Unbridled, uncontrolled, mind blowing, mind challenging. It’s not only an expression of Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri, but describes his unabashed outlook on life. Lorie Greenspan interviews the man whose food is out of bounds.
The story of Guy Fieri’s rise from serious foodie to Food Network star begins with pretzels and escalates with cupcakes; and in between unfolds a series of life experiences whose lesson may be very simple: always rise to the challenge.
Fieri, who grew up in northern California, in a small town called Ferndale, undertook his first challenge at the age of 10 shortly after a vacation with his family in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe. Here, his entrepreneurial skills were awakened out of his love for the soft pretzels sold at the lodge, on which he spent all his lunch money. Returning home, he and his father built a three-wheeled bicycle cart out of which Fieri sold pretzels for the next four to five years.
“I remember being 12 years old running around the fair with 500 bucks in my pocket,” Fieri says, adding he saved about $5600 during the course of his business, tagged “The Awesome Pretzel.” (Reportedly the pretzel business still thrives, under someone else’s ownership, despite rumors that the original cart had either been stolen or burnt to the ground).
“I was always an entrepreneur,” Fieri says, recalling he used to sell his toys outside his parents’ store and once set up a candy business.
His natural aptitude toward food and style developed soon after the pretzel business was established. “One day my mom was making eggplant parmesan and I asked, ‘Why can’t we have chicken parmesan like normal people?’ I wanted some meat. My mom said if you don’t like it you can cook.” The next day Fieri visited the butcher and bought steaks and cooked them up. He also recalls throwing spaghetti, sauce and water all into one pot – “I was 10 – I didn’t know what I was doing.” But he remembers the look on his father’s face when he bit into his steak. “He was elated, and I said wait a minute, I can make people happy through food.”
That desire guided him while he studied in Chantilly, France, where Fieri says, “My mind was blown away. I was like, let me get this straight: this is just meat and potatoes, right? It got me into the mindset that you could do a lot with good quality products. My number one focus every day was, ‘What do I get to eat next’? I wanted to know everything about food.”
Now 40 years old, Fieri, a dad of two young boys who currently lives in Northern California, says his life “is about being real and living each day as real as possible, good, bad or ugly.”
FAME IN A CUPCAKE
Between his time in Chantilly and his initial stint on Food Network, Guy graduated college with a degree in hospitality management, working at Stouffers and then as district manager of Louise’s Trattoria. In 1996, Guy and his business partner, Steve Gruber, embarked on a Sonoma County, Calif.- based Italian restaurant, Johnny Garlic’s, opening their first location in Santa Rosa in the fall of 1996, and a second outpost in Windsor in 1999 (a third is planned to debut in Roseville, Calif., late 2008.) They next developed Tex Wasabi’s, a Southern BBQ and California Sushi restaurant in 2003 in Santa Rosa, Calif.
So it would seem Fieri had the entrepreneurial thing nailed. Yet his true penchant for creativity was about to come to light during the second season of The Next Food Network Star. He explains: “My buddies pushed me into it. I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t think I would win. I was competing with people who had formal school training, but it was a chance to come to the Food Network kitchen and meet great chefs. When I got there my goal was to play hard but not to kill it.”
Part of the competition was to take a set of ingredients and make dishes on the fly. One night the contestants were taken to a room where a huge tub was filled with cake decorating items, including different colors of fondant, a cream confection used as a filling or coating. The direction was to design 12 cupcakes “to meet your particular culinary point of view.”
“I don’t think I’d ever decorated a cupcake. I’m not a dessert person. I’m like, what do we do? I move my stuff into a corner – without question I’m going home. I asked if cupcakes had to stay in their original form and they said no. I’m looking at the cupcake dome and it looks like a hamburger bun. I cut off the tops; made fudge into a hamburger patty, made tomato and lettuce and cheese from fondant and ended up with a double cheeseburger.
“One of the assistant producers came by and asked me what I was doing and the cameras come over – they thought it was amazing, so I’m like, I can do more? So I made a green trash can like Oscar the Grouch, another trash can with food falling out of it but the one that ended it all was a big maki (sushi) roll – people went nuts.”
And today, two short years later, he’s opening his fifth restaurant in California, and hosts three shows on Food Network: Guy’s Big Bite, where he teaches viewers how to make creative dishes with bold flavors; Ultimate Recipe Showdown, and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which takes him across America in search of unique venues for eating.
Fieri, whose built a distinctive edge through his trademark blond spiked hair, wants to deliver food that is appealing and unpretentious – “I want it to be the food of the people; I want people to have a smile when they eat at my restaurants,” he says. An example is Johnny Garlic’s, a place “with food at a reasonable price; community friendly, warm and welcoming all types of people.”
From Sushi to Italian, Fieri’s talent is to mix styles of food to create new, unique flavor combinations, sharing his eclectic taste with viewers across the country. And that, to use Fieri’s own “Guy-ism” – flavor town – places his customers at the very table where the best food is served.