heaps of hot food for bewildered survivors of our state’s ever-increasing wildfires. Guy Fieri is legit good people.

And so, I decided to challenge my assumptions. Or more accurately, the pandemic and its attendant quarantine — as well as the latest round of those aforementioned wildfires — has kept me inside for a majority of the last seven months, with very little to do. But while everyone else was busy baking bread and posting pics of their gnarled, knobby creations to their feed, I thought to myself, “Why be Instagram basic when I could learn how to shove a beer can deep inside the cavity of a chicken, wrap that bird completely in bacon and then roast it in a Dutch oven?”

Why not, in other words, see if Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It could help me both better pass the time and truly understand Fieri’s culinary madness?   

Which is how my girlfriend and I ended up pairing two Fieri main courses with either a Fieri cocktail or a Fieri dessert a couple nights a week throughout the month of July. 

We did, however, set a few ground rules: 

  1. No Pork. I don’t dig on swine, and swine has no interest in being part of my whole deal either.
  2. Stick to the Barnyard and Common Seafood. This rule was mostly to give Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It a fighting chance, as it would be harder to judge what Fieri had done to, say, an oyster than to chicken (perhaps it was a bad oyster, etc.). 
  3. Don’t Be Funny About It. Since so much of the cookbook seemed like a stunt performed with food, we tried to find things we’d actually order and dishes we were curious to see how they got Guy’d.

To that last point, it was important that we actually wanted to spend the evening in Flavortown. Otherwise, it would just be a futile exercise in more of the same, which wasn’t gonna leave a good taste in anyone’s mouth.

Week One, Meal One

Appetizer: Buffalo Balls

Entree: Irish Nachos

Cocktail: Sea Donkey

Fieri on His Buffalo Balls: “Through my affiliation with Nabisco, I was asked to make some original recipes using Ritz Crackers for the Super Bowl. I didn’t want to go with the usual idea of what you can do with cheese and crackers — I had to go big [emphasis Fieri’s]. Now one of my favorite tailgate foods is Buffalo wings… question was, how to combine them? Ahaaa… this is my solution.” (I warned you about the ellipses.)

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? It was a co-sponsored shame. Guy’s Buffalo Balls are very, very, very sweet, which seems to be a product of the thick coating of crushed Ritz Crackers that Fieri uses to bread his balls. The Ritz Crackers also give the Buffalo Balls an odd, almost chemical flavor. I definitely wouldn’t recommend Guy Fieri’s balls to anyone (again, my apologies, it just can’t be helped).

Meanwhile, Fieri’s party cocktail, the Sea Donkey, tastes just as aquamarine blue as it looks. It’s a drink that doesn’t just lower inhibitions, it removes all feelings of responsibility and accountability. Like, I took one sip of the Sea Donkey and discovered that I’d somehow posted a selfie of me and a Dwayne Johnson look-alike at a pool party in Vegas. 

The Irish Nachos are technically nachos. And while the idea was inspired — loading waffle-cut French fries with cheese, corned beef and green onions — it becomes far more about the nacho part of the equation than it is about what the Irish bring to it (i.e., he leans heavy on the cheese and reduces the chips portion to a potato-y afterthought).

Week One, Meal Two

Appetizer: Ridiculously Good Radicchio Bundles

Entree: Weird Spaghetti

Dessert: Peach and Blueberry Pizza

Fieri on the Inspiration for His Weird Spaghetti: “Looks like an old school Bolognese pasta, but you can’t judge a book by its cover [again, emphasis Fieri’s]. This one is closer to Cincinnati spaghetti. And for a lot folks outside of Cincinnati, that’s ‘weird spaghetti.’”

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? It would be mean to call the Weird Spaghetti a shame. But remember in elementary school when you’d paint with watercolors, and how if you used yellow, and then blue and red and orange and green, eventually it would just turn into a brown mush? That’s the effect Fieri achieves with spices (the number of spices in the Weird Spaghetti alone — eight). They’re all sort of piled atop one another, higgledy-piggledy, so that the effect is layers of flavor that ultimately negate each other, rather than distinguish themselves.

On the plus side, his Ridiculously Good Radicchio Bundles are pretty good. With this recipe, though, he mostly stays out of the way. The ingredients are commonly combined and not unexpected. There’s eight fresh basil leaves, eight fresh mozzarella balls, eight thin slices of prosciutto, a teaspoon of cracked black pepper, a half cup of pesto, three tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. It’s pretty hard to fuck that up.

The Peach and Blueberry Pizza wasn’t a big hit in the house, but it wasn’t offensive either. The trouble was the crust. As Fieri points out, “You don’t build a $10 million mansion on a weak foundation [as always, emphasis his], and the same goes for your pizza.” 

But what he ignores is that there’s also the opposite issue to consider — when you construct a crust for your pizza, you don’t want to make it so sturdy that you could actually use it as a foundation for a new home. That’s the case here, as the crust is about as heavy as unleavened bread.

Week Two, Meal Three

Entree: Red Rocker Margarita Chicken Sandwich

Side: Long Beach Coleslaw

Cocktail: The Grape Ape Bowla

Fieri on the Red Rocker Margarita Chicken Sandwich’s Namesake: I’m a rocker, so of course I’m a Sammy Hagar fan [same drill here — emphasis his]. The ‘Red Rocker’ is the Man, and boy, does he enjoy good food [last time, because I’m sure you’ve got it by now — emphasis Fieri’s]. As a restaurateur in Northern California, I found the chance to meet him a couple of times over the years, and he was always so cool, totally the real deal.

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? Neither? The margarita chicken sandwich tastes like something that gets added to a menu on Bar Rescue. You can order this exact sandwich on just about any cruise ship, or in any Vegas casino, or in any major business park in the U.S. It’s basically a grilled chicken sandwich with sliced red peppers. Red Rockin’!

The Long Beach Coleslaw also feels pretty generic. It’s a coleslaw, but instead of cabbage, Fieri has substituted iceberg lettuce, and there’s a blue cheese dressing involved. What does it taste like? Try to imagine an iceberg lettuce salad you’d get in Nebraska, but you call it a coleslaw and say it’s from Long Beach. Boom! It’s like you’re having dinner overlooking the Pacific now! That’s classy… on a budget, too!

The real shame here is the Grape Ape Bowla, which has the same vibe as a tasteless comment at a tailgate party that everyone ignores (like, say, a casually racist Ebola joke served up as a cocktail). I should note that we didn’t have the recommended fishbowl to serve it in, so we went with Fieri’s other suggestion instead — a large mixing bowl. But regardless of its container or presentation, it’s still the sort of drink that should come with a U.N. legal observer, with four different liquors (vodka, rum, gin and triple sec) that despite Fieri’s efforts, will never get along. 

Week Two, Meal Four

Entree: Morgan’s Veggie Patties

Side: Mambo Rice

Dessert: Cherry Cobbler Pizza

Fieri on Why He’s Been Known to Go Vegetarian: “A lot of the healthy dishes in my repertory have stemmed from cooking for my sister, Morgan (C.R. Bipim Delight is my nickname for her). She’s been vegetarian as long as I can remember, and I’m not a fan of just handing someone some steamed broccoli while I go eat turkey and all the fixins. So I’ve alway smade two or three unique veggie dishes that she can enjoy, and I don’t just do the traditional; I put my Guy spin on it. But when my sister was diagnosed with melanoma, she was given a strict diet with an eclectic list of foods that she could eat to keep the pH of her body at the level she needed. I believe one of the greatest ways you can show love and respect for someone is to cook for them, so the first time I was to see Morgan after her diagnosis, I asked that she come to my house for dinner.” 

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? Legit flames. The most rewarding aspect of Fieri’s cookbook are the glimpses you get into his personal story (like the one about his sister, who sadly died in 2011). It humanizes him beyond the frosted tips and bleached goatee. His cookbook is like if a memoir had some recipes. To this end, on Amazon, nearly all the reviews fail to mention the recipes. They gush not about the food, but how the cookbook is a great way to get to know Guy Fieri. 

I agree. His recipes aren’t the reason why anyone should read this cookbook. Instead, you should read it for his choice anecdotes, like his arrival in New York to appear on the Food Network’s reality competition that launched his career, “I arrived in New York wearing a leather jacket, shorts and flip-flops, and stepped out of the cab into six inches of snow. I was the last one to get to the set — all the contestants were sitting in the common room, and they started running tape. Everybody had been to culinary school, and I said, ‘I own three restaurants and didn’t go to culinary school. I learned in restaurants. I don’t bake — I’m just Guy.’ I thought for sure I was dead.”

Long story short: He wasn’t dead. Far from it. He won.

As for his sister’s veggie patties, while preparing it, the meatless mash looked like a slurry of beans that wouldn’t hold together or form a coherent patty. It looked like we’d be trying to eat a bean salad between two buns. So it was a nice surprise to find that it formed a legit veggie burger patty, and even more surprisingly, it tasted like something you’d get from a pop-up restaurant, or a food truck at a festival where tie-dye is prominent. We did cheat a little and add a slice of provolone cheese; it helped the flavor and the patties hold their shape. But a serious, no-joke shoutout to Fieri’s meatless gastronomy.

In terms of the rest of the meal, the Mambo Rice definitely went hard on one of Fieri’s favorite flavors — salt. And while the Cherry Cobbler Pizza sounds good, it was once again undone by the wheat crust. Like the Peach and Blueberry Pizza before it, the crust ended up being so heavy that it made the pizza taste more like a whole wheat bagel. The flavor of the cherry reduction used to dress the cobbler is legit good. But it ends up fighting against (and losing to) the crust. 

Week Three, Meal Five

Entree: Chicken Lettuce Cups

Side: Szechuan Green Beans

Drink: Shark Attack

Fieri on His Love of Chinese Food: “When I was going to college in Vegas, I used to stop in at a $5.99 Chinese restaurant by my apartment. A man named Mr. Lee was always there, and he’d always tell me to try the Hong Kong Noodles. But I’d get sidetracked and try all these other crazy things instead. Then one day he wasn’t there and I got worried, so I asked this kid behind the counter where he was. Turned out Mr. Lee wasn’t Mr. Lee — his name was Jerry — and he wasn’t Chinese, he was Hispanic.”

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? Total flames… if you enjoy a good salt lick. To that end, when you take your first bite of the Szechuan Green Beans, you can’t help but wonder: How did Guy Fieri make this salt taste like green beans? In fairness, he does get the Plum Sesame Sambal sauce right for the Chicken Lettuce Cups, making them more than sufficient. 

Maybe I’d grown accustomed to Fieri’s mixology philosophy by this point, but the Shark Attack isn’t a bad tasting drink, per se. Like all of his drinks, though, it’s strong — and sweet. Like a diner waitress from a movie about an America that never really existed. It’s also another drink that calls for a menagerie of liquors (tequila, triple sec and rum) that would otherwise never spend time together.

Beware of this shark-infested booze, however. After having a second round of Shark Attacks, both my girlfriend and I woke up with brutal hangovers that lasted until sundown. It was so bad, my girlfriend slept in the living room. Why? Because I was violently tossing and turning all night. When I woke up, I had a headache in four places. She woke up sore all over. And sore at me. 

Week Three, Meal Six

Entree: Big Bud’s Beer Can Chicken

Side: Goody Girl Champion Potatoes

Dessert: Coffee Bananas Foster

Fieri on His Close Encounter With a Cornfield as a Kid: “I can remember eating corn raw, right on the cob. When I first saw stalks of corn growing in a field I couldn’t believe it, thinking, Corn comes in a package? Oh my gosh! It grows on some kind of vending machine. But I still hold it in awe as a vegetable, because there are so many ways to use corn.” 

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? More flames than not. Big Bud’s Beer Can Chicken involves draping the whole chicken in bacon. And yet, that promised signature trip to Flavortown never really arrives. Meanwhile, his Goody Girl Champion Potatoes come off essentially like a warm potato salad. And while — you guessed it — it’s very salty, it would be excellent at a picnic where people planned to get day-drunk. The best of the bunch — and of everything we’d eaten so far — was the Coffee Bananas Foster. Still, both my girlfriend and I were left wondering, “Why does Guy use so much nutmeg?” Even when Fieri is at his finest, his choice of spices always seems to be based on the idea of “how can I punch you in the face with this flavor?”

Week Four, Meal Seven

Appetizer: Sangria-Glazed Shrimp 

Entree: Tequila Turkey Fettuccine

Fieri on the Historic Nature of His Tequila Turkey Fettucine: “This is the dish that helped bring home the Next Food Network Star title. Think about a fettuccini alfredo in Mexico during Thanksgiving… Tequila!”

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? The name Turkey Tequila Fettuccine suggests something fun and irreverent. But it also highlights the real shtick at work in Fieri’s whole deal — you take a dish that’s generally enjoyed, you add tequila or rum (or both), drown it with those flavors, add more spices (but make sure it’s spices that no one would ever think of using together like cumin, chocolate and cinnamon) and then you name it after a city no one wants to visit, like, Indianapolis. More than anything else, these seem to be the directions to Flavortown. It’s the road map he uses to find radically new ways to make food taste like more of a dare than anything else.

In reality, though, the added tequila doesn’t act as a complicating flavor, at least not the kind that lends itself to the turkey or the fettuccine. As such, the resulting dish has the recognizable quality of the aftertaste of a tequila burp. It’s the same with his Sangria-Glazed Shrimp. The shrimp tastes fruity, but you don’t taste the sangria. Overall, when Fieri adds booze to his food, it merely feels like an alcoholic adding a cocktail or two to their afternoon.

Week Four, Meal Eight

Side: The “Big Dunkee” Pepper Jack and Horseradish Double-Baked Potato

Entree: Oak Town Garlic Vinegar Chicken 

Cocktail: The “Big Dunkee”

Dessert: Tequila Lime Tart

Fieri on Being a Football Fan: “I’d always been a Houston Oilers fan, so upon arriving in Houston, I drove over to the Astrodome and asked, ‘Is this where the Oilers played? Is there a museum?’ And they said, ‘Of what?’ The Oilers had been moved to Tennessee, and there was nothing to see but the stadium. It wasn’t the first time that trip that I received a puzzled reaction…”

Was It Flames… or a Damn Shame? In Guy Fieri Food: Cookin’ It, Livin’ It, Lovin’ It, Fieri is quick to recommend foods you’d find in a parking lot. For instance, he writes, “Some of my favorite dishes came from football tailgate parties. This is a great one from an Oakland Raiders game. (Get it? Oak town!)” So we took him at his word that the Oak Town Vinegar Chicken was a perfect dish for tailgating. But this seems ridiculous based on how soupy it is. Plus, there’s the fact that it requires a dutch oven and a saucepan to prepare. It is, however, a damn fine entree for any homemade dinner. Also surprising my girlfriend and I, the pepper jack and horseradish potatoes are really good. They’re twice-baked and loaded with cheese and bacon. Better still, the horseradish flavor somehow doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors.

That said, when I ask my girlfriend about the “Big Dunkee,” she provides a one-word answer: “Medicinal.” She’s right, it tastes like something you’d serve to people if you were forced to make a cocktail out of whatever you could find under the sink in your parents’ bathroom. Then there was the Tequila Lime Tart. It was one of the better desserts, but there was no real reason to pour tequila on a tart, other than to say that you’d done it. 

Without a doubt, though, Guy Fieri means well. He can’t help that he makes food fit for a Princess cruise ship or Disney buffet line. That’s his “has anyone thought of frying this?” energy, and he shouldn’t be blamed for it — because it’s honest and true (if misbegotten and artery-clogging). And when you’re trapped inside for almost seven months, there are far worse places to visit than an unapologetic tourist trap like Flavortown. You’d just want to make sure that you knew your way home.