Guy Fieri Just Wants You to Eat Healthy, Donkey Sauce Be Damned
The Guy Fieri from TV -- the gregarious one who pops up on The Food Network seemingly every two hours to beam over decadent dishes or put the shama lama in the ding dong of his own recipes -- is the same Guy Fieri who answers the phone at his Santa Rosa home on a Tuesday, just a few hours before the big family dinner at his dad's next door.
"Game on, baby," he says. "Go for it."
Constantly on the road for charity events, sponsored dog-and-pony shows, and TV series shoots, and in possession of a signature look and gonzo personality, Fieri has been cast by food media types as a divisive figure. To some, he's a spiky-haired bro who "built a business empire on the very premise that he’s a human punch line" (Grub Street); to others, he's "the hero we need" (Playboy). But speaking to you over the phone from his California complex -- the same house he's lived in since opening Johnny Garlic's, his first pre-fame restaurant, in the mid-1990s -- Fieri is like your favorite uncle, an excitable mover-and-shaker who genuinely wants to be everyone's friend because maybe that'll make the world a little better, cultural impact be damned.
So which is it? Fieri insists he's still that chill California dude from the 2005 Food Network audition tape (only now, woke Katy Perry can impersonate him on Instagram) who embarked on an everlasting tour of US restaurants with the debut of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on April 23, 2007. While Fieri's critiques of dishes on "Triple D" remain uniquely inoffensive, so as to soothe viewers' minds (e.g., his assessments of sauce range from "wow" to "dynamite"), the America around the show, and Fieri's bravado, have changed drastically.
To find out what the second-season winner of The Next Food Network Star has learned after 10 years on the road about food, fans, and himself, I phoned him up intent on doing something few reporters have dared to do: take him seriously.
Thrillist: You're about to go on a trip.
Guy Fieri: A trip? A trip is like saying that the astronauts "took a flight." I don't know what Columbus felt like, but this is getting crazy right now. It's gonna be a great trip, but it's a lot more moving parts than I thought it was gonna be. [Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives] is normal, that doesn't get to me. [My family and I] are getting ready to drive across country from here in Northern California to Miami in an RV. A 21-year-old, an 11-year-old, my wife, and myself and a crew of 15 people filming us, tailing behind as we go on every adventure, in, upside down, and around, as you can do. I've always been a big fan of Chevy Chase in Vacation. I've always made the joke that we were gonna take a cross-country trip. We leave tomorrow at like 9am. I anticipate the same degree of jocularities, except for Aunt Edna.
You're often on the road. This is the 10th year of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Fieri: Who does anything for 10 years? Isn't that a crazy number? We used to be a lot more steadfast in our ways. You know? Now, things change so quickly.
What's been the biggest change you've witnessed in the country over your years of travel?
Fieri: The change has been enormous. It's mind-blowing. I've seen not just a lot of mom-and-pop restaurants popping up but people getting out of the corporate world, wanting to do their own thing, wanting to have their own food expressions, wanting to have their own mantra in food. You see that angle on food trucks so often. I know these folks aren't making a ton of money, but they do it because they love it.
The Food Revolution is a term I continue to use, I think some other people use it, but to me it's what really best describes what's going on. We have come so far, and then made such a change in the '80s and '90s, and finally turned it back around and realized all these ill-effects we're having with processed foods, and fast food, and so forth. Everything has its place -- I'm not a fast-food basher, by any means. You just have to keep things in moderation. Everybody has their indulgences. I think that what we are realizing and seeing with kids a lot is that we have to really get straight on what we're doing, and what we're eating, and how we're eating it, and moderation and responsibility.
One of the biggest things is to see kids involved in cooking so much. When I got on [Food Network] 12 years ago, the first thing I said was, "I want a kid's cooking show," and they told me, "Come on now," I said, "I am not kidding." I have kids. I said, "I'm telling you, kids love to cook." I run into these people, fans of Triple D, and no one was really embracing that. Now look at major networks are doing it. Boy, I'm telling you -- it's such a wonderful opportunistic, open-minded [time]. It's blooming. It's like springtime of the food world all coming together right now. And it's only gonna get better, man. It's only gonna get more farm-to-table, and more down to earth, and more available.
How do you reckon with the promotion of healthy eating and your personal brand, known for a certain type of comfort food? Donkey Sauce is a pillar of your business and isn't great for you.
Fieri: You're stereotyping it. If we called it aioli, does that make it sexier? It's aioli. This goes back to that exact comment that I said in the beginning: it's about moderation. I called it Donkey Sauce because you have to make fun of it. It's a quintessential ingredient in so many aspects of food, yet probably not the most beneficial except for flavor, probably the least beneficial, but it does have its place. All food has its place. Pepperoni pizza has its place. Pastries have their place. Croissants have their place. The thing is picking when, where, how, what, and why you eat them. I think if you are going to eat a croissant, you should eat a really great one. I don't know that you should eat the one that came packaged that was made three weeks ago in Schenectady and shipped in a box to your store in California.
"If we called it aioli, does that make it sexier? I called it Donkey Sauce because you have to make fun of it."
Triple D gets misbranded all the time. "Oh, you're that dude that eats the deep-fried pizza corn dog sandwiches." I'm like, everybody has their opinion on how they describe Star Wars. By no means are we a Star Wars, but everybody has their interpretations. If you really look at Triple D, and if you really go and investigate the shows, and the style, and how I do the shows, I'm a huge, epic food fan. I'm a huge scratch fan. Scratch-made is super critical to me. When we get to a place and they'll say, "we're not making our soups," and "we're not making our dressings," and -- OK, you don't have to bake all your buns, I'll give you that. I'm not the greatest baker. But, these other pieces, it does make a difference. If the key ingredient in their pimento cheese sandwich is pimento cheese, then they better be making it. Does that solve the caloric-intake, carb-bomb situation? It doesn't, but in the same respects, if you're gonna eat it, eat something really good. Don't waste your time on a frozen pizza.
The "Fieri Effect" is real: A restaurant's business can skyrocket after it's featured on the show. But is there a risk of disrupting the natural order? Does that scare you?
Fieri: Yes. [Pause.] Yes is the answer.
I'll tell you what I'm thinking. I went into the Food Network a little bit older than everybody else. I was in my 30s. I was already accomplished, in my opinion; I think I had four or five restaurants at the time. I was very happy. I had a good mind. I had been to college. I had been in my own business for quite a few years. The first day [at] Food Network I went in for my media training and I sat there for probably four hours with [PR consultant] Lisa Krueger. She told me some trials and tribulations of people failing and not embracing and respecting the position that they had. She said, "This is where you could fall apart." Not me in particular, anybody. "Yes, you're known now, and yes, you've got quite a bit of the power, but just remember that when you say you are gonna be there for an interview, you're there for an interview. When you say you're going to do something, you do something."
I called her the other day to say, "You know what? I can't even tell you enough how much I appreciate all that advice, but I think that unfortunately everybody's got their demons, and their evils, and their situations." What is tough, is when somebody's really got a good shot and they get bad advice, or got a good shot and they make a bad move. It's not just climb to the top of the mountain. You've gotta really work hard at the middle of the mountain, like in my situation. You gotta be focused. You have to keep good people around.
You've talked many times about growing up in California and rebelling against your parents' microbiotic lifestyle by cooking what you wanted to eat. But when you were a teenager, you also lived in France -- what did you study there?
Fieri: I studied life.
Fieri: When I was a sophomore in high school, I made a deal with my parents: If I went to the junior college in our town and took French and got a B or better, they would let me go to France and live in a boarding house and go to school. So I took French in junior college during my lunch break while I was in high school. My mom would drive me. I was only 15. Then at 16-and-a-half years old, I got on a plane, flew to Paris, had a friend of the family pick me up and drive me to a little town called Chantilly. I lived in a boarding house. Not even a boarding house -- it was a family that rented me a room. They spoke no English. The only French I could speak was out of the little hand dictionary I bought at the airport. Even though I passed the class I didn't know anything. I went to high school in France for a year. And I traveled Europe and did amazing things.
What sticks in your memory?
Fieri: I went to France, then Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Switzerland. I remember having this food experience going, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait -- these are all different worlds that have their own thing about food." I was out of my mind. I came back and that was it. I didn't even go back to high school, I went straight to college.
Did 1984 Guy Fieri click with French teen culture? You may have had a different style.
Fieri: I remember going to a party... there was no beer. They dressed different, they popped their collar, they pegged their pants. It was just such a different world where I came from. I adopted some of the culture of that and culture of food, without question. If you told me when I left for France that I was gonna eat snails, I would tell you that you got snails comin' outta your ears. I came to love escargot, and came to love all the simplicity of food. That's where I really got the simplicity of food and the appreciation for quality ingredients. We would eat simple things that were just phenomenal and it was because of the ingredients, and the method of preparation, and not overdoing it.
Who were your heroes growing up? Did you idolize chefs?
Fieri: My biggest hero in the whole world was my dad. That's not some goofy, delusional kid thing where his dad is this guy that he didn't get the love from his dad. My dad's dad died when he was a kid. My dad was in the Navy. My dad was self-made. My dad built our house. He built his own businesses. My dad donates all his time to community. He's always been this guy that I aspired to be, and still do.
The other night my son was home from college. His buddies were all here, and we were having a talk about The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I told Hunter the next day, "Go get all those guys books." They all went down to the bookstore together and got the book. One of my friends looked at me and said, "Man, are you Gams in training, or what?" That's what my dad always did for my friends. They called him Gams.
I'm not surprised to hear you mention 7 Habits -- on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives you possess a manager-as-motivator sensibility. Do you admire motivational speakers?
Fieri: Well, I read the book. I really got a lot out of it. And I'm a Dale Carnegie fan. How to Win Friends and Influence People is another great book. I met Tony Robbins the other day, for the first time. He's such a power. But no, there's no rhyme or reason. I get inspired by random people, random kind of people.
Fieri: Sammy Hagar's a really good friend of mine. We have good laughs all the time [...] I have admiration for people that are creative, people that make music and make people happy. I've always liked art. Whenever I go to a town, I'll always go to where the artist studio is and stop in and look, like when they have the little co-op of artists paintings and pottery. I appreciate people that create. And I love rock and roll. I'm a crazy music fan, and all different types of music from Gypsy Kings to Metallica. I'll take it all.
Hagar says you are the guy who would walk into a room and say, "Let's do a shot. Let's smoke a joint!" Fair claim?
Fieri: There might be a part of me that would walk in and create a little havoc. There's a part of me, without question.
Have you picked up language from the rock world? I ask because I just watched an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives where you pulled "Slamma jamma I love that lamb-a!" out of nowhere. Then I saw you have a recipe called "Slamma Jamma Parmigiana." So at some point, you acquired the phrase "slamma jamma."
Fieri: This is what's hard for people. People can believe whatever the hell they want, I don't care. I don't think them up. It's not like tomorrow we're doing lamb [and I think], "I know what I'll do. I'll say something. I'll make up a line. Let me think, what would that line be?" It's not like a comedian getting ready to do a joke. I'm just out there. I've always been witty. I've always had fun. I've always had fun with it. This is the truth.
The crew that I work with on Triple D are my brothers and sisters. They're phenomenal people, and they work so goddamn hard. Everybody wants to give me accolades -- "Oh, Triple D, we love it!" I said, "You know what? The reason I throw touchdown passes, the reason I get to do Triple D, is cause I got the hardest workin' team in showbiz." I'm not sittin' here blah blah blah blah blah, spouting a bunch of bullshit. Anybody from the food industry, the television industry that works with them goes, "Oh my God."
But this is what happens: I have Tony Rodriguez sitting here filming me. I'm taking a bite of the lamb. He's dying to have a bite of the lamb. I look at him and in my own little, ha-ha way. So, you know what this is? This is some Slamma Jamma Lamb-a. He'll laugh, and then we'll all have a laugh. You guys can't see it on TV because it can't turn into all this "ha ha ha." There's a little break for all of us to have a comedic moment. Really, the genesis of it all, it's about me and my crew, and me trying to say something that would get a chuckle out of 'em.
Hagar also says you're in a "bottomless pit of fame and fortune." You have to say yes to every opportunity. But what do you still want to accomplish in the food world? What do you strive towards?
Fieri: My dad and I have this conversation on a regular basis. When you hit maximum capacity, when you have checked off everything from the bucket list. I don't know that I really even have a list. I'm just kind of taking it day by day. I think the opportunities continue to make themselves available. I just opened up a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, and I gotta go back to the Children's Hospital and do more with them. I keep things happening, but have I hit it all? I don't know.
Have you recently encountered chefs or specific dishes on the road that still surprise you?
Fieri: I had Thai food in LA the other day at a place owned by this lady on my show, Guy's Grocery Games. I thought that I had a pretty good foundation in the world of Thai. I had my buddy, Jet Tila, who's a fantastic chef, and so immersed in the culture of Thai. I was there with him and I said, "Oh, so it's way more than what we think it is." We're seeing people become braver. Chefs are starting to just throw it all on red, throw it all on one number and say, "I'm going to make this vegan," for instance. Vegan and vegetarian.
I had a nacho the other day made by chef Allen [Campbell]. I didn't know who he was. It was at my charity event for Best Buddies, this nonprofit for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I have all these chefs coming to do their little presentation of 800 samples for all the folks coming for Best Buddies. I take this bite of this nacho, it's just a chip with a little cheese and a little bit of chorizo on it. I take a bite -- fantastic. He goes, "Are you gonna freak out when I tell you it's vegan?" and I go, "Wait, there's no way this is vegan." He turned out to be Tom Brady's chef. So I call Tom later that afternoon. We started talking and I said, "Dude, I don't know where this guy came from or what he do." So, yeah. Am I seeing stuff that's surprising me? Yeah. I have to be open minded. I said, "Thank you for not telling me it was meat."
When The New York Times or Anthony Bourdain knocks what you do, your response is often to brush off the critiques. But is there any criticism you've heard and internalized over the years?
Fieri: Everybody has an opinion. I would be the last person to go around and tell people not to have an opinion. I'm not super flamboyant about expressing mine about other people. Ya know? I tell the people that I care about and the people that I think I can help my comments or my opinions about where I think they are. I think that sounding group via my wife, or my parents, or my kids, my best friends, the producers I work with, my executives at Food Network. I trust people to weigh in and offer me recommendations. And chefs.
You gotta know me to be able to tell me what you think I should be doing, because if you get thrown off by the fact that I have bleach-blonde hair and tattoos, and listen to rock and roll, gettin' Sammy Hagar, and that's where your premise is going to come from, then you really don't know me well enough to tell me to do anything or really have a position that you should be making an opinion about me. But that's fine.
"If you get thrown off by the fact that I have bleach-blonde hair and tattoos, then you really don't know me well enough to be making an opinion about me."
I try to improve upon myself every day, and I try to make sure that I spend more time not doing things that I think I need to be doing. Not working. Spending more time staying grounded. I'm walking around my garden right now, as I talk. It's my favorite place. I've got this big organic garden. I just put another one in up at my ranch. I love coming and seeing what we produce, and food always tastes better. My youngest will pick and eat a strawberry. "It's the best strawberry in the world." "Well, you're right it's the best strawberry in the world, you grew it."
I don't like to watch my shows, and nobody likes to watch himself on TV. But I watch it. I watch it with a pad of paper and sit there and take notes. Am I doin' too much of this? Am I doin' too much of that? Am I not giving this person enough time? Just always evaluating. Kind of like I think a race car king does, you go around the car, you go back you make your changes that you need. But have I changed from the core of who I am, and how I live, and what I do, and who is Guy Fieri? No, nor have I been instructed to. I've always been kind of a wild guy. I've always been kinda, you know, out there. That's how I am.
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives started during the Bush years, barreled through the Obama years, and now enters the Trump years…
Fieri: [Cracking up] That is the funniest thing I've ever heard. I didn't ever put it into perspective! When it spans three presidencies, I mean, come on.
... And I wondered if you're a political person. You touch a lot of lives around the country, you've brushed social controversy that might inform your politics, but two years ago, you also officiated 101 same-sex weddings. Where do you stand at this political moment?
Fieri: I'm not a real political person. Everybody has their opinions, and I kind of stay out of it because it doesn't ever get taken the right way. I try to stay educated and aware of what's up.
I'm on the philanthropy side. People ask me, "If you weren't doing this, and when you get finished what will you do?" Doing charity for others, giving back to communities. We always did that in the little town that I came from in Northern California. That's how I try to live my life. When you get to be in my situation, how can you look at the situation and not say, "Oh my gosh, I gotta give back. I gotta give back immediately." How do you get this?
One of my favorites is Make-A-Wish Foundation. I do a lot of work with them. I was given some amazing opportunities. It's humbling to the most poignant piece. You're going to tell me that a sick child... well, there should be no sick kids. I lost my sister to cancer. She had cancer when she was 4 years old and then survived it, and then lived 34 more healthy years and then had melanoma, and we lost her. Even before that, even before my sister was sick again -- and I was so happy my sister was so healthy -- I was doing Make-A-Wish Foundation because I remember what it's like to be in a hospital with her. I remember that feeling of just being bored and tired. I was a kid, she was a kid, and I didn't understand it.
When I do Make-A-Wish, I understand the moments when the football players come into the hospitals and all the kids forget that they're sick and the parents forget the devastating situation and all of this would go on. When Make-A-Wish called me, I said, "Are you serious? A kid wants to see me?" and I flew on a plane down, I want to say, somewhere by Bakersfield. I flew down there, took a car, got there, and this kid… his favorite item was called the Garbage Plate. So, I stop at like five restaurants on the way to visit: pancakes, and waffles, fried chicken, and French fries -- the whole thing. I bring it and we sit, we had the most wonderful time. I was there for about three hours. We had this great time.
At the end, he says, "One thing. Can you do me a favor?" and I said, "Yeah," and he says, "Eat it." I'm like, "What?" He's laughing and he got this respirator on. I sit there and I take couple of bits of this Garbage Plate, and he smiled. We had a great laugh. Then, that was it. That was the moment that I realized, wait a second, these kids can have an opportunity to do anything in their world that they would like to do, and they're interested in what I do and what I say and how I am. I mean, we're so lucky to be in the opportunity to make an impact on people. It's my actual favorite thing about my career.