Maxim: Who the Fork is Guy Fieri

Posted Tuesday 01/18/2011 by Dan Bova

In 2006 a dude with spiky dyed hair, backward sunglasses, and tattooed arms won The NextFood Network Star, and chewing and swallowing have never been the same. Since then Guy Fieri has crisscrossed the nation on the belly-busting road trip known as Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and invaded prime time, hosting NBC’s game show Minute to Win It. We hung out with the food-slinging superstar and have the hangover and missing coat sleeve to prove it.

Wanna digest Guy Fieri’s recipe for success? Then read on, dingdongs.

I’m inches away from Guy Fieri’s crotch, and I need to clarify something: “I’m looking at your skull bracelet, not your penis.” “Good,” replies Guy. “For a second I was wondering if you were from Maxim or Playgirl.” The room, turduckened with large tattooed men sporting names like Gorilla and Kleetus, erupts in laughter. We’re backstage at a Guy Fieri cooking demonstration at the annual Wine & Food Festival in New York City. I didn’t know what to expect at a live cooking show, but it certainly wasn’t this.

Outside hundreds of rabid and ravenous Guy Fieri fanatics (I asked, but they don’t have a nickname for themselves-Fieriheads? Guy-hards? Gay for Guy?-nothing) wait for him to take the stage and rock the shit out of some salmon, but right now he’s got more important things on his mind. “Another Pabst?” Guy hands me a can of ice-cold bubbly deliciousness-my second in the five minutes I’ve been sitting here. “How about a shot of Jack? Cannonball!”

The room goes kaboom again. To quote the wise sage I got a feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night. Perhaps, dare I say it, a good, good night?

If you’ve clicked over to the Food Network in the past few years, you know who Guy Fieri is. As host of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (where he crams his face with food from around the country), Tailgate Warriors (featuring amateur cooks grilling and chilling in stadium parking lots), and Guy’s Big Bite (his instructional cooking show), Guy’s spiky head fills up at least 40 hours of its programming per month. “Twenty- eight million people see him on our channel,” says Brian Lando, VP of programming and special projects for the Food Network. “All his shows are top-rated-he’s a guy’s guy and a father; he appeals to a vast array of our viewers.” Says fan and dude-tastic amigo Matthew McConaughey, “As food and cooking shows have become so popular, they’ve also become very competitive…Guy’s approach takes the pressure off the everyday food lover who just enjoys good food and a good time.” Pal and Minnesota Viking Steve Hutchinson puts Guy’s appeal more succinctly: “He’s not Julia Child.”

Throw in hosting duties of NBC’s Minute to Win It-which challenges ordinary folks to do things like catch balls in a bucket attached to their heads-and you start to understand why Stan’s dad was recently seen masturbating to a cartoon Fieri eating ribs on South Park. America loves this guy named Guy.

No Can Beato This Here Guido
“I like Food Network, but if I could watch only one show, it would be his,” says Bill, a middle-aged man wearing a hat bearing the word foodie at the cooking demo. (Later Guy will single out Mr. Foodie in the crowd and send him a signed cookbook.) Other audience members can hardly contain their Fieri fever. “I jumped on him last year and made him take a picture with me!” says Yvette, a twentysomething woman from Long Island. “He’s like donuts. I just love him. He’s happy and exciting!” “He’s a guido, and I’m a guido,” says a dude named Frank.

The live show, one of the 20 or so Guy does every year (check to see when he’s burning down your neighborhood), is a pupu platter of pandemonium. Mtley Cre’s “Kickstart My Heart” pounds through the speaker system as Guy and his “Krew” race onto the stage like a crazed, goateed halftime excite squad, tossing T-shirts into the audience and pointing to the people in the cheap seats. Ostensibly, Guy is here to teach the audience how to prepare blackened sesame salmon over noodles, but during the next hour or so he’ll tell jokes, give away his signature knives, make drinks, challenge people to eat Oreos using only their faces-he often seems to forget he’s actually cooking something. My funny bone is tickled, my taste buds are bitch-slapped-it’s quite the little afternoon. He’s like the Energizer Bunny on Red Bull, and it’s hard not to catch that Guy Fieri high, especially when, a few cocktails into the after-party, he hoists me up on his shoulders fireman style. I’m now anointed into the infamous Krew. My life and my waistline will never be the same.

This Guy Is for Real
Guy’s souffllike rise to stardom began in Ferndale, California, a tiny town with a population of 1,500. His appetite for food and success was gluttonous from the get-go. “I was always a kid trying to make a buck. I borrowed a dollar from my dad, went to the penny candy store, bought a dollar’s worth of candy, set up my booth, and sold candy for five cents apiece. Ate half my inventory, made $2.50, gave my dad back his dollar. Here I am, a seven-year-old packing a buck-fifty-in 1978 that was 15 bucks!”

Guy’s dad, Jim Ferry (way back when, Guy’s grandfather changed the family name from Fieri to Ferry to avoid Italian prejudices; Guy changed his back in 1996), is not surprised that his son wound up on TV. “Relatives of ours were always saying he should be an entertainer. He was always doing impersonations from Saturday Night Live. He was always the kid who, when a magician was performing and needed someone to cut in half, they’d look into the audience and see Guy and say, Hey, how about you?’?”

In sixth grade Guy got into the food business for real. He got a $500 loan from a local bank and invested in the Awesome Pretzel Cart, which he ran at the Ferndale fairgrounds. “I’m walking around with my checkbook and a T-shirt that says the awesome pretzel. Kids would mess with me-man, did I get shit! But I was never worried.” Guy ran the cart for about five years, using the money to purchase a 4×4 and buy a date with destiny.

His mom, Penny, and his dad, who made horse saddles for a living, were, in Guy’s words, “hippies” who regularly invited strangers over for dinner. One Thanksgiving they hosted a Frenchman who was traveling through wine country selling corks; Guy seized the opportunity and asked if he could live with the visitor while studying abroad. Frenchy said yes; Guy’s parents said fine, if he could learn the language (he barely passed a French class he took after school at the local junior college) and pay his own way (Awesome Pretzel dough). “I didn’t speak a word of French when I got there,” he says. After embarrassing himself asking a store for “sopa la dente,” which translates to “soap for teeth,” Guy decided to get real and learn as much as he could. “If people said a word to me that I didn’t understand, I’d write it down. And this is the funny shit, dude: I got so good at the accent that you couldn’t tell I wasn’t French. You thought maybe I was just a little bit stupid.”

Guy always had a love of chowing down (“There was a rule in my house when I was a kid: I was not allowed to ask what was for dinner until we’d had lunch”), but something wonderful happened to him and his mouth in France. “I had some steak and French fries cooked in a pan. I remember biting into it going, Wait a minute, something’s wrong here. This tastes like the greatest thing in the world! What is going on?’?” (Guy loves all kinds of food, though he professes a hatred of eggs and liver. “Liver is my number one most hated food. Oh, God, I get sick talking about it!”)

But back to the steak frites: Those bites kicked off Guy’s lifelong love affair with organic, hormone-free, well-prepared, and properly raised grub. “I called my dad and said, I’m gonna do this.’?”

Tenacious DDD
Some weeks after the N.Y.C. cooking demo, I catch up with Guy at his first restaurant: Johnny Garlic’s, in Santa Rosa, California. This is ground zero of Guy’s World. He started the place back in 1996 with his partner, Steve Gruber, and the help of a $50,000 loan Guy’s parents gave him after mortgaging their home. (Jim tells me he had no anxiety about risking his home on a business that has a 60 percent failure rate, and it turns out he was right to have faith: The loan was repaid in a lump sum six months after the place opened.)

We’re here for a taping of Guy’s signature show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, where he travels America, spotlighting eateries that make “real food for real people.” Guy takes a very hands-on approach to the selection of these joints, wanting to know things like where the recipes come from, what percentage of the food is homemade, and who is making it before he steps foot inside.

The place is packed with friends of Fieri. “He’s like a hurricane,” says Guy’s tile man Johnny “Shizzleshanks” (did I mention everyone he knows has a nickname?). “He meets people everywhere, picks ’em up, and brings them along wherever he is going.” People likeTed, Guy’s longtime driver. “See this?” Ted asks, holding out a wine cork. “Guy’s butt plug.” Art Robinson, Johnny Garlic’s resident wine master and smart-ass, takes a peek and shakes his head. “Not nearly big enough.”

The lights are up; the camera is rolling. Guy (“Guido” to everyone here) is the star, writer, producer, and director all wrapped into one bleached-blond ball of chuckles. There’s no script; he makes it up as he goes along, taking care that the camera’s getting the best angles and everyone is laughing their asses off. He berates corporate executive chef Michael Osterman: “You nest pasta like old people fuck-slow and sloppy!” and takes any chance he can to mess with producer Mike “Father Time” Morris. Even more than laugh, the Krew eats. Guy hands me a freshly made plate of Johnny Garlic’s signature Cajun Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo; I take a few delicious forkfuls, turn around, turn back, and find five forks resting on my now empty plate.

“He is just a natural,” says DDD sound engineer David “Big Bunny” Canada. But it wasn’t love at first sight. “When our production company got DDD, and Food Network told us this person Guy Fieri was going to host, we were like, Shit, we get the game-show contestant.’?”

Guy admits he was less than enthusiastic about his post-Food Network Star gig hosting DDD, telling me he’d never actually eaten in a diner or drive-in before (“I’ve been to plenty of dives, though!”). But embracing his what-the-hell approach to life, he hopped on a plane and flew to his first assignment, the Bayway Diner in Linden, New Jersey.

“I get out of the cab, and there I am, you know, tennis shoes, Dickies board shorts, and a tank top, and I see these guys with the equipment, and I’m like, Hey, guys, are you the dudes shooting the show?’ And they go-these are their exact lines-Are you with Guy Fieri?’ I go, No, dude, I’m him!’?”

After struggling with the scripted questions provided to him by the producers, Guy winged it, going off the cuff talking shop with the cooks as they prepared their specialties. As soon as the camera turned off, the producers knew they had a hit.

Guy was something new-a loud yet easygoing dude who loves good food and joking around-and he acknowledges that his rise in the celebrity chef world might have been made somewhat easier by another loud, fun-loving showman: Emeril Lagasse. “I call Emeril Elvis. He, in my opinion, really changed the playing field. I mean, he took it from black-and-white to color.” Emeril became just as big a fan of Guy. “I met Guy when he was auditioning for The Next Food Network Star,” Lagasse says. “With Guy what you see is what you get. He’s real. He’s smart. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like his vibe. He’s an approachable dude.”

There are people out there in food-snob land who think he is a goof and a bunch of hype, basically a one-man boy band created by the Food Network. He shrugs off criticism and laughs about the notion of being a fake. “Nobody really believes that shit, do they? Listen, you ask anybody who knows me-I’m the exact same dude I’ve always been. If anything, I’ve mellowed out! I can’t do the really crazy shit anymore, ’cause it’ll get on Page Six!”

Mellow is not a word that comes to mind as you watch Guy at work. While taping DDD, he takes full advantage of every free minute to run off and attack massive piles of books to be signed or do short phone interviews with various publications and Web sites or shake hands and pour drinks for visitors.

When the smoke clears, Guy gives me a ride back to his house in a giant yellow truck, an ’06 Kodiak C4500, with a fantastic nickname I promise to keep secret. As we cruise he gives air-horn blasts to people he knows and even some he doesn’t. “I’m a big fan of doing Triple D. But I don’t want to do it forever, don’t get me wrong! Travel away from my family, are you crazy? But do you know what it does for these mom-and-pop restaurant joints? It changes their lives forever. I mean, their businesses will never be the same.”

Guy’s love of helping people has fueled much of what he does when the cameras aren’t rolling. He’s started a foundation for needy schools; he’s visited troops in Walter Reed hospital; he’s gone to the Persian Gulf to cook for our troops; and much closer to home, he’s given himself over to supporting his sister Morgan, who is battling Stage 4 cancer. “The material shit that comes with success is fine, but it’s really about people loving and taking care of other people. So that’s kind of the softer side of it, but that really is my true mantra.”

The Corner of Ridiculous Way and Off the Hook Blvd.
We pull into the driveway of his unassuming house, the same one he bought when he was opening Johnny Garlic’s. He’s added on to it, built an adjacent house for his parents, and bought the house next to that for Krew members to crash in, but this isn’t some gaudy Hollywood-style douchebag-atorium. As much as I’d have liked it, a flame-throwing robot butler doesn’t greet me at the front door; the place looks pretty normal. But then you go out back of the “Fieri Compound” and find the magic: a garage stocked with cars and trucks that’d make even the most casual motorhead pop the trunk in his pants. Guy’s Lambo is out getting the lights smoked, but his ’65 Shelby Cobra is there, along with a flame-painted golf cart, a ’76 CJ5 Jeep, a ’68 Pontiac Firebird, and his beloved ’71 Chevelle, which he purchased long before he was anything close to being rich. (To buy the $28,000 demon, he scrounged together $21,000 and promised the owner $7,000 in free meals and a job for his son.)

Connected to the garage is Guy’s office, which is crammed with evidence of his two other big loves: sports and music. It is wall papered in signed jerseys, and an autographed Evel Knievel helmet sits on a bookshelf. Everywhere you look, there are signed guitars from the likes of Kiss and implements of musical merriment. Sammy Hagar (who tells me that he and Guy want to open a restaurant in Atlantic City called Guy Fieri and Sammy Hagar’s Rockin’ Tapas) is a longtime friend who says, “Guy’s a closet rock star, and I’m a closet chef.” Matthew McConaughey told me that he and Guy have jammed together, adding, “He’s a better drummer after a few margaritas.”

We return to the house and hit the kitchen, which is bigger than some restaurants I’ve been in. The room features, among other things, two street signs, ridiculous way and off the hook blvd., a digital jukebox packed with every heavy metal song known to man, and some football plays scrawled on the walls by visiting pro players. Guy busts out his knives, a blowtorch, and some crematorium-grade oven mitts. Lori, his wife, sighs, “Please don’t burn my house down.”

Guy met Lori when he was a restaurant manager and had just fired one of her friends. Guy told the friend she wasn’t allowed to drink at the bar she was just fired from, and, as he tells it, “This little blonde is standing behind her; she’s eyeballing me, about ready to tell me to go fuck myself. She’s telling her friend she should drink wherever she wants. She had crystal blue eyes and was wearing a T-shirt and shorts-and I’m not kidding you, man, I was gasping for air. And I said-this is no bullshit, bro, this is the truth-I said, That girl right there, I’m gonna marry that girl.’?”

Running around the joint are the mini Fieries: Ryder, five, and Hunter, 14, two cool kids who seem perfectly at ease with the fact that their father is sending four-foot flames dancing to the ceiling as death metal blasts on the sound system.

We get to cooking. When Guy Fieri invites you over for dinner, he puts you to work. And you can hardly go four seconds before a fresh beer is placed in your hands. As Korina McAlister, Guy’s culinary director, prepares some veal, I dice and then burn the fuck out of some onions. Guy calls me a dingdong and makes me start all over again, giving me a trick to slicing and dicing while minimizing the risk of losing a pinkie. I feel like I’m on an episode of his show Guy’s Big Bite, only I’m the one who bites.

All this celeb-chef stuff almost didn’t happen. His buddy Rob alerted him to the Next Food Network Star contest, but Guy was so-so about it. For one thing, he didn’t think the network would appreciate his style, and secondly, he really didn’t need it. “All I ever really wanted was to be a good dad and a good husband, open some restaurants-and I had all of that. I was like, I’ve got a couple of hot rods. I’ve got concerts to go to. You know, my world was already this cool little rock’n’roll chef world. I knew everybody-I had it going on!”

Thankfully for America, his buddy kept on him about it, and after much pestering Guy made a”smart-ass” video entry and sent it in.A few weeks later, the phone rang. Lori answered and mouthed to him, “It’s the Food Network.” He’d won a spot on the show. “I about shit a penguin,” he remembers.

He flew to New York to commence the competition. He didn’t put his best foot forward. “I’d never been to New York, and I arrive in shorts, flip-flops, and a leather jacket. I step out of a cab straight into the snow!” Guy’s fellow contestants were a much more buttoned-up, culinary-school-trained lot, but in the end the dude in the Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt prevailed. “When I found out I’d won, to be real honest with you, I just looked at it and went, Yeah, OK. This is weird. This is like the rest of the shit in my life.’?”

The Birth of Danny Palomino
As Korina continues to make it happen in the kitchen, we play with Guy’s latest toy, an outdoor wood-burning oven. We stretch dough, season, and stuff our maws as visiting DDD Krew members and friends flock like moths to a rosemary-infused flame. I’m a little drunk at this point, but shit is about to get real in a minute.

Dinner is served. Veal chops! Crab over pasta! Bottle after bottle of his private label wine (not available to the public, sorry). We tear into our food, the Krew tear each other new a-holes, it’s a goddamn blast…and then Guy puts his hand on his head. Everyone else at the table follows suit. I have no idea what’s going on. A shot of chilled Gentleman Jack is placed before me. “Drink,” I’m commanded. I do. This is a drinking game, and I am horrible at it. It happens four or five more times, and I am always the last idiot to put his hand on his head, which is spinning at this point. An hour later and reason has left the building. Guy grabs the sleeve of the jacket I’m wearing. “Don’t see a lot of blazers in my Krew,” he says before snagging a steak knife and cutting the sleeve off. Sure, why not? I am soon dubbed “Danny Palomino,” for reasons never explained to me. More drinks and food follow, and eventually my drunk ass is thoughtfully poured into a cab by Guy and shipped off to my hotel.

My head might have felt better the next morning had Guy forgone cutting off the sleeve of my jacket and instead inserted the knife into my left eyeball. I feel like my head was shoved into the wood-burning pizza oven while the ghost of the cow we ate kicked me repeatedly in the balls.

Unhappily for me, my car is still parked at Guy’s house-along with my Advil and Tums. And so I head out into the cold Santa Rosa air to walk a half-mile down a highway to the nearest drugstore, clad in a one-sleeved jacket, in desperate search of relief. My head is buzzing. And then my phone buzzes. It’s Guy. I explain the situation I find myself in, and he laughs for about one minute straight. He congratulates me for surviving the night and assures me that some of his boys will drive by and bring me back to my car. I’m exhausted, stifling the urge to lose my dinner all over Santa Rosa’s 3rd Street, but smiling like a psycho. That shit was fun!

And that’s Guy’s ultimate goal: for everyone around him to have a good time. “I don’t know what singers feel like when they make a song and people clap along and love it,” he says. “But when people walk up to me and say the food was outstanding, that’s what it is all about. I cook because I like to make people happy.”