In recent years, the male stars of the Food Network have begun to seem eerily familiar. There was Aaron McCargo Jr., winner of the fourth season of Big Daddy’s House, who marketed himself with the catchphrase “the flavor of bold.” There was last season’s Food Network Star winner Lenny McNab, wearer of big cowboy hats and hubcap-sized belt buckles, (whose show never made it to production after his after racist, homophobic and sexist online postings were discovered). The overbearing magnetism, the jacked-up ’Merican persona—it all gives off a whiff of deja vu. These guys might not have spiky bleached hair, funky wristbands, and a rotating wardrobe of cargo shorts, but their inspiration is unmistakable: Guy Fieri.
It’s no secret that the Season 2 winner of Food Network Star is the network’s cash cow. In 2010, the New York Times reported that Fieri provided an “element of rowdy, mass-market culture to American food television,” and that his “prime-time shows attract more male viewers than any others on the network.” So the network has clearly spent the last few years scrambling to replicate him. Even in the current season of Food Network Star, there are several potential next-gen Fieris in the making: namely the burly, LSU tailgating-obsessed, “food media personality,” Jay Ducote.
Ducote, like Fieri, seems to specialize in shouting about slabs of meat. This tactic sadly seemed to resonate well on a recent “dial of doom” episode of Food Network Star, a show in which live audience members get to turn dials up or down to signal their increasing or decreasing interest in the chef’s presentations. The louder Ducote got, the higher his audience approval rating. He also seems to be a favorite with judges Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay, who have cited his “personality” numerous times when deliberating over the current crop of talent.
But here’s the thing: Food Network doesn’t need another Guy Fieri. In fact, its obsession with cranking out imitations of him embodies exactly what’s wrong with the network today.
Since its launch in 1993, Food Network has worked to entertain viewers—but it has also, at its best, actually educated them. Many of its stars have been legitimate culinary whizzes. The channel has established many chefs as the go-to experts for their respective cuisines, accessible to even the most inexperienced home cook: take legends like Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Emeril Lagasse, a lineup that eventually expanded to include Mario Batali, Tyler Florence, Alton Brown, Rachael Ray, and Ina Garten. I grew up with these chefs—armed with my pint-sized Emeril brand chef’s hat and apron and a high school crush on Alton Brown, for whom I still carry a torch (or a culinary-grade blowtorch, rather).
So what did Emeril, Alton, Bobby, Ina, Rachael, Mario, Giada and Julia all have in common? It’s not that they were all likable—many are firebrands who stir up some mixture of affection and irritation. But they all had a clear answer to the question, “What can you teach me about food?” and a distinctive point of view to match.
Needless to say, anchoring a long-lasting series requires starpower—Aarti Sequeira, who arguably had one of the most well-honed pitches in Aarti Party, and was a notably creative practioner of Indian-American cuisine, but still wasn’t compelling enough to reel in viewers. Characters like Aaron McCargo Jr and Jay Ducote have flashy, earsplitting personas that seem to bear little relation to their actual food, which is fairly boilerplate. Fieri’s celebrity outweighs his technique, but he’s still forged a totally singular culinary brand. His cooking show Guy’s Big Bite may now be relegated to Saturday at 7:30am and Sunday at 10:30am timeslots, and Fieri may spend more time in his red Chevy camaro “rolling out” than in the kitchen. But at this point, he’s an institution—and a totally unreplicable one. So it makes a kind of sense that Guy Fieri has become a linchpin of the Food Network brand. What doesn’t make sense is that the network keeps trying to clone him.
Fortunately, this season of Food Network Star features some promising newcomers. Arnold Myint is a restaurateur by day, drag queen by night, with several successful restaurants already under his belt—his “easy, elegant entertaining” concept seems like a good fit for his demeanor. Ex-NFL cornerback Eddie Jackson wants to bring healthy cooking to the network, something that has proven difficult in the past—but Jackson’s easy charisma makes the prospect seem palatable. So maybe the Food Network is finally learning that instead of pushing loudmouthed Guy Fieri stand-ins, the best way to hook new viewers is to bring something new to the table.