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The Guy Fieri Problem: On The Next Food Network Star

There are a lot of people who look like Guy Fieri — for instance, this season’s Food Network Star contestant Michelle, Anne Burrell, and Violent J after he washes his face — but Guy Fieri is a unique being. He inspires culinary and personal hatred for a number of reasons, including wearing sunglasses on the folds of his neck fat and accessorizing with flame decals. He yells, and sometimes yells while he eats. Despite this, he rose to fame after winning Season 2 of The Next Food Network Star, a show that I find uncomfortably fascinating because it compels its contestants to cook meatballs and fry garnishes within impossible time limits while telling (often fabricated) stories about their mothers, hometowns, or deceased and beloved relatives. There is a lot of perspiring, sometimes onto the plate. The losers are corralled into a boardroom, forced to watch tapes of themselves sputtering and holding leaky portobello mushroom caps, and are criticized by Food Network producers for failing to be genuine, or for lacking a distinct “P.O.V.,” or for confusing the words “decomposed” and “deconstructed.” Last week, Alton Brown pinched his nasal bridge and tried to save a contestant on his team (whose “P.O.V.” was health food, after having lost over a hundred pounds) by sharing a distinctly Alton Brown–like serving of profundity on what it is like to be overweight — one has to sell oneself because one feels so unattractive, so clumsy. It was sort of moving: So, Alton was once fat. The contestant cried, and then was eliminated. Nobody tasted his food.

Unlike most competitive reality shows, which at least pretend to pit their contestants against each other based on skill, Food Network Star is a pretty naked personality pageant (with a broken barometer, because — again — Guy Fieri!). The question isn’t, “How delicious is this brisket sushi with french fries slathered in chili mayo sauce?” but “How well can you sell this disgusting sushi to people through their televisions while walking the fine line between provocative fast-talking and coming across as batshit bananas?” Fortunately, not all of the products of Food Network Star are audience cheese graters. Jeff “The Sandwich King” Mauro, the winner of Season 7, may as well have been Harold Hill. He turned lunchmeat into 76 trombones, sparkling and Midwestern and wearing cardigan sweaters. Perhaps Food Network Star was invented for people like Jeff Mauro — human magnets who just need to give people an excuse to watch them, who aren’t performers as much as they are figures in need of doings, activities that allow you to watch the magical fluctuations of their symmetrical faces and absorb their essence to use in your own life. Oh, so that’s how you get people to like you. You smile, tell a story about your grandmother, and voilà — a perfectly photogenic Reuben sandwich appears, to eat with your mind.

Occasionally, like everyone else, The Sandwich King would screw up a take, which is the best part of the show. Watching other people’s screwed-up takes, in front of the one camera that captures the show within the show (as opposed to all of the other cameras wheeling around on dollies grabbing footage of people rifling through the walk-in pantry and sitting on sofas talking about crab cakes), is the most gratifying and thought-provoking aspect of FNS. It is impossible not to wonder, as a person who is not a personality, if your entire life’s accumulation of social interactions is not just as awkward and bumbling as, say, Penny Davidi’s wooden presentation of Middle Eastern Pizza. Penny, by the way, was no culinary slouch, but something about her sharp face and bossy demeanor called to mind an unreasonably strict junior high school principal, and she couldn’t seem to shake it. Her mannerisms were uncoachable, she couldn’t be broken. You’re not inviting the incredible tabbouleh into your living room, just the crabby-seeming lady who prepared it. Still, it was difficult to see Penny sit through critiques that basically amounted to “You’re just so unlikable,” just as it was to observe Alton Brown trying in vain to convince the producer judges that his formerly obese apprentice was not a bullshit artist, as the judges had suggested. How does a person pack their knives and walk through the illuminated set doors without being shattered by the information that who they are is unacceptable to the world at large (or at least to Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson)?

Auditioning for commercials is not unlike competing on Food Network Star, in that you can be really effective — even Olympic-level proficient — at staring out a window or pretending to scoop ice cream, but still not book a job because whatever is charming or honest about you is concealed by the thick inches of air separating you from the camera lens, a dense custard of infinity that filters the humanity right out of the monologue. Mad Men’s Megan lights the shag carpet on fire with “Zou Bisou Bisou” and then becomes a shy teeth-caching robot for her screen test, and Food Network Star is, at its most basic level, a collection of screen tests tied together with the string constructs of using a grill and blending smoothies for kindergartners. Watching the contestants undergo coaching (by Bobby Flay, Giada de Laurentiis, Alton Brown) in an attempt to obtain The Thing That Can’t Be Taught raises the question of whether a person can get better at the kind of self-presentation that makes a personality marketable, whether there’s a better self in each of us that could be coaxed out if only we could figure out how to crack the code. The goal of these shows — a ramekin of crab dip, a successful and studied seduction, a long-stemmed Agoura Hills hothouse rose — is just an excuse for the audience to park themselves in front of a Guess Who? gallery of people and watch them evolve (or not) into distilled and refined versions of themselves. Even the terrible ones achieve a kind of iconic polish, enough of our investment that our brains absorb the miserable concept of the No Can Beat-o This Taquito. The celebrity algorithm is complex and chaotic: Why are some people more interesting to watch than others, better at being themselves or some affable character of their own creation? It’s a tougher task than whipping up a velvety gravy, but you have to have something to do with your hands when you’re being judged on the self you project to the world. Otherwise, you’d do this and would never be able to stop.