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Guy Fieri Is the Hero We Need

Guy Fieri Is the Hero We Need:

The crown prince of Flavortown is the bane of many in the culinary world, but he may be the greatest champion of all the things they hold dear


Will Horowitz, deep down, didn’t want to be on national television. At least, not this way. His restaurant, Ducks Eatery, nestled just off First Avenue in New York’s East Village, with its reclaimed wood, aged brick, crisp white subway tile and craft beer served in the can, qualifies as neither diner, drive-in, nor dive. Yet, the uber-popular Food Network show with that very name came calling in 2013, seeing if the restaurant that had opened just a year before wanted to take a trip to Flavortown. Will wasn’t having it. “When they approached me, I was trying to think of original ways to say no,” Horowitz told me. “It wasn’t even a consideration.”

At the time, the show’s host, Guy Fieri, didn’t have the greatest reputation in Horowitz’s circles. The Food Network personality who had become ubiquitous on the channel had gained notoriety not through toiling in New York kitchens, but by winning a reality competition: “The Next Food Network Star.” And Fieri—chef and owner of restaurants in California—didn’t look like a New York cook with his spiky bleach-blond hair, dyed goatee, assortment of rings, shirts with flames and unironic love of Nickelback. He’s a supernova of kitsch, or as writer David Roth called him, “a Juggalo-themed Muppet.”. And despite being all these things New Yorkers abhorred, Fieri was a huge star.

But that’s not what totally gave Horowitz pause. Not long before Triple-D’s production team contacted Ducks, The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells ethered Fieri with a scathing review of his Times Square restaurant. The article mined a rich vein of Fierifreude, cutting Guy down to size with lines like “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” I’m guessing you didn’t like the drink, Pete.

The pile-on had begun before Wells’ review, though. Memes proliferated on Twitter, imagining horrific items on the menu like “Guy Fieri’s Panamania: a deep-fried snake with a printed out picture of David Lee Roth on it.”. Anthony Bourdain has long been part of this chorus. The chef turned TV show host longs for stripped down authenticity akin to the musical heroes from his youth, like Iggy Pop and The New York Dolls and has thusly set himself in opposition to Fieri (Nickelback would never grace his iPod). When he heard about Guy’s Times Square restaurant, he called it a Terrordome.

Wells’ review was a match thrown into that tinder, igniting the fiery hatred of Fieri throughout the city. In its aftermath, New Yorkers delighted in tearing Fieri down. People declared it the best review ever. It all felt so personal. In NYC, a land of cool chefs like David Chang, Eric Ripert, and Gabrielle Hamilton, Wells and his readers let Fieri know he did not belong.

Even years after the review, people still piled on Guy. Recently, Salon declared that one man alone, Guy Fieri, had destroyed the Food Network, turning culinary TV into a wasteland.

Normally, I’d gladly pile on with everyone else in a situation like this. Because, truth be told, I’m a dickhead. And a bit of a snob. And, my god, doesn’t a condiment called Donkey Sauce, and the man who named it, deserve to be endlessly mocked? But I knew something about Fieri that most didn’t. When my friend Mike Semandiris’s restaurant, Mike’s Chili Parlor in Seattle, appeared on Triple-D in 2007, the show gave a nice little bump to an 85-year-old family-owned business. Knowing that made me less interested in taking shots at Fieri.

My defense of Fieri was never that full-throated, because perhaps the assist Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives gave the Chili Parlor was an anomaly. I had to know if the show had helped more places. So during the last few months I’ve contacted more than 100 restaurants that have appeared on the show and conducted 25 interviews with chefs and owners. These are eateries in big cities and small towns. They’re independently owned, non-corporate restaurants that take pride in making their food from scratch—competing in many places where chains dominate the food scene.

And what has Triple-D done? Nearly every restaurant I interviewed has seen an increase in their business, many of them benefiting from a more than 30 percent improvement. I also found that while leaders of the artisanal food movement snobbily dismiss Fieri, they fail to recognize that Guy has become a champion of restaurants who operate with the ethos foodies hold so dear. So while Fieri’s haircare techniques and taste in jewelry are often brought up in the public’s assessment of him, his contribution to preserving and publicizing America’s culinary culture is a side of the story that doesn’t get shared very often. It’s time to explore what he’s done and it’s far past time to reckon with the reasons why so many people hate him in the first place.


Ducks Eatery/Facebook

Jaime Horowitz of Ducks Eatery (Ducks Eatery/Facebook)

Despite the following Ducks had built up with other chefs and foodies around the neighborhood, business still ebbed once it settled into its first winter of operation. That was a bit of a rude awakening. “Originally we had come from doing a restaurant more centrally located in the city and the holiday season was huge,” Horowitz says. “After our first year in the East Village it got to be Christmas time and the entire community was dead, which was completely foreign to us.”

Even knowing that it could boost his business, Horowitz remained skeptical of Triple-D and the reputation it had in the food world. Did he want to be associated with that show? His gut told him no, but his partners thought otherwise. “My sister and my other chefs had to convince me,” Horowitz says. “They came at me with, ‘What are you thinking—why would you turn that down?’”

There’s plenty of reality food television worth turning down. Shows built on ramping up drama, or exacerbating buffoonery in order to make for “better” TV. “The idea of a national platform coming into your restaurant, and if you’re a small mom and pop kind of place, where your equipment is not the newest, there’s always a concern about how you’re going to be portrayed,” says Beth Barden, the chef-owner of Succotash in Kansas City, which appeared on Triple-D in late 2013.

“Like, on a Kitchen Nightmares kind of thing, if you accept the help the show is offering, you have to know that you kind of give up your right to be treated with a certain level of dignity,” Barden says. “That’s not my jam. I’d rather die gracefully on my own. I am not looking for Food Network-sanctioned euthanasia.”

Yet, when Diner’s, Drive-Ins and Dives approached Barden, she could sense this opportunity to showcase her restaurant was different. Triple-D isn’t in the business of ginned-up suspense or tearing a place down so the host can appear to have dramatically built it back up. “It’s not a competition show, it’s not a review show, and the reality is that they’re very gracious,” Barden says. “[The producers] choose you to be on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and they clearly want you to come across in a positive light. I don’t think there’s any amount of bait and switch where they walk in and say they want to help promote you and then they turn around and make you look bad.”

Eventually, Horowitz’s business partners convinced him that appearing on the show would be the right thing for the restaurant. He couldn’t afford hipster purity. Soon, Ducks would be another colony of Flavortown. But to truly understand Guy’s empire, I had to travel not to an outpost, but to the capital.


I was running late, but not so much running. On a Saturday morning I trudged past blinking slot machines, cocktail waitresses carrying empty trays, and vacant blackjack tables at an early hour. My punctual breakfast companion was just going to have to wait, because as is Vegas’s wont, the city had ground me down. My previous night ended only a couple hours prior. But I had a touch more spring in my step than my hangover warranted: I was en route to my first ever meal at a Guy Fieri restaurant.

When I crossed over Guy’s Vegas Bar and Grill’s threshold, I had a Pavlovian response that took me back more than a decade. After college I spent some time working in a couple restaurants—one bad, one good. The first was a big, corporate monstrosity: All deep fryers and microwaves and so much cheap oil that I routinely watched cooks dump excess grease off in a bucket before plating dishes. That place featured a distinctive, stale odor that I eventually discovered afflicts most corporate restaurants in a way that doesn’t permeate the better places I’ve dined. Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, T.G.I. McSlappy’s—they all smell the same. Faint whiffs of that aroma greeted me at Guy’s. This was not a promising entrée to Flavortown.

Jeremy Repanich/Instagram

Yes, that’s candied bacon in my Bloody Mary (jrepanich/Instagram)

The polite, smiling hostess led us to our table, and I tucked into our booth, admiring the cowhide-upholstered bar stools to my left. They gave the place a Western motif reminiscent less of the actual old West, and more of Disney’s interpretation. As I skimmed the menu, I couldn’t help but think that despite the lack of profanity and nudity, this may have been one of the most obscene things I’d ever seen. The biscuits and gravy wasn’t just any old biscuits and sausage gravy. It came with “chicken fried bacon.” Guy’s brigade soaked the French toast in a maple syrup-infused batter before griddling it and dousing it with more maple syrup. And the eggs benedict arrive topped not just with a white cheddar cheese sauce, but an unhealthy ladling of “Dragon’s Breath Chili” to boot. Naturally, I went with the benedict.

But my ordering was not done. I had to select a Bloody Mary with an array of garnishes. Mine came packed with olives, celery, lemon, pineapple and candied bacon, to the point where I wasn’t sure exactly how I was supposed to drink it. Once I did locate a way in, an OK Bloody Mary greeted me, but it—and the cornbread in my benedict—was a bit sweet and seemingly geared toward a clientele accustomed to corn syrup in their food. Were the food and drink great? No. My nose had not deceived me when I smelled a corporate restaurant as I walked in. Was it as bad as the chains I had worked and eaten at before? No. But eating the food, I understood Wells’s most cutting observation from his evisceration of Fieri’s Times Square eatery: The yawning chasm between the independent, cook-from-fresh restaurants Fieri profiles on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and the corporate food he serves at his restaurants.

But let’s be real, people, there was much more at work in that review than Wells not liking the food. After all, perusing the Times’ restaurant database reveals the Gray Lady generally doesn’t go looking for places to review around Times Square outside of the eateries that appeal to the theater-going set.

Wells wasn’t reviewing a restaurant. He set his aim at Fieri the persona, because to a certain community of culinarians and foodies—mostly from New York—Fieri’s ascent stuck in their craw. What Fieri represents to the haters is the last and final stop of the celebrity chef: Emeril Lagasse taken to extreme. Lagasse, the chef from Massachusetts, made his bones cooking Cajun in New Orleans, rode the obnoxious catchphrases “BAM!” and “Kick it up a notch!” to stardom. While Lagasse looks ostensibly normal, Fieri’s entire essence, from the glasses to the hair to the jewelry to the beard, is a catchphrase.

You could see why Ducks, a young restaurant in the cred-obsessed town of New York, would hesitate to associate with Fieri. Guy’s nationwide celebrity and his loud, outsized personality seem not on a human scale. He and his Times Square eatery were everything wrong with the food world, according to the elite opinion of the day. The animating force of the Brooklyn artisanal movement has been a rejection of the industrial food system and an embrace of craftsmanship. To the movement’s progenitors, food across America had grown huge, impersonal, corporate and artificial. For a generation raised with the message that they’re all special, unique snowflakes, mass production is shunned. Cheesecake Factory, McDonald’s and its ilk are the enemy. Fieri’s bleached hair is as pre-packaged and fake as those corporations the craft movement abhorred.

Wells wasn’t reviewing a restaurant. He set his aim at Fieri the persona.

And you can’t ignore the unhealthiness of some of the food Fieri serves at his restaurants and features on his shows, which writer Farsh Askari uses to put moral force behind his anti-Fieri essay in Salon. “We get Guy Fieri screaming at us to adopt a diet that will at best yield diabetes,” he writes. “The Food Network’s programming schedule should be populated with the pacifying voices of Ina, Martha, Nigella, even Mario Batali.”

And that’s where his—and many anti-Fierians—argument falters. Like the people who think organic food is necessarily healthier, they confuse affectations for actual substance. Askari praises Nigella Lawson, the very same host who makes “Loaded Potato Skins” chock full of cheese, sour cream and fried bacon, because he enjoys the soothing English tone of her show, ignoring the fact that she serves food that could very easily appear on a Triple-D. He knows he can’t just argue against Fieri’s comportment alone, because that wouldn’t carry as much weight. It forces him to concoct other reasons for his distaste of Fieri, despite the hypocritical corner it backs him into.

Askari is not alone. As Choire Sicha over at The Awl suggested in the wake of Wells’ review, the Grey Lady was protecting sophisticated New York from uncouth America. “This is a case in which this snobbery is expressed at the bluntest, most obvious manifestation of Garbage USA incursion into Manhattan,” Sicha wrote. Bourdain may sneer at Fieri and the food he features, but one of the most decadent dishes I’ve seen on TV was a fried pork cutlet sandwich with ham, gruyere, bacon, and two fried eggs all served on a brioche bun, which he happily consumed in the Chicago episode of his Travel Channel show No Reservations. He called this heart attack on a plate an “act of genius.”

So much of our experience with food is wrapped up in affectations; the stories we tell ourselves. We’re not always able to discern quality on our own, but we can identify telltale markers to guide us to what the “better” food is. And I’m not trying to make a case for hopeless relativism or “LOL NOTHING MATTERS” nihilism. I certainly believe real lemon juice tastes qualitatively better than artificial sour mix in a cocktail. And anyone who has read the book Salt, Sugar, Fat knows corporate food scientists create products designed specifically to make us crave nutritionally vapid food that keeps us consuming more. But some of these value systems we erect around food don’t stand up to any empirical rigor, as the wine industry has realized in the last decade.

In 2012, the American Association of Wine Economists conducted a blind tasting where they pitted prestigious and expensive French wines—unbeknownst to the tasters—against $15 bottles of wine from that vintner mecca of New Jersey. The results? The Jersey wines held their own, claiming three of the top four spots in the white wine tasting. And yet one of the larger findings of the study was that the rank order, when subjected to statistical analysis, was largely random. Among avowed wine experts, there was no objective, qualitative difference between the wines. However, take the blindfolds off and give those wines to an expert and they’d almost invariably prefer the $650 bottle of Rothschild to the $15 bottle from the Garden State.

Absent socioeconomic markers, our subjective tastes can be set adrift.

In another study, published in 2008, researchers at Cal Tech and Stanford scanned the brains of 20 volunteers using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a scan of real-time brain activity) as they consumed wine priced $5, $10, $35, $45 and $90 per bottle. Knowing the price of the wine as they consumed it, the drinkers “consistently reported that they liked the taste of the $90 bottle better than the $5 one, and the $45 bottle better than the $35 one.” And this wasn’t just a case of them saying they liked the $90 wine without believing it. Their fMRI scans showed more activity in a portion of the brain thought to be associated with pleasure as the price of the wine went up. So, according to this study, there is a correlation between price and quality, right? Not quite.

The $90 wine (its actual price) was also the $10 wine in the experiment. Despite drinking from the very same bottle, volunteers loved it more—both in stated opinion and brain scans—when it was $90, than when told it retailed for $10. For good measure, the researchers reran the test without telling drinkers the price of the wines they tried, and they selected the wine that actually cost $5 as their favorite.

Absent socioeconomic markers, our subjective tastes can be set adrift. Which made me wonder: Do people dislike Guy because he’s actually lower quality, or because his aesthetic is skewed to more down-market tastes? Sitting at his Vegas Bar and Grill, I knew this place wasn’t for me. I do truly believe that fresh food tastes better than processed food. But I didn’t need to justify not loving the meal by declaring the place empirically bad. I saw tables filled with people smiling, Instagramming their dishes and cleaning their plates. Soon after posting a picture of my Bloody Mary on Facebook, my mother marveled at how great the drink looked. It seemed silly to begrudge them their good time because it wasn’t my idea of a good time.


Guy-Fieri Scipps Howard

“So, what’s Guy really like?” (via Food Network)

When my friend Mike Semandiris’s restaurant appeared on Triple-D, of course I asked him what everyone does: “So, what’s Guy really like?” I found myself posing that same question to every restaurateur I interviewed about being on Triple-D. Was he the “extremely unhealthy-looking, ear-splitting maniac who thinks he’s fronting a college garage band circa 1995,” as Askari describes him in Salon?

“He’s loud and he’s in your face and he wears flip-flops and shorts and he has a very specific style,” says Adriana Vermut, owner of Pica Pica Arepa Kitchen in San Francisco. “He had a little dark humor sometimes and I totally got his humor and really enjoyed him. I had a really good time.”

Guy, the man, is an acquired taste. Yet, as I listened to more and more restaurateurs describe their time with Fieri, I couldn’t help but think of Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. In it, Wilson explores how Céline Dion is simultaneously loved and loathed around the world. Wilson—who long included himself in the loathing camp—opens the book by describing how early in his career as a critic he preferred the indie darling Elliott Smith to the Canadian pop sensation. His hatred of Dion reached a crescendo when she beat out Smith for an Oscar in 1998. The forces of crass commercialization had defeated authentic art.

When Wilson revisited the Dion vs. Smith duel while writing his book on what drives personal taste, he discovered Dion had an unlikely ally. No, Elliott Smith professed no love for Dion’s music, but Wilson discovered that the singer had been touched by his encounter with her backstage at the Academy Awards. Wilson cites an interview where Smith describes how Dion had complimented his work, helped calm his nerves before his performance and gave him a big hug. “She was really sweet, which made it impossible for me to dislike Céline Dion anymore,” Smith said. “It was too human to be dismissed because I find her music trite.” After, if people took shots at Dion in Smith’s presence, he’d defend her against their elitism.

Have I been justified in my dislike of this person I’ve never met?

There’s a trace of that snobbery when someone finds out a person they know has interacted with Guy Fieri and they feverishly ask, “Oh, what’s he like?” The subtext of that question is, “Have I been justified in my dislike of this person I’ve never met?” If his critics were to talk to the restaurateurs I did, they’d find, with but a few exceptions, people who enjoyed being around Fieri.

“He was very kind to our servers, to the people in our restaurant and very kind to me,” Barden says. “My mom was not well and not able to be there and he personally taped a message and sent it to her, which I thought was lovely and he certainly didn’t have to do.”

When Triple-D arrived to shoot at Ducks, Horowitz hadn’t yet totally warmed to the idea, and perhaps his apprehension was still visible on his face. Fieri had the key to unlock Will, though. “I think he noticed I was a little held back at the start, so he had us do some mezcal shots to loosen me up,” Horowitz says. It got them off on the right foot. “The person we ended up hanging out with was super nice and down to earth,” Horowitz says. “It was nice being in the kitchen with him. He definitely spent plenty of time there and knew what he was doing.”

What maybe put Horowitz most at ease was that a show so attuned to the flyover states allowed him to cook some adventurous dishes—namely, Horowitz’s smoked goat’s neck. Triple-D didn’t go with a safe choice, it pushed its viewers’ boundaries. “That was the beauty of it for us. The idea that you can have so many people that are fans of a show like that, that maybe are more used to seeing the best burger in the world or the best slice of pizza,” Horowitz says. “They come in for a goat neck and hopefully it will expand them to other unique things and places.”


Garbos Grill/Facebook

“I’m a 6-foot by 8-foot cart,” says Eli Pancamo, owner of Garbos Grill in Key West. “And now I’ve been invited to the South Beach Food and Wine Festival Burger Bash.“ (Garbos Grill/Facebook)

‘Guy told us at the end of your shoot, ‘Your business is going to quadruple over the next couple years.’ I kind of looked at him like, this guy’s an egomaniac,” says Steve Rosenstein, owner of The Duce in Phoenix, which appeared on Triple-D in 2013. “No business quadruples because you get on this guy’s show. As soon as it aired we immediately got slammed. The minute that happened, he was right. Our business more than quadrupled. And we’ve grown from 20 or 25 employees to having 50 to 55 employees.”

The Duce’s dramatic growth may be an outlier, but Triple-D has assisted many restaurants in places that aren’t culinary hotbeds like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Restaurateurs could see a change immediately. “While we were watching the show, the diagnostics of our website jumped while it was airing,” says Jackie Sappington co-owner of the Country Cat in Portland. “We had 10,000 hits during the show. We had a third that many before.”

Horowitz at Ducks expressed something many owners did, which was that they “were busy before, just not consistently busy. That’s a big difference in the restaurant world, for sure.” While results varied, many owners told me they saw around a 30 percent jump in sales after appearing on the show. They found it’s one of the great advertisements a restaurant can have.

“The media exposure value each time our segment airs is estimated between $275,000 and $400,000, depending on the day and time it airs,” says Lisa Ward, co-owner of the Silver Star Café in Salt Lake City. “That’s every time it airs, and it airs every couple of weeks, sometimes more than once in a day. A small, family-owned restaurant like ours simply can’t buy that kind of marketing opportunity.”

And while the show activates a legion of superfans, like Roger and Jane Holm and Chromeo (yeah, Chromeo), who travel to a bunch of locations, the show also gets locals to visit too.

“I was seeing fresh faces, but there were faces I hadn’t seen in a long time,” says Natalie Gutenkauf, owner of The Factory Gastrobar in Long Beach, CA. “People go out to a new restaurant in town and they’ll go once and then they forget about it. So I saw a lot of people that came when we first opened, forgot about us until the show aired, and then came back and were like, ‘Oh man, this is so great, I can’t believe we forgot about this place.’”

Our business doubled overnight. With what Guy does, there’s a bigger picture.

The show also has an echo effect. Once Triple-D gives a restaurant some national attention, other opportunities come their way. “I’m a 6-foot by 8-foot cart. I’m a physical food wagon,” says Eli Pancamo, owner of Garbos Grill in Key West. “And now I’ve been invited to the South Beach Food and Wine Festival Burger Bash. I’m going to go against Iron Chef Morimoto and Bobby Flay. I don’t know if that was because I was on Triple-D, but I don’t know how else anyone would have found out about my burger.”

“You can look at Guy, and say, ‘He’s such a dude.’ But that’s his personality. Looking beyond the superficiality of that, he’s really helping a lot of small business owners,” Sappington says. “Our business doubled overnight. We probably did a 50 percent increase in staffing. We added another cook for brunch, another cook for dinner, one to two servers at brunch, and one to two servers at night. With what Guy does, there’s a bigger picture.”

And the benefits of growing independent restaurants extend beyond the owners and staff. Frequenting indies like The Country Cat and Garbos Grill instead of corporate chains like Applebees and McDonald’s has a disproportionate positive impact on local economies.

In 2012, a joint study by research firm Civic Economics and the American Booksellers Association wanted to see what percentage of an independent restaurant’s revenue recirculated back through the local community compared to chain restaurants like P.F. Chang’s and Red Lobster. Looking in 10 communities, including Austin, Charleston and New York’s Hudson Valley, they consistently found that independents kept more money in the local economy, in the form of profits to the owners, wages paid to employees, buying local goods and charitable giving within the community. In the Hudson Valley, when money was spent at an independent restaurant, 77.7 percent of that revenue stayed local, while only 30.4 percent of money spent at chains remained in the community.

The report concluded that, “While chain stores and restaurants extract locally generated revenues from the community with each nightly bank transaction, independents are creating a virtuous cycle of local spending. The extra dollars in the local economy produce more jobs for residents, extra tax revenues for local governments, more investment in commercial and residential districts, and enhanced support for local nonprofits. In short, these businesses create better places.”

And while heading to a Red Lobster could help shareholders realize a better quarterly profit, frequenting an independently owned restaurant could mean the difference for that owner of struggling to get by and thriving. Like it did for Sarah Simington of the Blue Moon Café in Baltimore, who struggled with her mother for years with their restaurant. At one point, Simington was even forced to move upstairs from the cafe and share a car with her mom because a previous business partner had left them on the edge of destitution. “We were scrimping and saving and refusing to give up, just really bare knuckles,” she told me. “We were open 24 hours on the weekends. But that’s what you do for something you love and something that’s yours.”

But then, they were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, in 2008 and everything changed. “It aired and the next thing you know there’s a line outside my restaurant,” Simington says. The exposure boosted their catering business, filled the restaurant more consistently and saved the place. “It took me from living on a couch and upstairs at the restaurant and sharing a car to being able to actually now have a house. My mom’s been able to retire,” Simington says. “It took us from absolutely nothing to living a good life.”


Jeremy Repanich

Another restaurateur gets his shot with the spiky-haired fella (jrepanich/Instagram)

Deep in East L.A., across from some railroad tracks near an industrial park, I sat in the side room of a tiny house that had been converted into a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant, waiting for Guy Fieri.

This wasn’t some PR flak’s idea, and Guy wasn’t expecting me, but I had weaseled my way on set because I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew the Guy—my fellow Playboy editor went to college with a Triple-D cameraman, and I tagged along to the restaurant when he went to visit his old friend. I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch Fieri film the show I had interviewed so many people about, to see with my own eyes how he got down to business.

Triple-D’s crew had arrived at the restaurant ahead of Guy to get b-roll and prep for the segments they’d shoot that day with the host. The restaurant owner’s parents smilingly pointed us to some fruit they’d cut up to share with the crew and a few friends of the chef milled around outside. The tiny side room off the kitchen was calm and quiet until Fieri briskly strode in and the restaurant turned into a beehive of activity. He sat on a chair in the corner and his producers swarmed, walking him through the beats of the segment, and the steps the chef would go through, while another person applied some makeup.

From the moment Fieri arrived, he seemed totally in control. He was clearly more than some vapid host just taking his marching orders. Fieri listened intently, gave suggestions on how to structure the segment, effortlessly pivoted to how they could shoot some network promos that day, chimed in with some jokes about the recent Food Network upfronts, and helped defuse a situation where a guy was blasting his stereo outside in an attempt to disrupt the taping (It took $100 and a chimichanga to resolve it—Fieri had hoped a chimichanga alone could have done the trick).

When filming commenced, I wedged myself between the restaurant’s dishwasher and a production assistant just outside the kitchen and peeked over a cameraman to watch the action unfold. The chef had a nervous energy—he was smiling, but tense—and Fieri could sense it. The host played a little bit, probing and teasing and looking for ways to open his on-screen partner up. In one flourish, Fieri teased out how this place had been a restaurant, then a house, then a restaurant again, then a different restaurant. When the owner didn’t quite follow at first, Fieri stopped and let him know why he was goofing around with this odd little fact. It was for the restaurant’s benefit. “People want an adventure, they want a character,” Fieri told him. “I’m joking with you about the house because I want you to be someone people want to come out and meet.”

After filming wrapped, Fieri pulled the owner and his parents aside, and gave them practical advice about prep before service, and places he saw that could be streamlined in order to help cope with the extra business that would be coming their way after the show aired.

My co-worker and I stuck around. No sense in heading way out to East L.A. to be around good food and not partake. We had the chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito stuffed with perfect Korean pork and topped with sriracha mayo. A goddamned heart attack is what it was. An absolutely delicious heart attack, made with care by an independent entrepreneur, served humbly, and probably looked down upon by certain corners of the culinary establishment. I imagined Guy’s critics thinking, “There he goes again,” if they saw him featuring this meal. Then I imagined those same critics if they’d first heard about this chimichanga from Anthony Bourdain. They’d think it was an act of genius.


Jeremy Repanich is a Senior Editor at Playboy and host of the show Let’s Get Fat. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize.

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