11.10.09

The Trailer Park Gourmet

Guy Fieri has become the Food Network's biggest star, while offending foodies by promoting lowbrow favorites like BBQ sushi. He talks to Rachel Syme about taking on the haters.

Next Tuesday night, Food Network personality Guy Fieri, 41, will step onto a $170,000 stage in a custom-made black leather chef's coat and use a 6-foot-tall blender to make 25 gallons of margaritas in two minutes. Fieri plans to get a cocktail to each member of the 2,800-person audience in the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Massachusetts' Merrimack Valley, where he kicks off his 22-city national “rock 'n' roll meets culinary” tour.

“Oh, hell, yeah!” he says, when asked if the margaritas are intended for crowd consumption. “I'd actually like the tickets to read that the prerequisite for my show is tailgating. It's going to get crazy. I'm ADD on stage, you see. Well, not clinically. But I've got 60,000 things going on at the same time. I love this move where I deglaze a pan with alcohol, and flames shoot up. They won't let me do real pyrotechnics in the show—it's not like Metallica concert where fans are standing by—but there will be surprises. I have a T-shirt cannon. Can't really do a rock show without a T-shirt cannon.”

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Fieri (pronounced Fi-et-ti) is a breathless speaker, exuding an aggressive pep that can border on the manic. It may be a survival technique, given his increasingly grueling media schedule. In addition to his three shows on the Food Network (the pre-taped cooking program Guy's Big Bite, the cross-country eating tour Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and the live studio show Guy Off the Hook), Fieri is embarking on his national tour (in a bus stocked with Pabst Blue Ribbon and painted with flames), promoting his second book ( More Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), pushing his new “ Knuckle Sandwich” brand of knives and cookwear, and hosting a syndicated radio show ( Food Guy and Marcy).

Though Fieri has been working in food for more than a decade—the native Californian majored in hospitality management at UNLV in 1990 and owns five restaurants, including the odd BBQ-sushi experiment Tex Wasabi's—he came into the Food Network family in 2006, when he won Season 2 of the reality competition The Next Food Network Star. In just three years, he has become the channel's most promising cash cow and trademark male face. He now travels with a bodyguard to events, has bras and underwear thrown at him during cooking demos, and counts Sammy Hagar and members of AC/DC as close friends—no wonder he speaks about himself in rock-star language.

Fieri's meteoric ascent is impressive, but it also makes him one of the culinary world's most polarizing figures. For as many fans as Fieri earns—Dora Long, the creator of Fieri's biggest fan site, says she gets “hundreds of emails a week”—he draws equal detractors. Like Rachael Ray or Emeril Lagasse, Fieri is a food personality who has rapidly outgrown the food, walking the narrow line between technique and celebrity that makes so many in the industry nervous. His recipes have names like “No Can Beato This Taquito,” and “Mac-Daddi-Roni Salad,” and he often effuses about the greasy meals he eats on Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives with his mouth full of nachos or chili dogs—spirited gluttony as entertainment.

The ire from the industry is palpable: At a recent panel at the New York Wine& Food Festival, star chefs David Chang and Anthony Bourdain sat down to “call bullshit” on several aspects of the food world, and singled out Fieri as the enemy. Chang noted Fieri's “douche glasses,” and “stupid f***ing armband,” and he asked Bourdain to “catch me and kick me in the ass” if he ever took on the look. Bourdain gave similarly derisive comments to the press about Fieri, telling TV Guide, “Did you ever see the Simpsons episode where it's decided that Itchy and Scratchy need a sidekick? So a committee gets together and they invent one called Poochie... Guy Fieri kind of looks like he's been designed by committee.”

It's easy to take a swipe at Fieri's rocker-meets-dad image. There’s the bleached hair, the permanent sweatband on his arm, the tattoos, the chunky silver jewels and chains, the sporty sunglasses worn always on the back of his head. And then there are his many catchphrases—things he likes are “money,” “downtown,” or “off the hook.” Jillian Madison, creator of the comedy site Food Network Humor, expends a great deal of editorial energy ripping on Fieri. “Here's the thing: It's not just because he eats like a farm animal,” she says of her antagonist stance. “People dislike Fieri for about 100 tiny reasons. Somewhere along the line, Fieri morphed into an overbearing, sweatband-wielding caricature of himself.”

“I’ve always been an eccentric, a rocker at heart,” he says. “I can’t play the guitar, but I can play the griddle.”

And yet, despite the naysayers, Fieri grows more popular by the day. In addition to his road show, Fieri has his own cookbook, two new Food Network shows, and a possible talk show in development. Food Network VP of Marketing Susan Fogelson is ecstatic: “Guy is just as electrifying to the cold piece of glass on a camera as he is to stadium of 3,000 people, which is really rare. We have lightning in a bottle with him.”

“I just saw this intangible star quality,” Fieri's agent, Jason Hodes, says. “He has infectious charisma. He makes grandmas happy, he makes policemen happy, my phone is ringing off the hook. He is working it constantly.”

And indeed, Fieri works incredibly hard. He spends weeks at a time on the road, performing a cooking demonstration in Washington, D.C., one day and a book signing in New York City the next. He has two sons, Hunter, 12, and Ryder, 3, and a wife, Lori, of 14 years, and says that leaving them behind in Santa Rosa, California, is the only downside of his newfound fame. “That's the Achilles' heel to this opportunity,” he sighs. “Ryder cries every time I pack a suitcase. And that wrecks me. I am just a regular dude who happened to make it. That's all I am, man. Maybe I was preparing myself in some lifetime to become this person, but I never thought I'd have every rocket shooting off at one time.”

Of course, the “regular dude” claim is also an exaggeration for anyone as ambitious as Fieri, and he admits it. “I've always been a driver,” he says. “That's been my mantra, always.”

Indeed, Fieri seems to have been gunning for his big moment since he opened his own pretzel cart at 16. He insists that he has always dressed the way he does. “I've always been an eccentric, a rocker at heart,” he says. “I can't play the guitar, but I can play the griddle. Even my business partner said, 'It's nice now that your whole rock star chef thing is finally matching your look.' I've always lived a wild lifestyle. Not drugs or shit like that, but just like wild concerts, going to football games, drag racing, dirt biking. I've been dyeing my hair like this for a decade.”

Still, some of his detractors doubt Fieri's complete authenticity. “His real name is Ferry,” says Madison, referring to Fieri's changing of his last name when he was married. Fieri says he wanted to honor his immigrant grandfather, but Madison remains unconvinced: “People can spot a fake a mile away, and they don't respond well to it. Even SNL has realized his shtick is more lame than my grandmother's left knee.”

The Saturday Night Live sketch that Madison mentions does poke fun at Fieri's slovenly eating habits and token phrases, but comedian Bobby Moynihan, who spoofs the chef on the show, says he is on Team Fieri when it comes to his parody. “I'm actually a huge, huge fan,” says Moynihan. “Honestly, it just started because I wanted to meet him. Guy was in the audience just to watch one night, and he happened to sit next to William Shatner in front row. And he was the nicest guy in the world to me. I love that he walks to the beat of his own drum, and wakes up every morning, puts on all his jewelry, spikes his hair, and he just goes for it and eats whatever crazy caloric food he wants.”

And this may be the crux of Fieri's controversial image—in a time when a majority of the food world (and Michelle Obama) has turned to organic, locavore obsessions, Fieri not only acknowledges the way that many Americans really eat—burgers, tacos, coladas—but enjoys it with relish. As he eats his way through the country's bacon reserves, Fieri is not exactly an ambassador for health.

“You have to look at the tale of the tape,” Fieri counters. “I'm eating in moderation, and I do make some healthful dishes. If you are AC/DC, you don't get credit for slow songs. And if you are doing a show about food with a blond dude with crazy blond hair and tattoos who drives a hot rod, of course everyone is going to think everything you eat is deep-fried. There are people using real culinary techniques in small towns. I'm carrying the torch for mom and pops. Who else is doing that?”

“And if you are doing a show about food with a blond dude with crazy blond hair and tattoos who drives a hot rod, of course everyone is going to think everything you eat is deep fried.”

“If someone doesn't like that I wear a wristband or thinks my hair is stupid, I don't care,” he continues. “I think as soon as we start creating sides, we start to develop us and them, and everyone has to eat. I respect anybody that cooks. I know how hard it is. I have buddies that are Michelin chefs, I know all those guys. I'm not concerned about alienating the white-starched coats. It's like music. Do classical musicians say that rock is wrong?”

And as Fieri heads off to rock on his national tour, he is sure to leave with a signature sign off. “Peas Out!” he says. “That's a new one I'm working on. That or 'Love, Peace, and Taco Grease.'”

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.