As the deadliest wildfires in California’s history rage across the state’s northern regions, at least one celebrity chef was affected: Guy Fieri, who grew up in the area and has lived in Santa Rosa for about 20 years, abandoned his home along with his wife and dogs in the wee hours of Monday morning as flames approached and smoke filled the air. When they were able to return, they found their house still intact, though a nearby neighborhood had been almost totally destroyed. Fieri’s thoughts turned to charity, and he set up a mobile BBQ operation at a local rescue center to feed displaced victims.
But Fieri can’t do anything without blowback — critics were soon “deriding the setup as a publicity stunt and the choice of a barbecue smoker, especially, as inconsiderate to victims of the fire,” according to KQED.
“If that’s what you think and you’re that shallow at a time like this with what we’re facing, then there’s no changing your mind about that,” Fieri said in response. “This isn’t a PR stunt. You don’t see my banners up. I’m not promoting anything. I’m just here cooking. This is feeding people. People need help, and I’m here to help. That’s it.” He added, when asked about the decision to bring a BBQ smoker: “I don’t even have anything to say about that. That’s a ridiculous question. And that’s a ridiculous statement. I mean, come on. What do you want me to do?”
On Twitter, you can see that while some of the negative commentary about Fieri’s heartfelt gesture is serious, more of it falls into the genre of “casually dunking on Guy Fieri,” which has become reflex for many. Either way, when was the last time you saw a somebody mocked for doing charity work? It’s as if all the signifiers that make Fieri a target for trolls and meme-makers — the frosted tips, the garish clothes, the “Flavortown” references, and of course his almost pathological devotion to cheese-blasted, sauce-slathered, infarction-worthy fried foods — are too much for sincerity to overcome.
And you know what? I think Guy has been a damn good sport about America constantly ribbing him for, like, eating lots of baby back ribs. He can shake off a savage New York Times review of his Times Square restaurant and a mocking fake menu for same because hey, the place still puts asses in seats. He can absorb every attack on his drive-thru palette and blinged-out Hot Wheels aesthetic because he’s still among the most recognizable in his game, with more TV shows than you can count. But being rich and successful doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings, and while I’d normally say celebrities don’t need defending, part of me wants to scream: “Leave Guy Fieri alone!”
Another part of me wonders, though, if Fieri must always embody America’s love/hate relationship with itself, the mentality that makes us crave mozzarella sticks when we know we should be eating a goddamn vegetable for once. He’s a dashboard bobblehead, some novelty that seems fueled by irony but sticks around long enough to articulate a soul-deep fact: We want greasy low-culture cuisine. We want our taste buds assaulted. It is so bad for us, and so, so delicious. If we are compelled to lash out at Fieri, it is as we chide the devil on our shoulder suggesting another 2 a.m. Del Taco run.
Barring a personal rebrand, Fieri may forever be our avatar of digestive excess and the butthole-scorching diarrhea that frequently comes along with it. That’s no easy job, and I worry that giving him a hard time for feeding thousands of wildfire victims in his hometown is the sort of backlash that could drive him over the edge, never to return. You can’t miss the frustration in his comments. Was he asking for publicity? Was he trying to do anything besides support a community he loves, the only way he knows how? By all means, give him grief for that goatee, but recognize that you’re just a little bit jealous you can’t walk around looking like that. Give in to Guy’s bacon-encrusted empire of the mind now and then, and you’ll see it includes a table just for you.
And Guy, if you’re reading this, please don’t let the haters tear down everything you’ve built and achieved: We may have a funny way of showing it, but we’re all rooting for you.