FIERI, For real
Living in the food fast lane (From the 2011 Summer issue of SONOMA)
Guy carries Morgan on his skin, in the form of Botticelli's Venus
One school of thought holds that Guy Fieri is a manufactured brand, sort of like the Monkees, a marketing creation whipped up in a PR laboratory after months of careful analysis by studio executives charting the hottest trends in reality TV.
Proponents of this perspective insist there's no way anyone without bulletproof culinary credentials could have risen so far so fast in the food world, going from total obscurity to national celebrity, host of what, five network TV shows in less than five years? Especially with frosted hair, sunglasses permanently parked on the back of his head and what looks like pounds of bling.
Check out his Web site dude. It's a marketing machine. Products in every corner. Shades and shirts and knives and wine totes and custom-made jewelry, not to mention the bobbleheads, the key chains, and the golf balls. And that doesn't even include the DVDs, the cookbooks, and the freakin' Room 101, heavy-metal, death-head bracelets. No way. You can't get there from here. Not without a fix from above.
But an altogether different school of thought will argue that Guy Fieri, proprietor of Johnny Garlic's and Tex Wasabi's, a serial entrepreneur from the age of 10, a kid obsessed with food since at least the first grade, masterminded this whole parade, on his own, inventing the persona, creating the opportunities, designing the products, refining the brand and connecting the dots that led inexorably from a pretzel cart in tiny Ferndale, California, to the host of a nationwide television game show. Holy guacamole! Can that be true?
Well, yes and no. And how does a guy who looks like Guy become a national TV star?
Only Guy Fieri knows the truth about Guy Fieri. But if you spend a couple of candid hours with him, listening not just to what he says but to the voice with which he says it, you come away, if not confused, then at least convinced that Guy Fieri-whatever he is-is for real. Seriously.
You know this because of the Botticelli Birth of Venus tattoo on his left forearm, with the word "Namaste" above it, one of 12 tats on his body but the only one on public display. There is a story behind that tattoo that, if you have any humanity inside you, will draw tears. It is a story that says a lot about who Guy Fieri really is. It is a surprise.
"My sister had melanoma and battled it for a year, and we just lost her in February."
He stops for a moment, collecting his thoughts as a tenderness softens his face.
"I was 22 when I saw the first huge version of Botticelli's Venus. It was early in the morning, I was in this restaurant and I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, that's my sister...beautiful red hair, beautiful complexion, tall. And every time I saw that painting I would see my sister Morgan, that was always my sister."
Fieri credits Morgan with being the family teacher. "She's the one who got me into organics, she's the one who got me into recycling, she's the one who got me and my parents to work on spiritual stuff. And 'Namaste' is what she would always say at the end of her voicemails. You know, the God in me sees the God in you. And when you start to embrace that, it's so beautiful, it's one of the most amazing things ever."
Guy stops. He seems entirely conscious of the paradox, so he addresses it, gesturing at the Venus, who is also his sister, inked on his arm.
"People say, 'Oh, Guy's got a big tattoo, and the earrings, and so on. He must be a big rocker.' I'm not a rocker, I'm a little crazy, but this is the connection to my sister, and I had this done the day before we buried her. So I teach as many people as I can about namaste."
Guy had the tattoo art transferred to a T-shirt. He distributed 150 of them to family and friends for Morgan's memorial service. "Everybody got to wear this (he raises the tattooed arm), everybody got to go away with a little piece."
Morgan remains Guy's muse, his touchstone for keeping things real, the tattoo a roadmap to his heart. "I'm surprised I could even bring it up without crying," he says, "because usually I'm in deep tears at this point."
So much for Mr. Tough Guy. Let's talk about the food part of the picture. Before you can understand how the cooking started you have to understand something about Ferndale, where his parents owned a western clothing and saddle shop. Guy was born in Columbus, Ohio, but Ferndale, the place Forbes magazine called one of America's prettiest towns, is where he grew up, a Victorian oasis minutes from California's Lost Coast, just south of Humboldt Bay and the city of Eureka.
Forbes called it "a surprising trip back in time, with just enough modern quirkiness to make it unique." Part of that quirkiness is an annual kinetic sculpture race that brings together a polyglot collection of mobile, human-powered rolling, floating art for a three-day dash over land and water from Arcata to Ferndale.
It was in that spirit, perhaps, that four-year-old Guy rode his Big Wheels around the streets of the little village, wearing a sign his mother had pinned to his shirt that read, "Please don't feed me."
The sign was necessary because Fieri was obsessed with food. "I would go around with a stick of jerky, a handful of corn nuts, a green apple, a sandwich. It was always about food, what was for dinner."
The problem was, his parents were, as he describes them, "into macrobiotic cooking, vegetarianism, fresh seafood." Guy was into meat. "It became a point of contention, me always wanting tacos and meatballs. When I was about 10 I asked my mom what we were having for dinner. She was making eggplant parmigian. I made the mistake of saying, 'Oh we're having chicken parmigian.' She said, 'No, we're having eggplant parmigian.'
"I said, why can't we have chicken parmigian like the normal families have? And she said, 'If you don't like it, why don't you cook?' So I said, OK, I will."
Guy went to the local butcher, who gave him a couple of ribeyes and suggested pairing them with spaghetti. "I just remembered that when we had spaghetti, the sauce and noodles came together, so I thought you cooked the noodles by putting them in the sauce. So I made this lumpy, mushy pasta."
For the steak, Guy remembers, "I had a little soy sauce on it, pan fried 'em, salt and pepper, and I put 'em in front of my dad. He took a bite, he chewed, swallowed. He looked at me, put his fork and knife down, I thought, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' And he looked at me, and he says, 'You know what? This might be the best steak I've ever had.'
"And that was it, baby. I was hooked. Literally. After that I would cook everything, anything, all the time I could."
Eventually that included soft pretzels he sold from a three-wheeled bicycle cart called, "The Awesome Pretzel" that he constructed with help from his father. The first summer, as a sixth grader, he made $1,000 at the town fair. Over the course of six years he saved enough pretzel money to pay for a year in France as a high school exchange student.
Fast-forward a bunch of years, Guy ends up in Las Vegas, gets a degree in hospitality management from UNLV, runs restaurants in Southern California before deciding he wants to have his own.
In 1996 he came back to Sonoma County with a business partner, mortgaged his parents house, and opened Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa, an eclectic California/Asian/fusion, "If I like it we'll serve it" kind of place. It took off, more followed, he opened Tex Wasabi's, combining southern barbecue with sushi and creating inventive, outside-the-box menu items like the dirty magazine roll and koi fish tacos.
Shortly after Johnny Garlic's opened, a family came in with an unhappy child. Guy heard the kid crying, stopped by the table to see what was the matter and, according to Marcy Smothers, a former radio partner, admirer and friend, the parents told him not to worry about it, the boy wanted a taco but there were none on the menu. They'd just deal with it.
Guy excused himself, went across the street to a Taco Bell, brought back a taco, put it on a dinner plate and served it to the kid. That's Guy.
"I come," he says, "from the world of give back before you ask for anything."
He also comes from the world of do it yourself and don't give up, values he learned from his father, his true hero. "My parents never said you can't do that. They always said, sure, go for it."
The night he opened the first Johnny Garlic's he gave all the food away to anyone willing to donate eight hours-"Not your money, your personal time. Not your assistant's time, your time."-to Kid's Street Theater, a Santa Rosa nonprofit learning program.
These days he's pushing "Cooking With Kids," a national campaign to teach young people the value of growing their own food, knowing where it comes from, and learning how to prepare it. And he's launched a campaign to put Awesome Pretzel carts, like the one he had, in the hands of young people who can learn about food and business while raising money for good causes.
To do all this, of course, requires a certain amount of fame, which brings us to the second season of The Next Food Network Star. This is how Guy got his 15 minutes and turned it into a career.
"The Food Network thing was a total fluke. I mean, I'm not a reality show guy. I don't even watch TV. I'm a chef, I cook in my restaurant."
But Guy did a little self-reflection. "I'm going, why am I not eager to do this? Oh, because, probably, if I do get on, I'll get beat. Who wants to get beat? I finally had to just say, all right, enough worrying about what's in the shadows, you got to just pony up and go."
So in the month of February, his wife eight months pregnant with their second son, Guy took the plunge and got on the plane.
"Flip-flops, board shorts, leather jacket, New York. Never been. Showed up, it was snowing. So I went in, everybody sat around the table, they were filming us, and everybody was like, 'Yes, I studied in France. I went to the Cordon Bleu. I worked under this chef.' It came to me, I said, I'm Guy Fieri, I got a son, another one coming, I own three restaurants and I've never been to culinary school. Cooked all my life, got a degree, dirt bikes, rock and roll.
"Everyone's looking at me, like, who is this character? And so we started doing the competitions, and I never went into the competitions to lose, but I never went in with, I'm going to sell my soul to win.
"And they said, are you going to change out of those shorts? I said I wasn't intending on it. They said, Yeah, we're going to need you to change. I said, could you show me where it says I have to change out of my shorts? I said, I'm from California, I wear shorts all the time. OK?
"So, I just went through the competition. People would fall off, I kept being there."
Finally, naming the winner came down to a public vote. Guy returned to a hero's welcome and an unexpected, unprecedented public campaign.
"It was overwhelming. I mean, the movie theaters put me on the marquee, on the ads between the movies, there were these road marker signs-'Vote for Guy'-all the radio stations rallied behind it."
And he won, board shorts, flip-flops, spiked hair, flashy bling, and all.
Of course, Guy being Guy, he wanted to give something back to Sonoma County.
"The first season I was on Guy's Big Bite, I'm on the set, and I said, 'OK, I'm really into this, a little of Sonoma County's finest.' I was pouring a little sauvignon blanc, and I hear this big booming over the speakers, 'CUT! Guy stay right there.' And I go, oh I'm dead, it's the big VP of production. He comes walking down, and I know I did something wrong. And he says, 'How much are they paying you?'
"I'm, who's paying me what?
"And he goes, 'Don't play stupid with me. How much are they paying you, the Sonoma County Tourism Board?' He says, 'If you drop one more line about the Sonoma County this, the goat cheese that...'
"And I said, no, no, they're not paying me anything. This is where I come from, man, it's my hometown, it's where I live.
And he says, 'Man, what balls, for you to put that out there that early.'
"And I said, I didn't know how much longer I was going to be on Food Network, honestly, I didn't think I was going to be on more than six shows. You guys already have all your super stars, why do you need me?
"And I said, I figured if I'm getting six runs at this, well damn, I'm going to throw a lot of Ferndale and Sonoma County in there."
Which brings us back to the central question. Is Guy Fieri for real?
Really? Could Botticelli paint?
From the Summer 2011 issue of SONOMA