Sep 28, 2023, 06:25AM

Guy Fieri—Documentarian of the Local

"Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" is a culinary exploration of the disappearing American sense of place.

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Years ago, when I started watching Food Network, it was a place for serious cooks wanting to learn from the masters. There were great instructional shows like Bobby Flay's Grilling and Chilling, and the now-canceled #MeToo offender Mario Batali's Molto Mario. But the business model shifted in another direction, and these instructional shows disappeared, so now I tune in to cooking competition shows like Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. I've also watched Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins & Dives ("Triple D" to Fieri and his legions of fans) for years, but what started out as partially a "hate watch" soon became a favorite. He's a restaurant cheerleader, but only for the good places whose customers look and sound (Fieri interviews them) happy.

Fieri's become the undisputed star of Food Network, but his affectations can grate—his "cool dude" lingo, dyed, two-tone beard, and the stomach-turning claim to be the "mayor of Flavortown." But his enthusiasm for the honest-food joints he visits, and the skill and enthusiasm with which he documents them, manage to cut through all his I-want-to-be-a-TV-personality exertions.

What is honest food, which is going the way of the phone booth? I know what it's not. Years ago, when I worked as a cook at an Italian place, I made Chicken Alfredo and Veal Marsala with sauces that came from the vendor in bags. The thing is, both of these dishes are so simple to prepare that there's no reason to go for such shortcuts, which may save a few pennies. For whatever reason, there's a knee-jerk mentality driving such nonsense, and that mentality gets in the way of the preparation of honest food. At this place, they were too lazy and/or too cheap to cut up a couple of fresh bunches of the parsley they put on almost everything, so they used the vastly inferior, tasteless dried variety. In a nutshell, this is the opposite of what Fieri's looking for.

That's the "lazy," uninspired food that's becoming the norm in American casual dining as corporate restaurants crowd out the competition with their cost-cutting market power. Cutting parsley would take about two minutes a day, but even that's too much work for hack restaurateurs. Fieri takes his viewers to places where the chef/owners (it's usually the same person) have too much pride to take cheap shortcuts like buying frozen meatballs. They do it the old-fashioned way, giving Triple D a nostalgic appeal.

While fellow celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, on his Kitchen Nightmares, lives to break the egos of underperforming chefs and owners so he can rebuild them in his image, Fieri—who's a much less accomplished chef—only wants to spotlight their talents.

Triple D places are run by humble, passionate types that Ramsey would love to encounter, if only he didn't have a show that's built on humiliating overconfident failures on camera. Ramsey denigrates cooks in the kitchen, while Fieri banters with them, lavishing compliments on their skills and enthusiasm as he assists them in preparing meals. Fieri's there to learn and encourage, not to disparage and denigrate. He's quick on his feet too, explaining the purpose of specific ingredients and techniques. As there's no dramatic "angle" to his show promising ratings-boosting conflicts, it's the food and the personality of the chef that shines.

Triple D places don't have white tablecloths, which contributes to the communal feeling in the air, as if there's a bond among a small group created by being in on the secret of an unassuming place that puts out food prepared with love. And the simplest way of explaining why there aren't more Triple D-type restaurants is the absence of this culinary "love" that comes straight from the heart. There's no heart in reheating food in a microwave or sauce that comes in plastic bags.

Triple D isn’t just about the food. It’s also a travel show that hones in on the quirky local element—Fieri gives the name of the neighborhood of the town he's visiting—that the fast-food industry and chain restaurants have bulldozed over in their quest for centrally-controlled, homogeneous domination of the culinary landscape. The diners and other no-frills eateries like the food trucks, seafood snacks, taco stands, and burger joints of Triple D are a long-enduring symbol of community. In a nation starved for community feeling, that's a major draw. Faceless, rootless places like Applebee's and TGI Friday's can't move in on this market because that would require the impossible—the creation of a unique sense of place for each separate location.

Triple D places are where the locals eat. If you're just in town for a day, you probably won't find one unless a local tips you off, because they're not on the main drags. They have their own culture. Customers might sign the wall after dining, have special nicknames for themselves, or pour their own coffee and top off other patrons' coffees. These places have unique dishes offering the element of surprise. There's the giant Homewrecker hotdog from Hillbilly Hotdog in Lesage, West Virginia that's topped with jalapenos, several cheeses, chili sauce, mustard, lettuce, slaw, onions, and tomato. Fresh Catch, in Honolulu, offers a smoked octopus, which you won't get at Olive Garden. At Joey's Kitchen on the island of Maui, you can try the traditional Hawaiian dish, Loco-Moco, which is white rice topped with ground sirloin patties, onions, homemade gravy, onions, and two any-style eggs. I happen met Joey on Maui. He's got the greatest last name of all time—Macadangdang.

Triple D does more than document great, unpretentious American (and Canadian) restaurants. Chain restaurants, and chains of all kinds, are a part of the erasure of a sense of place that people feel a sense of loss over. They're exacerbating rootlessness to the point where that sense of place is receding until it lingers as a mere memory. Guy Fieri, a documentarian of the local, is doing a service by introducing viewers to places where the sense of place is still tangible.


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