There are two ways to see Guy Fieri. The first is to turn on your TV to the Food Network and wait (probably not long) for him to show up at a diner, drive-in, or dive. Or you can go find him in person, which is how I found myself in a rental car, heading out of New York City, for the Poconos.
Since the New York Times famously panned Fieri’s first NY brick-and-mortar restaurant, a cottage industry of online think pieces debating Fieri’s merits, or lack thereof, have sprung up (or as the New Yorker tantalizingly put it in a profile this year, “journalism’s pilot fish, nibbling on flesh snagged between the predator’s teeth”).
To me, discussing whether or not Fieri — and the Donkey Sauce-soaked empire he has spawned — is “good” is a bit like discussing the merits of the rising of the sun or the ebbing of the tides: he is a force of nature, an entire business built around the concept that, if a person is compelling enough, it is interesting to watch him eat and talk about eating, and then, it is interesting to eat food the person has concocted. Times review or not, the Law of Fieri is bearing out. Since the opening of the original American Kitchen, other Fieri-branded eateries have cropped up like so many tattoo-motifed mushrooms. Which is how I came to be invited to the opening of his most recent location, at Mount Airy Casino in the Poconos.
Like a millennial Elizabeth Gilbert or Cheryl Strayed, I was on a pilgrimage of discovery. But this wasn’t to find myself, or some larger meaning, in the mountains, it was to seek some larger truth about Guy Fieri the brand by meeting Guy Fieri the man. That's how I wound up in an airport hangar full of citizens playing slots, awaiting my appointed time to meet the mayor of Flavortown, U.S.A.
I thought about taking pictures of the sight that greeted me so I could it describe it more clearly, but signs informed me that photography was strictly prohibited on the casino floor. So here is what I remember: a sea of whirring and flashing lights, attached to themes from Cleopatra to the Walking Dead and Sex And The City that were all too happy to eat your money. I thought about playing a slot just to say I did it, but every time I entertained the notion, I just had to look out at the casino floor to have the urge drop from my body.
The next day, I ate a light breakfast: I was going to meet Guy Fieri. I figured you would want to be plenty hungry if you were expected to eat something called a Bacon Mac ‘N’ Cheese Burger. Pre-mealtime, I got to avail myself to the casino’s spa services. After an amazing massage, I wasted away the morning on a steam, sauna, and long, lingering shower. It was like some purification ritual to be prepared to enter Flavortown. By 2 p.m., I was ready.
Donning my press pass, I reported to Guy’s Mt. Pocono Kitchen, where a long line of guests had already formed in hopes of meeting Fieri at a book signing later. I was ushered straight into the restaurant, flashing my lanyard with a picture of Fieri himself smiling on it and immediately spied the man himself at the bar, enjoying a beer.
Holy shit, I thought. There he is. Having spent hours of my life watching Guy Fieri watch people cook on TV, it felt somehow impossible that I was now in the same space as him. It was like seeing Santa Claus (and not one of his “helpers” at the local mall), if Santa had bleached beard. While I was still recovering from shock of seeing him, I was also informed that I would be given time to talk with Mr. Fieri one-on-one, something I had neither planned on nor prepared for. I was starving, my muscles like noodles, holding nothing but my cell phone, key card, and press pass. It would help if I could eat something, but all the food sitting out was not for eating, just for photographing. I used my iPhone to take a few bad pictures as a way to pass time and feign a larger purpose for my being there.
After a few poorly lit shots of Vegas Fries and Danger Dogs, I struck up conversation with another reporter, who informed that it was not, in fact, Fieri at the bar. It was two Fieri impersonators who had traveled here to meet him. They both choose to dress like Fieri every day, from bleaching and styling their hair to wearing clothes that look like his. In reaction to this news, I immediately ordered a beer, empty stomach be damned.
Soon, my time for my audience with the actual Fieri arrived. Unlike the impersonators at the bar, he was at the very back of the restaurant, tucked away in a booth. I was ushered back by a team of PR people and was informed I had 10 minutes.
I have been close to fame a number of times — I once spilled my entire Duane Reade bag at Patricia Heaton’s feet when I sat next to her at Hamilton and even locked eyes with James Van Der Beek while crossing 23rd Street — but I had never found myself the sole focus of a celebrity’s attention. As soon as I sat down, Fieri offered me a beer. “Oh, I just had one,” I replied, though he insisted. Soon, I was holding a second beer while Guy asked me about my name.
“Marshall! That is such a cool name!”
“Oh, I’m Southern,” I said, beaming, “It’s a family name.”
You expect certain famous people to have an aura: think Brad Pitt or Barack Obama. But I was surprised to be completely in Fieri's gravitational pull. For those lucky enough to have the gift, their magnetism is its own source of light. It can even soften something known as Trashcan Nachos and make your hardened, cynical heart warm to the idea. When the interview came to a close, Fieri seemed almost apologetic, as if I was the one who was who deigned to speak to him. It was only then I realized I was two beers into the day, still on an empty stomach. I went back up front, where I proceeded to finally do what I came to do — try the food.
To paraphrase Marc Antony’s address in Julius Caesar: Friends, Romans, internet commenters, lend me your ears. I speak not to disprove with Pete Wells and the rest spoke, but I am here to speak what I do know: A Bacon Mac 'N' Cheese Burger is damn tasty. The French Dip, a dish I loved in childhood as much for its blandness as anything (meat, cheese, and bread), was reinvigorated thanks to well-seared prime rib and the addition of whisper-thin fried onions.
And the Trashcan Nachos! I have eaten nachos everywhere, from the day-glo “cheese”-topped chips of sporting arenas to fancier fare, sprinkled with shredded radish and microgreens. Fieri’s existed somewhere in the middle: a towering stack of chips topped with something called SMC (“super-melty cheese”), pico, and black beans. I chipped away at it, and the rest of the dishes, before admitting defeat, barely a dent in the food to show for my efforts.
The appeal of Fieri’s brand is that greasy, humble, diner-style food deserves not only to be enjoyed, but celebrated. It’s no wonder that viewers of the show want to get a piece of the magic themselves, without having to crisscross North America to visit the nearly 1,000 locations Fieri himself has been to. Blame the three beers, blame how easily I can be charmed, but the restaurant stopped seeming like a money-grab and more like a noble endeavor. I may never be tempted to visit Fieri’s Times Square outpost (after all, there are something like 24,565 other options for food in the city), but that weekend in the Poconos, it was more than good enough. I ate there twice more before I left (and not just because I couldn’t bear sitting alone at the neighboring steakhouse with only the entertainment of neighboring bachelor parties).
While the FDA would probably advise against tripling down on Fieri-approved fare three meals in a row, my review of the weekend can best be summed up in one of the man's own frequently used catchphrases: Winner, winner, chicken dinner.