Guy Fieri Is America’s Most Misunderstood Chef

0
1054
Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with so many thoughts in your head you need to write them all down?” Guy Fieri says in his irrepressible staccato way, which, even over FaceTime, sounds only a little less irrepressible than the high-motor voice that emanates more or less 24 hours a day on Food Network.

On this sun-splashed California afternoon, the Mayor of Flavortown is dressed in a faded camo hunting vest and a T-shirt from one of his 70 or so temporarily shuttered dining concepts; it’s emblazoned with the image of an American eagle fashioned from different kinds of kitchenware. We’re in the middle of an impromptu 3,000-mile-distanced walkabout of his 450-acre ranch up in the hills near Napa, and as the Mayor wanders to and fro, pointing out his pet peacocks (“They help keep the rattlesnake population down”) and his impressively large goat shed (“Goats are Über-smart, Über-useful!”), he has already discoursed on a wide array of topics, pausing every now and then with the faintest smirk on his face as this slow-typing restaurant critic frantically taps out notes on his rickety keyboard.

Like most successful restaurant people, the Mayor is an obsessive planner. The Fieris roasted, sliced, and prewrapped their turkey-breast “leftovers” many days before Thanksgiving just to have them ready for sandwiches on Black Friday. His famous dislike of eggs remains intact (when told Alfred Hitchcock was a similarly avowed egg hater, the Mayor cries, “I can understand the man’s passion!”), and he claims he has recently developed a taste for vegan cooking (“I met some vegetable butchers in Minneapolis — they make some amazing food!”). He’d rather not talk about politics (“We’re the greatest nation on earth. Can we please just go in one direction?”), although his views on critics like Anthony Bourdain and Pete Wells, who thrashed Fieri’s Times Square restaurant in a legendary takedown many moons ago — among other things, Wells wrote that the watermelon margaritas tasted like a “combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde” — have mellowed a little over time.

“I don’t know where all the negativity comes from, but that’s not my jam,” says the Mayor, adopting a modest, almost philosophical tone as he points his phone toward the top of a giant pine tree. “If you look at where I was back then and where I am now, I’ll take it.” It’s hard to disagree. Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives is now in its 33rd season on Food Network, having filmed with a whopping 1,500 mom-and-pops in all 50 states. Before the great COVID calamity, he had profitable restaurants operating in far-flung destinations like Vegas, Colombia, and Dubai; a well-reviewed Sonoma winery named after his two sons; and ever-proliferating consulting and licensing deals with Disney theme parks, cruise-ship lines, and a whole rogues’ list of gambling dens. Long ridiculed as a loud, bro-ey megaphone with moon-size watches and a blinding array of pinkie rings, Fieri has seen his reputation undergo a modest renaissance lately, even among some members of the lofty food intelligentsia.

The Mayor wants me to know that he greatly enjoyed comedian Shane Torres’s “Can someone please explain to me what the hell Guy Fieri ever did to anyone?” bit (answer: All he ever did was follow his dreams), which went viral a couple of years back, and says he has always made a point of using his prime Food Network spot to give back to his community. He’s a longtime booster of Cal Fire, along with other local nonprofits, and has taken time from his busy schedule to preside over a multi-couple same-sex wedding while dressed in an electric-purple suit. His popular show Guy’s Grocery Games — a cooking-competition spinoff of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives — hosts frequent charity tournaments for causes like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and where contestants play for their favorite charities like Planned Parenthood. This year, Fieri has moved beyond his familiar honky-tonk corner of Flavortown to serve as a vocal, money-raising, morale-boosting Mayor for the restaurant industry at large.

Fieri in the portable kitchen he takes to relief efforts. Photo: Courtesy Fieri

The COVID crisis is what keeps the Mayor awake these days, and he is often buzzing with so many thoughts and ideas about how to help solve it that he taps them out on a phone by his bedside in the wee hours of the morning. “I’ve been through some shit in my day,” Fieri says, “but in a million years, you never could have told me a story as horrific, as decimating, as this has been.” In late March, Fieri partnered with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation to launch the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which has raised $21.5 million to distribute in $500 grants to laid-off restaurant workers, a move that landed the Mayor on this year’s “Bloomberg 50” list. He also had the idea of giving GoPro cameras to four restaurateurs, including Marcus Samuelsson in New York, as a way to record and personalize the industry’s life-or-death struggles, a project that resulted in Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line, a sad, stirring documentary that debuted online in November and will air a couple of days after Christmas on Food Network.

“It’s an understatement to say things aren’t looking good, and we haven’t faced the worst of it yet,” says Fieri, as we start meandering from the goat shed (guarded, for the record, by a fierce pack of nameless snow-white Great Pyrenees dogs) back toward ranch headquarters. It’s equipped with a studio-size kitchen, which has allowed the Mayor to churn out hours of fresh TV content during the COVID months while other housebound cooking icons were sending out home-cooked bean-soup recipes on their Instagram feeds. There are already 20 episodes of a new Triple D To-Go concept in the can, a project that involved hanging more GoPros from the kitchen rafters and having a group of veteran Triple D chefs send a blizzard of secret waffle mixes, hoagie recipes, and do-it-yourself taco kits directly to Flavortown headquarters to be prepared and then judged on-camera by Fieri and his son Hunter, who, at age 24, is now working in the family business.

“In New York, you can get everything, but in the rest of the country, carryout has blown up in a great way, and I think it’s here to stay,” says Fieri, who rarely experienced the joys of takeout in the small Northern California town of Ferndale, where he grew up. He describes his parents as non-dope-smoking hippies who managed a Western-clothing store in town and preached the virtues of self-reliance and discipline to a family that traveled around in a green Econoline van. Young Guy’s aha food moment came as a junior in high school, when he saved enough money to spend a year as an exchange student in France. “I had my mind blown. This baguette-and-Brie-cheese shit — this is the big fucking deal!” is how Fieri describes this epiphany, although otherwise he presents his career as mostly a matter of good luck and happenstance.

When he and his wife, Lori, married in 1995, the Mayor changed his name from Guy Ferry to the original Fieri in honor of his Italian grandfather, who had anglicized it when he immigrated to America. The younger Fieri was already running a string of successful restaurants with a business partner out of Santa Rosa, peddling the kind of signature flavor combinations that would later make him notorious (“Dragon’s Breath Chili Nachos” was the name of a dish at his sushi-and-barbecue concept called Tex Wasabi’s), when he entered, and won, a show called The Next Food Network Star in 2006. A few years earlier, one of his employees, an aspiring hairdresser, had asked to practice on the boss, which was how the famous bleached-spikes look was born. After the show wrapped, a TV executive sidled up to the Mayor and said, “You’d better get used to that hair color, buddy.”

Other Flavortown memes and catchphrases evolved in similarly haphazard ways: Triple D was easier for the tongue-tied host to pronounce on-camera than his show’s alliterative name, so he started using it all the time, while “Donkey Sauce” was something Fieri blurted out while demonstrating a particularly viscous-looking aïoli in front of a crowd of Carnival Cruise Line chefs who loved the name so much they put it on the menu the following day.

The Mayor has been chattering for exactly two hours by the time we wend our way back to ranch headquarters. Before we sign off, Fieri wants to talk about the tequilas he has been developing with his buddy Sammy Hagar. (“I’ve got to send you a bottle — you need to take a little spin!”) When pressed, he says his favorite dining town is probably Chicago, for its variety and neighborliness, and if he had to choose one culinary hero, it would be his dad, who taught him self-sufficiency in the kitchen and in life. “Someone like Eric Ripert or Daniel Boulud would be the cliché answer,” he tells me. “I’m giving you the real one.”

And, finally, the Mayor wants his citizens to know that the COVID crisis will surely pass one day but the power of a good meal will never disappear. “Not everybody likes the same sports or the same politics, but everybody likes food,” he says, as the faint sounds of birds and rustling leaves filter through our fading FaceTime connection and the bright California light begins to dim in the trees. “Food is the great amalgamator, whether it’s Thai, Ethiopian, Hawaiian, Chinese, German, Swedish, Danish, Italian, Greek, Sicilian, Spanish, Moroccan, Cuban, Dominican, Afghan, Israeli, or Guatemalan.” The little mom-and-pop joints where you find this rainbow of vitality and variety are part of the American story, he says, and that will still be true when we emerge from our great national hibernation and once again start clamoring for hot dogs piled with relish and onions, crunchy bean and chili tacos, and even burgers slathered with plenty of Donkey Sauce.

*This article appears in the December 21, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Source