“When you call there and get put on hold, I am the on-hold dude,” Guy Fieri is telling me about the reservation line at his new New York City restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar — the eighth in a growing empire of restaurants based mainly in Central and Northern California, but with big plans for the future built around the high-ish stakes opening in the middle of Times Square. He’s talking about the voice recording to illustrate that he wasn’t just slapping his name on the venture. “I’m in every piece of it down to the phones.” And true to his word, the preparation for last month’s opening included five days of intense training with Fieri and his culinary team, aimed at fine-tuning his signature fusion sensibility. Think sashimi tacos made with “sushi-grade ahi” and General Tso’s crispy pork shank. “We make our own fries and they are gangster,” he says before describing a technique that he says goes beyond double frying.
This all leads to the issue with Guy Fieri. People, specifically the people who write about New York City restaurants, don’t have much need for a restaurant that is Guy Fieri all the way down to the phone message. They also don’t like a white man with frosted tips using the word gangster. So it’s pretty fair to say that there aren’t too many people interested in listening to Guy’s side of the story — a story about a guy who is also interested in talking extensively about his organic garden and the struggle to convince his army of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives fans that it’s just swell to make a bulgur salad with dried apricots and kale for dinner. Well, it’s pretty gangster.
Opening a restaurant is crazy, but opening a restaurant in Times Square has got to be double. Were there any surprises?
Brother, I’ve opened 20 restaurants or so — eight of my own personal restaurants—and it never gets easier. It’s all about planning and calculations and being aware of as much as you can possibly be aware of. There’s always going to be craziness, but opening in New York City? Wow! Everything from the signs being hung at two in the morning to people not driving to work – all the nuances came to play. It has been awesome and I really, really like the people and the culinary team. It was a far different experience, though, than any other restaurant I have opened.
What was hanging signs at two in the morning like?
It wasn’t as tumultuous as a lot of restaurants openings are, in that my business partner John Bloostein [of Heartland Brewery] is a really savvy dude. He has opened eight restaurants in New York City and had a great bearing on what it took and what we had to do.
Your publicist is taking me to your restaurant tonight. Give me a preview.
You’re going tonight? Brother, let me tell you something – you are going to flip! It’s not only big, but it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful space in an incredible building – the design and seating to it. There are 10 different styles of seats there. It’s eclectic, funky and has great music and antiques and artifacts.
What are some of your favorite dishes?
I’m a small plate kind of guy and like to have a variety of stuff. I love the chipotle pulled pork tacos. We have a smoker and rotisserie and are making everything ourselves back there, like the roasted corn salsa. The sashimi tacos are made with sushi-grade ahi and a little wasabi cream and a mango jicama slaw. I am into all of those little things like that. We do a roasted top round with creamed horseradish and jalapeño jack cheese and the au jus from the drippings, Worcestershire and red wine. On the entrée side of it, the porchetta is great and the pork shank. Wow! It’s braised once, cooled, fried, and then we hit it with a mojo on top. We are going to be offering another style as well with an Asian spin using a General Tso’s style spicy sauce.
The next morning I wrote the following e-mail to the publicist:
The food was really rocky and I think it’s more early days issues than the concepts, because those are there. The burger was good — messy and very diner-like with the iceberg lettuce and mayo. I wish it could be done med-rare, but that is a preference. That was a highlight. The root beer ribs were actually OK, in terms of flavor. They pulled that off, remarkably. But they were way too tough. You shouldn’t have to saw into a pork rib. The roasted pork shank was terrible — dried out and not brined at all. The egg roll was not good either — bland. The sashimi tacos were fine, though heavy on the soy (as I would expect with a restaurant with this clientele; not the worst thing). The Vegas fries were WAY too mushy to enjoy. We ate like three and gave up. Nasty. The kitchen fumbled that one, applying too much sauce (I discussed with the server, who took our feedback as well). The fries with the burger were crispier.
Do you expect critics to like your food? Because I think your food is not necessarily for critics. Would you agree?
I think critics are necessary because some people read what they write. It’s what their opinion is and I don’t base anything I do off of what they say. I am who I am and that’s kind of what it is. I appreciate that they take the time to do it and people are paying them to generate it, and it has some appeal to some folks. I’m okay with it. Is it successful? Well, my restaurants are really successful. I don’t keep opening restaurants because people don’t like the way I cook. I am a little bit more everyday kind of guy style. My food is straightforward, it has a lot of flavor, and I cook the way that I like to eat. If someone doesn’t really jive with it and it’s not their style, that’s their prerogative.
Do you read the critics?
No, no, no. It’s not what I am really motivated to work from.
Is your food only for guys?
I don’t think that my food is just for guys. We have a huge amount of females and families, so I don’t think it’s all cheeseburgers and nachos, and that’s not my gig. I’m not a big fried food fan. I was cooking last night and did catfish en papillote and a bulgur salad. I think when people look and think that they can define me and say all I eat is eat chili dogs, I think they are reading the first two lines of somebody else’s comments. Look at the depth of the way that I do food – look at my cookbook! I’m not defending myself, I’m like, “Whatever! That’s their opinion and that’s cool.”
So give me a lighter dish of yours that might surprise people…
It’s funny that you bring it up because I laugh about it when a regular fan comes up to me and says, “You eat the craziest, hottest food ever!” I’m like, “I do?” Or they will say that I eat the grossest food ever. Besides pig ears, a few lamb tongues and maybe two or three cat balls, I’m not Andrew Zimmern. I’m not up there trying to wow anybody – I tell him all the time that I just can’t even watch him do it because it scares me. I think that that’s what people misinterpret: the guys on the set were laughing because I’ve had kale around seven times over this run of twelve or thirteen shows. I’m a huge cauliflower fan, too.
For example, I couldn’t stand bulgur as a kid, but last night I did a lemon vinaigrette bulgur salad with Meyer lemon, thin-sliced red onion, julienned dried apricot and kale, with toasted almonds on top. Something light and crunchy and tossed over the warm bulgur. That’s more of what I eat. I have a huge organic garden that I am looking at right now with 10 different peppers, three different kales and tomatoes galore. Unfortunately, that’s not what everybody gets to see: they see a guy with spikey blond hair and some tattoos driving a hot rod around and they want to say that all this guy has eaten is corndogs…
I’d like to check out the garden sometime.
And we just built a big chicken coop, so now I have 16 free-range organic chickens. The coop is the size of most apartments. It’s really neat and that’s what we’ve been using on the show. I’m a huge organic fan, but how do you translate that on [Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives], you know? I translate that a lot on my cooking show, but the volume of people that watch a primetime show at night versus the cooking show that they air during the day is much greater. If I chased everybody around trying to explain my real energy and attitude about all this, I don’t think it would be a waste of time, but people discover what they want to discover.
What if you stopped running the drive-in show?
Well, I’m not hung up on it. I would like it to be better understood. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a tough show. We travel a lot and I have two boys. There is nothing that pains me more than being away from my family. What this show does for American mom and pop joints who all need a leg up in today’s economy and world is unquestionable. People love DDD – from movie stars to sports athletes to politicians – people love it. Even people who say that they don’t eat that kind of food. What’s funny is that I pick the menus and if you really go through it line-by-line about the items that we focus on, very little of it is fried. A lot of it is, “Give me your signature and what you are about.”
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