I’m sitting with this guy I know, in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, talking a little about food but more about life. I’m nibbling on a machaca burger and sipping on a jalapeño margarita; he’s talking about his kid’s first year in college.
“He’s my best friend,” he says of his oldest son, Hunter. “I’m just so proud of the way he behaves. I mean, we still have our ups and downs, and we didn’t have the greatest first semester. We passed.
“We spent the summer before he came to school together in Europe. We did seven countries, 14 cities in 30 days. We went from Greece through Italy, through Switzerland, through Germany, through France to London, then down to Spain. We did it because all his life, I’ve told him I was going to take him to where food started, and see what it’s like to be in the hills of Greece milking a sheep in the heat, and to realize that little bit of milk we got is going to make cheese and feed our family. I’m not kidding—it was a life-changing experience for him and for me.”
Okay, so I don’t really know this guy, but I feel like I’ve known him for years, and so do you. I’m sitting with Guy Fieri in his Mexican restaurant in Vegas, El Burro Borracho at the Rio, and the trip he’s talking about was captured on camera as Guy and Hunter’s European Vacation, one of Fieri’s many Food Network shows.
Hunter has followed in his famous father’s footsteps by studying at UNLV, which gives Fieri a third good reason—besides this new joint and his Guy’s Vegas Kitchen & Bar at the Linq—to spend more time in Las Vegas.
You might not be used to hearing Fieri talk about anything other than over-the-top food, big delicious plates with occasionally goofy names like the Trash Can Nachos or Lava Rock Shrimp Tacos I’m seriously considering ordering next. You may expect his every other sentence to contain a catchphrase like, “This is out of bounds!” or “Shut the front door!” or “We’re riding the bus to Flavortown!” They don’t pop up, but we definitely talk about this food and this drink.
With the burger, dubbed El Hombre, “you get the rich, you get the crunch, you get the cream and you get the spice. You’ve got two different types of meats going on. And if you’re gonna have a Mexican-American experience of a burger, it better have beans and fresh-made pico de gallo.” It also has a melty cheese sauce and a layer of spicy pepper jack, shaved jalapeños, guacamole and whatever burro sauce turns out to be. It’s pretty great, but I like the signature caliente margarita even better.
“I do not like 90 percent of margaritas. Too sweet,” Fieri says. “The foundation of most margaritas is a premixed, processed, pasteurized snow-cone liquid. We make our own sweet-and-sour from scratch, our own simple syrup, and fresh-squeezed lime juice. I don’t believe in taking a super-ultra premium tequila and drowning it in something where you’re never gonna taste the añejo. Use a really good tequila, muddle a little jalapeño and cilantro, which keeps it from being one-note, then lime and sweet. Done.”
This is the Guy Fieri we all know, the guy who has anchored 24 seasons of Food Network’s most popular show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with his colorful, casual, ever-enthusiastic style over the past nine years. The bleached-blonde spikes and goatee, the big smile and the big bites of anything and everything at roadhouse restaurants across the country—the show is infinitely enjoyable, and you have to give Fieri the lion’s share of credit.
“He’s boisterous, a party animal, and has a good time with food, teaching people to enjoy the entire process and not be threatened by cooking it,” says Robin Leach, who was Food Network’s first on-air hire and its spokesman when the network launched in 1993. “I knew immediately he would become a major star. He is a blue-collar star chef. It’s all about the relatability quotient, and he has it in spades.”
After winning the second season of The Next Food Network Star in 2006, Fieri, who had been operating his own Italian restaurants in Northern California, debuted his first TV show, Guy’s Big Bite. More would follow, including Guy’s Grocery Games and the food-less family game show Minute to Win It on NBC, along with several cookbooks, a line of salsas and sauces, and more restaurants. But it was “Triple D” that made him a household name, the show that airs new episodes on Fridays and multiple installments up to five days a week. Like a consensus favorite film, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives seems to find its way to our TV screens and stay there, sticky-sweet viewing that can inspire impulsive taco runs or chicken-wing chases.
“I had just won Food Network Star, and this production company came along with an idea for the show, this pitch, and the network said, Okay, let’s use the new guy,” Fieri says. “Of course, no one wants to take their super-exciting new show idea and get stuck with the new guy.”
But Fieri’s easy style won out, proving the perfect fit for the format from day one. “When the producer yelled, ‘Cut!’ he asked, ‘What was that in there? You didn’t ask the questions in the kitchen the way I told you to.’ But I can’t do it in a formal way. I’m a chef, I own restaurants, and there’s a behavior in the kitchen you have to have. And he said, ‘Can you do it like that every time?’ Now we all laugh about it, how bummed they were about getting the new guy.”
The fact that everyone’s welcome at this party (not to mention Fieri’s enormous audience) makes him a natural fit for the Vegas Strip, the center of celebrity cuisine—so much so that he was almost late to the party when he partnered with Caesars Entertainment to open a bar and restaurant at the Linq two years ago. It’s one of the busiest restaurants on the Strip—often turning out 2,000 covers a day—and hasn’t slowed down.
“We’re still waiting for that to happen,” jokes executive chef Tony Leitera, a Vegas native who was working in Indiana when Caesars and Fieri lured him back to open the Linq. “It’s more like we keep growing and expanding every month. I keep thinking it’s going to taper off but it doesn’t.”
By all accounts, Fieri is the character on TV, the guy who’s incredibly excited to check out whatever’s cooking. Leitera was struck by how quickly their friendship formed, and after spending time with the star chef in the past couple of years, I can relate.
“He digs pretty deep when he’s talking to you, especially if you’re somebody who’s going to represent what he does,” Leitera says. “He’s larger than life, but he brings the people around him in close and makes you feel like you matter. And he’s as involved in this food as I am, as involved as any chef I’ve worked with.”
Fieri’s natural inclination to chop it up with his restaurant brothers whenever he’s in town—or with anyone he’s working with, in any city—can complicate his already complicated schedule.
“I always wish for more time at home, or at the restaurants, or on the shows,” he says. “We get out on the road doing Triple D and come across a mom-and-pop joint and just make a great connection, really feel it, and the same goes at my restaurants. I love Las Vegas and getting to hang with this team on the line, sharing their experiences, and the next thing I know, I’ve already chewed up the three days I’ve got in town.”
He might only be in Vegas for a few days at a time, but Fieri is making many more visits these days, checking in with his son—“I love that UNLV is a big-little school, that you can still have access and support as a student”—and both restaurants. It’s a safe bet he’ll be doing more business here soon.
“I have a steakhouse concept in Atlantic City that just crushes it, and we have multiple conversations [with Caesars] on a regular basis about bringing it to Las Vegas,” Fieri says. “It’s kind of old-school, and Vegas has great steakhouses, but I think there’s room for different styles.
“And having two [in Vegas] is just ... come on! It’s incredible. When I was here [in school] it was all about going to the buffet. I only got to go to Caesars when my parents were in town. Doing this now, it’s like playing in the Super Bowl every week. If they come up with another spot for me, I’m jumping at the chance.”