Through more than 70 installments of our 10 Dishes series, we’ve sat down with some of the most illustrious minds in the culinary world and asked them to recount the meals that shaped their careers. Tosi. Boulud. Crenn. Puck. All kings and queens of the kitchen realm. But while we’re intrigued by what makes these leaders of gastronomy tick, we’re equally fascinated by other forms of culinary influence—the fast-food savant who invented stuffed-crust pizza and the McGriddle, for example, and today’s special guest: Guy Fieri. The man who Drake calls “magician in the kitchen” has a direct line to millions of Americans through his ever-popular TV shows, and a burgeoning restaurant empire suggests that Donkey Sauce and BBQ pork sushi rolls aren’t going anywhere soon.
The Nor-Cal native burst onto the scene in 2006 after crushing The Next Food Network Star challenge. But it was his follow-up series—Diners Drive-ins and Dives, in which he traversed the country in a vintage Chevy Camaro convertible to track down the mom-and-pop restaurants America—that minted him as a household name. In Fieri’s estimation, he’s visited close to 900 restaurants.
Fieri says that seeing the TV cameras roll up “felt like winning the lottery” for the independent, small-time joints featured on “Triple-D,” but he also realized the broader influence of the show—and his own on-screen persona—as it went on. “I just remember pulling into a town, and a lady brought her three kids [to where we were filming],” he says. “They all had their hair spiked and sunglasses and were wearing shorts. And I’m like, wait a second. I always wanted to be the Six Million Dollar Man. Now you’ve got kids wanting to be the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives guy.”
[The New York Times Review] wasn’t going to change me. I’ve opened six restaurants since then.
Similar show concepts have existed in the past, but Fieri’s love-it-or-hate-it flair—the moxie to rock frosty tips and forearm sweat bands in the late aughts; his easy conversational flow and wisecracks; his beer-drinking buddy charisma—allowed him to appeal at a much deeper level to millions of Sammy Hagar fans and stay-at-home moms alike. “Honestly, brother, I wish there was something to tell you that was predetermined, or that I have a style,” says Fieri about his sartorial choices. “My style is comfortable.” The same level of comfort extends to his anything-goes approach to cooking—how else would you explain preparing a batch of nachos in a trashcan in front of thousands of fans?
As the show grew in popularity and spawned endless reruns on The Food Network, the cult of Triple-D grew. Catchphrases like “Flavortown” infiltrated every corner of pop culture, and seemingly everyone wanted a piece. Action Bronson and Drake paid small tributes; Seth Rogen and James Franco recruited him for The Interview (“That was such a cool thing because you know what it was for? Peace in the Middle East through food.”); Instagram posts from Barry Bonds and 50 Cent made the Internet rounds. All the while, Fieri weathered the Saturday Night Live skits and relentless meme-ification with such good humor that it practically made him untouchable.
That transcendent Main Street appeal became particularly useful in 2012, when New York Times critic Pete Wells famously used the celebrity chef as a whipping boy in his viral review of Guy Fieri’s Bar + Kitchen in Times Square, setting him up as a representative of all that’s wrong in food. “That wasn’t going to change me,” he says. “I am the way I am and the way I’ve always been. I’ve opened six restaurants since then.”
From family treks into the Marble Mountains, to his days as a charismatic flambé captain, Fieri shares the 10 dishes that paved his path to Flavortown.
When I was a kid, taco night was the most anticipated meal. My parents were kind of hippies back in the day—they moved from Ohio to California and they were eating a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish, brown rice, that kind of stuff. So things were a little bit different on taco night: We got to have ground beef! And I just remember how many tacos we would eat; it was a race almost. We had a Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and there was cilantro, olives, avocado, and tomatoes, so you could make your taco however you wanted it. I really liked that experience of making it my way. I had a specific amount of meat that I wanted, a specific amount of cheese, and at a very young age, I really loved that creativity of choosing how I wanted to make it, and what I should put on first. Because if I put the lettuce on last it would fall out. It was a great family interaction, and of course we would argue; while I was getting the lettuce my sister would move the Lazy Susan. All kinds of crazy stuff like that. I knew I was excited about food, and that was one of those early childhood memories that really stands out. (Photo: P&G everyday)
California Maki Roll
I remember being with my parents in San Francisco waiting to get into this Japanese restaurant, and I was so hungry. I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time. They’ve got this seaweed wrapped around rice, and they put a little soy sauce on it. I ate it and thought, what is this? It was amazing to me because I was getting the umami flavor, the nori, and the seafood. I just remember saying I’ve never seen this at any mom-and-pop restaurant before. Where am I? What’s this whole thing about? My mind was always so open about food. That was one of those moments where I went, okay, this idea of what food is is a lot bigger than chili-cheese fries. (Photo: Any Recipe)
Cajun Chicken Alfredo
I was going to school in Las Vegas and my final course required you to make a restaurant where everybody in your class had to work for you. I decided mine was going to be this Cajun restaurant, but my teacher told me pulling off Cajun food is going to be really tough. So I combined what I love about Cajun food and what I love about Italian food. I took blackened chicken breast and mixed it with a parmesan alfredo sauce and served it up. The dish became so popular that I almost got in trouble for not selling enough of the other items on my menu. To this day, it is still one of the number one sellers on my menu at my restaurant Johnny Garlic’s. It lives on. It’s an outrageous dish. (Photo: Comfortably Domestic)
A lot of people don’t know that I was a flambé captain. I would prepare dishes tableside at a fine-dining restaurant in a tuxedo; I had the ruffles and the whole deal. I would cook Steak Diane, crepe Suzette, spinach salad—you name it. I was 18 at the time. Steak Diane was just something I knew how to make so well, and it was a great experience because I learned how to interact with people and make great food at the same time. You know what people loved? I’d make the dish and I’d say, ‘How many mushrooms would you like?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh! I love mushrooms,’ and I’d respond, ‘Alright, more mushrooms for you.’ People love to customize things; it’s all about food and the interaction with people. (Photo: Simply Recipes)
BBQ Pork Ribs
The first time I had barbeque pork ribs was from a woman named Aunt Esther based in Eureka, CA. I remember tasting the smoked rib and I’m experiencing this flavor and I’m like, wait a second. I got a lot of these cultural experiences in food at a very young age. And I remember trying to make ribs when I was a kid, learning the trials and tribulations. Why don’t these taste like Esther’s? Oh, because I don’t have a smoker. Smoked baby-back ribs from Aunt Esther. Couldn’t beat it. (Photo courtesy Liz Barclay)
Chicken and Dumplings
We used to go and take our horses into the Marble Mountains three hours from my house. The only thing we brought with us was the food on the back of the horses. I remember my dad breaking out a cast-iron pot, building a fire, and throwing in chicken and a bunch of veggies; then he’d make dumplings using Bisquick. I would sit there and take care of that fire, waiting for those chicken and dumplings to cook. By this time it’s cold now, it’s getting dark. He takes the top of the pot and, of course, it’s nice and warm. It was like this every trip; that’s what I would look forward to—those chicken and dumplings. (Photo: Culinary Cory)
One morning I came around the corner and I thought my mom was making chicken parmesan. I was so excited because you can tell when those breadcrumbs are cooking in the grease. And I looked down and I see it’s not chicken, but rather eggplant. And I said, “Why can’t we just eat chicken parmesan like the normal families?” And my mom said, “Guy, if you don’t like the way I cook, then you go ahead and make dinner.” So being the confident 10-year-old that I was, I said, fine, I’ll make dinner tomorrow. I rode my bike to the little town grocery store, and I got steak and pasta (even though I didn’t know how to cook any of that stuff), and I made dinner. That was a defining moment for me. (Photo courtesy Liz Barclay)
I was living in France as an exchange student with a family, and by this point I had some definitions in my mind of dishes I wouldn’t eat. And one thing I wasn’t down with was mushrooms. I say this all the time now about feeding kids: When people say how do I get my kids to try this, I say, feed them when they’re hungry. Their likeliness to eat something that they’re not used to eating will increase. Sure enough, one day I come home from school starving. There were no convenient stores where I lived north of Paris, so you couldn’t really snack. I’m sitting at the table and out comes this tart with just tons of mushrooms on it. And I’m thinking, what am I going to do? I’m going to die if I don’t eat this, so I just shoveled it down. And I was like, ugh, this is so good. Maybe it was the way they cooked the mushrooms, maybe I had just matured a little bit, but that definitely changed the way I thought about mushrooms. (Photo: Williams-Sonoma)
There was a Japanese restaurant called the Samurai in Eureka that my parents used to take me to when I was 12 years old. There was always music playing in the background, and the owner would come out and serve the dishes. I remember anticipating the yakitori; there wasn’t a lot, so you had to savor it. There was something about the soy sauce, ginger, green onions, and garlic—it had this delicate aspect that was so much different than Aunt Esther’s ribs, or the taqueria or burger joint. I just continued to have these mind-blowing experiences where I went, oh my gosh, what else is behind this? What else can I be trying? Miso cod. What is miso? What is tofu? I remember making yakitori, and cooking so many different Chinese and Asian dishes—spring rolls, egg rolls—at a very young age. It was awesome. (Photo: Kudo Sushi)
Steamed Live Maine Lobster
After I came back from France, I went to my dad’s hometown to visit one of his cousins, Tom. He got these live Maines and I just remember him pulling them out of the box and thinking, oh my gosh, what is this thing? It’s a creature! I mean, I knew what a lobster looked like, but I’d never seen one alive. So there we are and he gives me a full tutorial about how to cook it. I remember eating lobster till it hurt. And I have pictures [of me] with mittens, putting them the boiling water. It was just that real connection to where food came from. I’m so interested in how things are generated, how they’re created. (Photo: Get Maine Lobster)
Ran into @50cent backstage at @KellyandMichael pic.twitter.com/oEwzRViWnz
— Guy Fieri (@GuyFieri) June 2, 2014