Wells, who visited Fieri's restaurant four times before honoring it with his first ever no-star (and "poor") rating since taking over as the Times' restaurant critic a year ago, denies any agenda.
"I did go in hoping there would be good things on the menu. I would have liked to write the 'man-bites-dog' review," he told Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor.
The reality is, that doesn't much matter, either. There is a serious element of everyman sympathy at play in this one, no matter how un-everyman Fieri has become. In plenty of food world circles, the Wells-Fieri slapfest is being billed as the hoity toity Times beating up on the blue-collar guy who just loves him a good feed of beer and wings.
Fieri stands to benefit — certainly among the legions of fans who have propelled him to rock star status in and out of the food world — from this bad review in the same way Marilyn Hagerty benefited from the equally viral good review she gave to an Olive Garden restaurant in North Dakota earlier this year.
When Hagerty heaped glowing praise on the at best mediocre offerings of the chain restaurant, instead of drawing sniggers, she got equally glowing praise heaped right back at her. Not because she was right about the food at Olive Garden — she wasn't — but because she was an 85-year-old lady and it was kind of quaint in an innocent, all-American sort of way. Telling her she's wrong about that awful food would be practically un-American.
And she's done pretty well for herself, locking down a book deal with Anthony Bourdain's imprint over at HarperCollins.
Fieri will come out of this much the same. OK, probably not with a Bourdain book deal (they aren't exactly best buds). But plenty of people will give him a sympathetic nod, buying the idea that he was treated unfairly.
Was he? Not really. It certainly was a scathing review delivered in a sucker punch fashion. But I don't buy the argument that Wells shouldn't have reviewed it, either because the restaurant was so bad it didn't warrant a review, or because the very nature of the place (and the man behind it) places it outside the league of "real" restaurants that merit reviews.
To accept those arguments is to accept that the food served to Average Joes and Janes isn't worthy of criticism, and that it shouldn't be held to higher standards. Fieri has built his career touting the foods of everyday America. If that's what he's going to serve in his restaurant, it seems only fair that he be held to answer for the quality of that food.
J.M. Hirsch is the AP's Food Editor. Follow him to great eats on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch or email him at jhirsch(at)ap.org.