Guy Fieri Has a Special Recipe for Comfort-Food TV

Brian Steinberg

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Before Guy Fieri ever wrapped his mouth around the smoked-wing nachos or Nashville hot fried chicken he regularly nibbles on TV, he had to navigate the twists of the pretzel business.

When he was around ten years old, Fieri’s parents took him on a ski trip, and would essentially let him wander as he saw fit for most of the day. He would eat a big pretzel for lunch. “Have you ever had them?” he recalls asking his parents. “They are steamed. They’ve got salt on them.” He had never been to New York and “I never knew what a pretzel was. I thought a pretzel was crunchy,” he says in a recent interview outside a cluster of very busy Food Network kitchens in New York. “My dad says, ‘If you’re such a fan of these pretzels, why don’t you own a pretzel business when we get back home?’”

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Fieri has endured years of opening restaurants and taped dozens of episodes of the Food Network perennial “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” But this, at least initially, became a challenge he wasn’t sure he could overcome.

The owner of the pretzel stand where he dined each day refused to tell him the company that manufactured the snacks. “Why do you want to get the address?” Fieri recalls him asking. “So you can start a pretzel business? I said, ‘How’d you know?’ He goes, ‘I’m not giving them to you.’ I said, ‘I’m a kid!’” He walked away from the encounter feeling “completely defeated” – but not chastened enough to ignore father’s advice. He waited for the vendor to close up shop, and rifled through a dumpster to snare a pretzel box with the information he needed. The venture he and his parents launched – complete with a pretzel box built atop a three-wheeled bicycle – would carry him through his sophomore year in high school.

Guy Fieri knows what it’s like to stay in the food business.

Over the years, this unorthodox cuisine personality has developed into one of Food Network’s most in-demand figures, able to help the outlet, now owned by Discovery, introduce concepts its founders would likely have never considered. Once a network largely devoted to straitlaced cooking programs, Food Network has in recent years delved into game shows, reality competitions and behind-the-scenes hidden-camera programs that track bad restaurant behavior. Known best for his time on “Triple D,” as the long-running show is known, Fieri has also sparked interest in “Guy’s Grocery Games,” and, most recently, “Tournament of Champions,” a no-holds-barred take on chef competitions.

At a time of polarization in American politics and culture, Fieri unites, rather than divides. “Trump lovers and Trump haters both love Guy Fieri,” says Allen Salkin, author of “From Scratch: Inside The Food Network,” which examines the cable outlet’s early and middle history. As the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, Fieri’s profile could prove beneficial to his media home. “It was 9/11 that really made Food Network into a hugely profitable enterprise, because they were still trying to perfect their formula up until then,” says Salkin. But Rachael Ray’s “30 Minute Meals,” which debuted in the fall  of 2001, “was like this perfect comfort food, and after her show was such a success, that’s when they added more homespun personalities like the Barefoot Contessa.”

Fieri, who arrived at Food Network after winning the second season of “The Next Food Network Star” in 2006, acknowledges he looks little like the other chefs who fill the network’s schedule. When he started appearing on air, “there was ‘Iron Chef’ and cooking shows were a little more formatted,” he says. “I was a little more of ‘Where’d this guy with tattoos and bleached hair come from?’”

But he may be the network personality with the broadest appeal. The audience for Fieri’s ubiquitous “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives” brings a heavier male audience than the network’s average, while “Guy’s Grocery Games” attracts a higher level of women compared to the usual network baseline. “Triple D” can run on Fridays, late at night, or several other spots and still do well, says Courtney White, the president of Food Network. “It is one of those shows that pulls in a huge audience in encores, and ‘Triple D’ fans will watch an episode again and again,” she says.

Is it the sight of diner chefs pouring heaps of coriander, kosher salt and sweet red pepper into a bowl and then slathering the mixture over brisket? The umpteenth shot of food being dunked in a deep fryer? Or the multiple payoff shots of Fieri telling viewers the latest concoctions he’s sampling is “off the hook” (a line that later became the title of a Guy Fieri live cooking program)?  “I don’t describe him as a foodie,” says White. “The term foodie to me has a snobbishness about it, and there is no one more everyman than Guy.”

On Wednesday night, Fieri will lead the season finale of “Tournament of Champions,” a program that brings more edge to the traditional Food Network programming recipe. Rather than just having one or two strong personalities in a competition show, Fieri reasoned, why not only tap people who are keyed up? “This was just bare knuckles,” he says.  “We just kept the camera rolling all the time.”

In keeping with the times, Food Network is also tapping Fieri to offer comfort. Leading into the finale, Food Network will show Fieri and his family watching the series’ first four episodes together, so viewers can hear their comments and reactions. No production crew was used. Instead, the Fieris used GoPro cameras.

Underestimating Fieri is easy to do. Sure, this is a guy who spends his time in public chowing down on everything from “Jewish egg rolls” stuffed with kasha and corned beef-” to steaming bowls of smoked gumbo. Beneath his flamboyant appearance, however, is someone with an eye for the stress and strain behind food service. That’s the element that many people think keeps his appeal intact.

Burgers-and-fries bonhomie draws a crowd. But Fieri “does have an intelligent twinkle in his eye” that lends him staying power, says Salkin. “I think Guy would love to let his hair go brown and shave, but he can’t,” he quips, because his appearance has become part of his brand.

When he first started trying to get “Triple-D” on the air, Fieri’s knowledge of the business was initially seen as a hindrance. The very first restaurant he visited was the Bayway Diner in Linden, NJ, and producers gave him a long list of questions to ask Mike Giunta, the proprietor. “As I’m talking to Mike, the pancakes need to be flipped, and the truck driver guy to the left of me needs coffee. There were a few things going on,” recalls Fieri. “I’m talking to Mike. He’s giving the guy some coffee. He’s flipping the flapjacks. I’m asking the questions, but not in the ‘20/20’ method, not like ‘P.M. Magazine.’ I’m having a conversation. The producer, about 20 minutes into it say,s ‘Cut, cut, cut! Come here.’ I’m walking down, and the cameraman and the audio guy are laughing, because I’m gonna get ripped. He says, ‘What was that?’ ‘What was what? I’m not gonna ask those questions that you gave me to ask, because that’ s not what we do in the kitchen. This guy is busy. He’s cooking. He’s working. He’s jamming. I’m trying to fit this in.’” Producers told Fieri to talk to the restaurateur just like that.

“I think we are in our 900th season now,” jokes Fieri.

“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” has actually been on the air since 2007, but Fieri is certain that Americans’ changing tastes are keeping it going beyond the usual series timeframe. “I think people have this desire to believe that it’s all deep-fried hot dogs, burritos, tacos – which I’m not here to tell anybody it’s not.” But “I try to make sure I’m giving folks that are watching the show a nice variety. I don’t want to do too many barbecue joints – I love my barbecue – too many Asian joints – I love Asian food – too many mom and pops. I try to make sure we give a lot of uniqueness. One of the things you will see is a lot of vegetarian, vegan restaurants coming on, which is an awesome representation of what’s going on in the industry right now.”

Its’ still very easy to believe that Fieri spends his days noshing on ribs slathered in bourbon-honey sauce and bison burgers. Does he have to take care on the road?  I’m not a huge fried food fan myself. Personally, I’m a big vegetable fan and I have to be very cautious of what I eat and how much I eat of it. And yes, have they had to come up to me and say ‘Chef, you’ve got two more locations today. You cannot have all the enchiladas’?  And have they taken them out of my hands? Yes, they have.”

He sees new chances for food entrepreneurs.. He believes more people want to take tighter control of their lives and work for themselves, even if they are putting in dizzying hours on a food truck. And there’s growing appreciation for higher food quality. “Stereotypical food is not a pizza chain anymore. People are scratch-making, hand-making, you know, 36-hour, 48-hour dough, and they are cooking it in a wood-fired oven. People are getting real barbecue that’s cooked on a smoker and not just in a pan that’s got some liquid smoke,” he says. “People are getting a chance to expect the best.”

“Tournament of Champions” probably won’t be his last effort at Food Network. “I don’t think a week goes by where I don’t get a phone call with a new pitch from Guy,” says White, the president.

But you won’t find the entrepreneur taking credit for some of his biggest contributions to popular culture. With a signature line that gets used in many episodes of “Triple D,” Fieri sends his viewers to Flavor Town almost every week. He says he never meant to do so.

“Sometimes, weird s—t comes out of my mouth. ‘Flavor Town’ was nothing more than a joke. The guy had a big pizza. I said ‘That looks like the steering wheel on the bus that’s going to Flavor Town.’ That’s all it was,” he recalls. Soon, people were repeating it to him.  “I’m walking through the airport with my film crew and someone goes, “I’m on the way to Flavor Town!’”

If he could do that on a regular basis, Fieri says, “I’d be doing great in marketing.” But that’s not his style. “This is just natural,” he says of what he presents on TV. “What you see if what you get.”

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