Guy Fieri's either loved or loathed, like a deep-fried Twinkie or the rock band Nickelback. But this week the Food Network star took one of the worst critical beatings in recent memory.
On Tuesday, the New York Times published a rantlike review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar that quickly went viral on the Internet. All but one sentence was posed as a question directed at Fieri, such as "Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken tenders are?" or "Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste?"
While it wasn't the first negative review for Fieri's Times Square restaurant, which opened in September, it was certainly the most invective. But if Fieri needs a fist bump of support, he could find one in Sacramento, where Fieri attended culinary school and taped numerous segments of his popular show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." Fieri also oversees two eateries in the area: Tex Wasabi's on Arden Way and Johnny Garlic's in Roseville.
Hearing the New York Post describe the chicken tenders at Guy's American Kitchen & Bar as "turd shaped" or the New York Observer calling the food "infectious and insidious garbage" makes Davin Vculek cringe.
Vculek's the owner of KrushBurger, the successful Sacramento food truck, who served for three years as corporate executive chef for Fieri's restaurant group. Vculek considers his former boss both a mentor and friend, and they check in with each other monthly.
"He's not trying to do food for the critics, the gourmet foods," Vculek said. "He's doing foods that most Americans can relate to, and you take it or leave it. My firsthand experience is that he has a great base of customers and a lot of fans for his food. While a lot of restaurant companies are going by the wayside, he's expanding."
Fieri, who wasn't available to comment for this piece, has been a polarizing figure in food circles since winning the Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star" in 2006. The 44-year-old chef tends to wear sunglasses on the back of his head, says "off the hook" a lot and likes to keep his shirt unbuttoned to flash a bit of barrel chest. He's more muscle car than molecular gastronomy, the kind of guy who'll call you "bro" while scarfing Buffalo wings at the local sports bar.
That's to say, among those who sport chef's toques and pedigrees or hustle for reservations at Michelin-starred restaurants, Fieri's long been a punchline. It's easy to sniff at Tex Wasabi's menu mash-up of Texas barbecue and sushi, but for some, those jokes got old long ago.
"Making fun of Guy Fieri is like making fun of Nickelback it's a cliché that's been done a million times," said Serena Donovan, a longtime Sacramentan and notable Yelper who now lives in San Francisco.
"At the end of the day he's a nice guy with sincere intentions to highlight mom-and-pop places. The most hipster move you could make would be to go to his restaurants and have a good time and embrace the kitschiness of it all."
Some local restaurateurs have found a friend in Fieri. "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" has featured a number of Sacramento eateries, including Squeeze Inn, Jamie's Broadway Grille, Dad's Kitchen and Gatsby's. One episode in 2011 also found Fieri and crew chowing down on banh mi sandwiches and tacos at midtown's Golden Bear.
Kimio Bazett, the Golden Bear's co-owner, said the segment brought a new wave of customers. The business spike and national exposure was significant enough that it helped the Golden Bear launch a sister pub, Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co.
"There are people who revere him and willing to drive for lunch from Redding, or they're on vacation from the Midwest and make it clear they're following his 'DDD' food trail," said Bazett. "Before, we were 'the little bar that could,' but people's perceptions changed. We had (business) people approaching us."
Fieri's since fired back at the New York Times review, which was mentioned on the NBC Nightly News and other media outlets big and small. On Thursday, he appeared on the "Today" show, calling the review "ridiculous" and accusing the reviewer of having an agenda.
Fieri's still revered at American River College, where he's a distinguished alumnus and a supporter of the school's culinary arts and hospitality management program. A video on the school's website shows Fieri, leaning against a vintage red Camaro, imploring people to donate toward the school's culinary program.
That's the guy Vculek knows.
"He's quirky and in your face, but a very caring person and very family-oriented," said Vculek. "I had my reservations prior to working with him, but I realized my preconceived notions were off. Whether he's doing right or not, I don't think people give him a fair shake."