Guy Fieri, elder statesman of Flavortown
MIDDLETOWN TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Guy Fieri looks as if he has prepared his whole life to be a middle-aged rock star.
He has grays in the famous goatee now, a faint tan line beneath his chain necklace and a pair of hulking middle-finger rings that do not slow his incorrigible fist-bumping. He talks about the higher purpose of his “namaste” tattoo and feigns outrage when no one recognizes his Dean Martin references. He revels, still, in conspicuous consumption, double-fisting naan and tandoori chicken during a recent television shoot here at a strip-mall Indian restaurant tucked between a nail salon and a wax center.
“I want to chug the chutney!” Fieri said, daring someone to stop him. “One little bump.”
It was 9:33 a.m.
But somewhere on a rickety highway near the Jersey Shore that afternoon — past the Jon Bon Jovi restaurant he said he needs to come back and visit; beyond a seaside bar called the Chubby Pickle, where he congratulated himself for not making any R-rated puns, before making several — Fieri caught himself in a reflective mood.
In the 15 years since he began “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” his Food Network flagship, Fieri, 54, has become perhaps the most powerful and bankable figure in food television, the éminence grise of the eminently greasy. And by dint of that show’s success — and Fieri’s runaway celebrity, and that golden porcupine of hair, and maybe that one review of his Times Square restaurant a while back — certain perceptions have attached to him through the years, perpetuating the caricature he still often seems eager to play.
He would like a word about all that.
“If you only hear Metallica as a heavy-metal band, then you are not hearing Metallica,” Fieri said, riding shotgun after a day of filming and charity work. “Now, maybe you don’t like that style. But they’re real musicians.”
For nearly two decades, since before he mailed a reality-show audition tape to the network, Fieri has plainly believed he was a real musician, contributing worthy entries to the canon.
What is striking now, long after the parody seemed to congeal, is that the wider food community stands ready to believe him.
Fieri has emerged as one of the most influential food philanthropists of the COVID age, helping to raise more than $20 million for restaurant workers. He has established himself as an industry mentor among chefs who may or may not admire his cooking but recognize his gifts as a messenger, which have boosted business for the hundreds of restaurants featured on his show. He has won the blessing of the white-tablecloth set through sheer force of charisma and relentlessness, coaxing a reconsideration of how the food establishment treated him in the first place.
“I don’t think he had the respect of people like me or people in the food industry,” said Traci Des Jardins, an acclaimed Bay Area chef who has become a friend. “He has earned that respect.”
“An amazing individual,” said philanthropic chef José Andrés, recalling how Fieri churned out plates of turkey for wildfire evacuees in 2018.
“Whether he likes it or not,” said Andrew Zimmern, a fellow food television veteran, “he has become an elder statesman.”
In that case, Fieri said, he looks forward to the initiation ceremony.
“Don’t you think there should be some kind of a cloak?” he asked, imagining luminaries fitting him for a tweed jacket with elbow pads over his tattoos. But, he added, “I guess I’m kind of becoming one of the guys now.”
His point, as ever, was that people are complicated, including Guy Fieri, professional uncomplicated person. Maybe especially Guy Fieri, whose very surname (it is “fee-ED-ee,” he reminds audiences, nodding at his Italian roots) demands fussiness from a man who says things like “flavor jets, activate!” for a living.
He is at once sensitive to the exaggerated persona he has embraced, challenging a reporter to name the last time his show recommended a hamburger, and acutely aware of his own ridiculousness. He calls himself semi-chunky as a matter of branding (“body by dumpling,” he said) but is actually quite trim in person, singing the praises of vegan food.
He is a son of Northern California hippies, with superfans across MAGA nation and what can seem like a bespoke set of personal politics, often using his platform to tell stories celebrating immigrants while lamenting what he sees as the country’s overreliance on welfare programs.
He can pass hours, by land or fishing boat, reflecting on life and family with a close friend, Rob Van Winkle, whom Fieri addresses as Ninja and most others know as Vanilla Ice.