LAKE BUENA VISTA
It didn't go smoothly. Guy Fieri was visiting Disney Springs — the reimagined dining, retail and entertainment district at Walt Disney World Resort — for the relaunch of Planet Hollywood. The restaurant had been completely overhauled, transformed into a four-story stargazing observatory with a newly expanded outdoor terrace and bar, as well as a state-of-the-art, 4,500-square-foot interactive video wall. Fieri was on hand to introduce the media to the restaurant's "Big Bite Burgers" and signature sandwiches, a menu he has personally created for Planet Hollywood.
Only, the fire marshal was having none of it. Every "t" must be crossed, every "i" dotted, every inspection passed with flying colors before a restaurant is cleared to open.
It was not cleared. Public relations folks scurried, camera crews schlepped equipment from the video wall level down to the vestibule and then, at the strong urging of the fire marshal, all the way out to the sidewalk in front. Our photographer was briefly trapped inside with gear while a bevy of "Big Bite Burger" samples began to look a little long in the tooth in the afternoon sun.
Amid the chaos, Fieri, 49, wearing one of his black "Knuckle Sandwich" T-shirts, dark shades and a bemused smile, took a seat and began to graciously answer my questions. He had done precisely this with interviewers for the previous eight hours, but maybe that's what it takes to be the winner of The Next Food Network Star and the star of Guy's Big Bite; Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; Guy's Grocery Games; and a whole bunch of other cooking, food and food-ish television shows.
So, Guy, tell us a little bit about what you're going to be doing here for Planet Hollywood Observatory.
I was asked by the Planet Hollywood team to come down to Orlando and create a specific section of their menu doing Guy Fieri burgers and sandwiches.
They didn't think of you for salads?
No, (but) don't get me wrong. I can rock a salad. I'm a big salad fan myself. But they wanted specifically the burgers, so I brought down my team and I brought down a pretty wide variety of burger styles, and we agreed on this. We've got something that's going to wow the crowds.
A friend of mine, Ray Lampe, or Dr. BBQ, said to start this interview with the real Guy story, about all the mom-and-pop restaurants you've saved, and in some cases made big successes. He said there's a waitress at Munch's in St. Petersburg who saved $40,000 after the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives starring Munch's aired. Is that something you hear a lot?
The Triple D effect is a real thing. It's really hard for someone who doesn't own a restaurant to understand the impact that Triple D has on the show. It's not me. I'm just the guy who hosts the show. The show's bigger, much bigger than I am. It's a production team and a research team, and it's all these fantastic mom-and-pop joints around the country, now worldwide. And what it's about, it's highlighting mom-and-pops, Americana, family, people coming together making great food. A mom-and-pop restaurant in today's world cannot compete with chain restaurants in the advertising and marketing that is necessary. Triple D is a gigantic spotlight on somebody for a moment and it changes lives. It's awesome.
Do you think Triple D kind of invented the whole idea of television-based culinary tourism?
I think it's really Food Network. I really attribute a tremendous amount of the success that food tourism has had, if that is the term, to the great hosts and chefs on Food Network who have taken the time to show people what's available and how it works. I think it goes back to Robin Leach back in the day, opening people's eyes to the reality of how much more is going on out there than we all assume. I say to folks all the time, slow down, take a look around. Don't go to the obvious place that's in front of you across the street from your hotel. Ask the concierge: Where's a mom-and-pop place? Where's a place that's been here for 50 years?
You've always seemed to have a real affinity for Florida. And you've said great things about Miami. What is it about Florida that has resonated with you?
I've never met anybody that says, "I don't love Florida," okay? Look at it. You got the weather. You got the eclectic mix of people. You're surrounded by water almost completely. You've got so many cultures available, from Southern culture to the Eastern culture, to the Cuban culture, to the island culture. It's all here. If you can't find something to do in Florida, you're just boring, you know?
Speaking of Cuba, on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives recently, you went to Cuba with the family, right? What I was struck by is that you seemed surprised. Did it defy your expectations, did you learn something new, or did you have a new perspective on Cuban food or culture?
I'd always been a fan of Cuba. I enjoy cigars and was always taken by the mystique of Cuba. And disappointed in some of the stories, you know, the history of what had happened and where things were. You've got a country so close. We should have such a great relationship with it, you know? So when I went over, I really didn't go over with any expectations. I just went over with, "Give me what you got." The cars were amazing. They're stuck in time in a lot of aspects. The internet wasn't readily available, so people were living in kind of their own bubble. They had as many questions about our culture.
Food's great, people are endearing, the countryside is beautiful. The arts and the celebration of family is huge. I would go once a month if I could. I imagine I got to see it at a time when it was pretty young and precious, but I don't think it'll ever be too overly done. We got to go way out there in the tobacco fields and just met some amazing people, hardworking people. So, yeah, it's one of my favorite visits I've ever had.
What do you do when you eat something that you don't like? One of my editors' theories is that when you love something, you're like, "Mmmmm," you go pre-verbal. And that when you don't like something, you talk a lot.
Interesting perspective. People have tried to figure out the algorithm of how it works. You know, if I don't like it, you don't see it. That's just flat out.
Your mama taught you right?
I've got a lot of people counting on me. I'm not saying everything on the menu in that restaurant is great. I'm telling you about the few items that I chose, and I'm telling you the way the people are, and I'm telling you the comments that I've gotten from other guests. Those things are all true. But if I don't like it, you don't see it. Have I walked out of restaurants? Yeah. Have we not aired restaurants that we've shot? Yeah.
You notoriously dislike eggs. How do you get around them, and are there any exceptions?
Oh, I eat eggs every once in a while. My buddy Andrew Zimmern, he was on the show in Minneapolis a couple of years ago, and they put a raw egg on the pizza and he said, "C'mon, eat it." Alright. Hard-boiled and scrambled — that's just not the way I like to party. My wife will sit there and bust that yolk and scoop with the bread and the whole thing and …
You have to avert your gaze? I'm not going to ask you about the notorious New York Times Pete Wells review of your Times Square restaurant Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, but in terms of criticism, how do you not have that affect you, or how do you get to the next place?
That's the beautiful thing about our country, freedom of speech. But you don't have to listen to anything you don't enjoy. I really take opinions and recommendations and considerations from people who I respect and I believe have validity. We share a friend, Ray Lampe, Dr. BBQ. If Ray Lampe called me and said, "Hey, you know, I went to your restaurant and I had the burger and this wasn't right," I'd listen with open ears. But you've got to consider the source, you know? I've got so many other positive, awesome things going on. Not that I'm not aware of always trying to get to the next level. I'm not crazy to think that I can't do better. I absolutely can do better. I strive to do better every day, as a chef, as a dad, as a person and as a man.
So, how did the red Camaro thing start? What's the backstory of that car? And where does it live and is it something you really drive?
I stole it. No, we were going town to town shooting the pilot for the show, borrowing cars from people. It has to be a convertible so we can have the camera shots inside of the car. Cars are too dark otherwise. So we had to have a convertible, and I said, you know what? That convertible Camaro we drove, that's the car, because I'm a Chevy guy. And the producer went and bought the exact car we'd borrowed. And that car wasn't in very good shape. I mean, it was kind of falling apart. So we used that for a couple seasons and then I went and bought my own Camaro, restored it, did it exactly the way I wanted it. If it's going to be the face of the show, it'd better be a righteous ride.
Everyone said I had to ask you about the hairstyle. How did it start? Is it evolving?
Boring topic. Move on. These questions are getting old. You're slipping.
Okay. How about favorite meal as a child?
My parents are both really good cooks. My dad was the one who probably had the most influence on me cooking because he would always challenge me to try different things. I mean, I was eating sushi when I was 8. But my favorite was when we got to have something like Italian sausage in tomato sauce, spaghetti or taco night.
Was this like Ortega taco shells?
Oh gosh, no. My parents were way too hippie for that. No, we were making our own tortillas. I grew up eating real food. My mom baked bread. I mean, no one wanted to trade lunch with me, you know?
You were the kid with the brown bread?
Yes. I make my kids make their own lunch. My son Ryder is in fifth grade now, and when he started fourth grade he had to be able to make his own breakfast. When he started fifth grade, he had to make his own lunch. And so he makes his own lunch. I told him, sixth grade is right around the corner. You'll be learning to do your own laundry. I think these are life skills kids need to have.
Any other projects on the horizon for you, Guy?
We're getting ready to do a big project in Dubai. And we're getting ready to do South Africa. We just opened in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and we're talking about doing a couple more stateside projects. We're rockin' and rollin' in Las Vegas and just opened Philadelphia. Planet Hollywood's Robert Earl is a great guy and quite a mentor for what can happen. You've got to think big to be big, and he's definitely opened my eyes to quite a few things.
But it doesn't stop. Just when we think it's going to be a mellow third quarter, something will come up. I'm having the greatest time in my life, you know? I've got healthy kids, a wonderful wife, my mom and dad, great friends, a great company and a great team inside of my company. I'm working in the industry that I've always wanted to be in, and I get to do it to the highest level.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.