Diners Declassified: Behind the Scenes with Guy Fieri
With the precision of a surgeon, Guy Fieri can dissect a kitchen — any kitchen — in 30 seconds flat.
It's 7:45 a.m., and Guy is rummaging through a tiny burger-and-seafood joint called Big & Little's in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. From my perch on one of the 10 barstools (the restaurant's only indoor seating), I can see the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives crew buzzing around, making last-minute adjustments to lighting, testing sound levels and ensuring onions are chopped, eggs are cracked and everything is in shiny metal bowls, ready for showtime. But Guy is off on his own, digging through drawers and firing questions at the restaurant's co-owner Tony D'Alessandro (the "Little" of Big & Little's), who is nervously watching the spiky-haired, tattooed host of the show inspect his kitchen.
An audio engineer nicknamed Butterbean (every member of the crew has a Guy-given nickname) leans over to Tony and whispers, "Guy might be a little standoffish. He likes for everything to be on camera and doesn't want to talk too much beforehand."
Standoffish is right. Guy jerks his head toward the grill and barks at Tony: "Thirty-six inches?" It is. He grabs a saute pan. "De Buyer?" Yup. He sniffs an unmarked shaker of seasoning. "Truffle salt." Right again.
After filming more than 150 episodes of "Triple D," as Guy calls it, there isn't a kitchen gadget, cooking tool or secret spice mix he hasn't seen. And even though he walked into this kitchen just a few minutes ago, he is now moving through it as if it were his own.
"This is a funky, funky joint," he announces. For a man who makes a living eating his way across the country and telling everyone how "are-you-kidding-me!?" awesome it all tastes, "funky" is a top-of-the-line compliment.
"Triple D is all about three things," Guy explains to me. "Food, story and character. We shine a light on places like this, which are run by people who love the same kind of food I love."
This morning he's going to get plenty of the food he loves—a pork belly po' boy with maple mayonnaise, sautéed foie gras with french fries, and fish and chips with tartar sauce. It's a calorie bomb of a breakfast.
"I need to stay disciplined on the road," Guy says. "Too much food can wreck your palate." Then he points to an oversize Styrofoam cup in his hand. "And I juice."
I peer into the cup to get a rare glimpse at what the First Dude of Diner Food eats for breakfast, and it's not pretty. In Guy's hand is a sludge-brown liquid made of carrots, apples, honeydew melon, bok choy and blueberries. He winces as he sips it.
The producer on set, Lamb Chop, signals that it's go time, and then lights, camera, action—the Guy train leaves the station.
As he works, Guy jumps seamlessly from role to role. At first he's the goofball, doing his best impressions from Scarface to get Tony to laugh and loosen up. An instant later, he's the food expert, explaining why pork belly needs to be rendered before it's fried. Then he turns into the cooking-show host who, while Tony is making maple mayonnaise, takes the time to suggest to viewers that we should all be making our own mayo because it is just that easy.
As Tony starts collecting crisp, greasy pork belly morsels from the fryer, one, then two, then a handful of them disappear down Guy's hatch.
For good measure, Guy chucks a few bites over the counter as he tries to feed me, SeaWorld-style, by lobbing food that I'm supposed to catch in my mouth. I fail, and pork belly bounces off my forehead.
This is all the lead-up to the most important moment of every Triple D segment: The Bite. Guy has single-handedly transformed the act of eating into the heart-pounding, buzzer-beating jump shot of food TV. It is completely quiet on set as Tony lays the sandwich in front of Guy, who grabs it and assumes The Hunch. Tony stares at Guy in anticipation, Lamb Chop leans into her monitor and Butterbean lowers the mic to record every last crunchy chew. Then Guy rips in once, twice, then a few more times for good measure, making sure the editors have a whole archive of money shots to choose from. Each bite comes with a different Guy-ism about how good it is—Slammin'! Prime time! Rockin'!—and a complete description of the spiciness of the meat, the sweetness of the mayo, the texture of the bread.
Lamb Chop calls "cut" and Guy recedes into the corner as the crew sets up for the foie gras and fries. He signs a few hats and posters, but every few minutes he grabs his phone and checks it. Turns out, this is no ordinary morning on the Triple D set: Guy's $200,000-plus yellow Lamborghini had been stolen from a San Francisco car dealership where it was being serviced, and Guy's in-box has exploded. Sammy Hagar and Mario Batali have sent their regrets. A fan has blogged that it will probably only take the thief "a minute to skin it." Guy is glued to his phone, catching each and every development.
As Guy tells me how the thief repelled Spider-Man–style down from the roof, disabled the alarm and made off with his car (one of 10 he owns, all of which he calls his "kids"), he's almost smiling. If he had watched this heist go down in a movie, he probably would have loved every second of it, but in reality, the situation is not so fun.
The filming continues: the foie gras and fries, then a portion of fish and chips so big that Guy redubs it "whale and potatoes." Lamb Chop calls the final "cut," and Guy pulls Tony and his co-owner, Gary Strauss, aside for a chat. They look surprised, and a little bit scared.
"Get your game together," Guy whispers. "Get ready. Have shirts and sweatshirts and bobbleheads. Your business is going to increase at least 100 percent." He isn't exaggerating. Most restaurateurs featured on the show say that after the episode airs, their worlds turn upside down. Out of nowhere, lines start wrapping around the block, people drive hundreds of miles out of their way, wait hours for a table and ask the owners for autographs. "It's a huge responsibility," Guy says of his Midas touch. "One owner told me it changed the economic profile of his family."
After wrapping at Big & Little's, Guy stands next to the show's iconic red 1967 Chevy Camaro, waiting to film the "We're in Chicago at?" part of the show. Cars are slowing down to catch a glimpse of the action. Fans are honking. Gawkers are collecting across the street and snapping pictures with their phones. Someone yells "Yo, Guy!" from the passenger seat of a pickup truck, and Guy lifts his index and pinkie fingers in response.
Everyone in Chicago seems to love Guy Fieri. Everyone, that is, except the security guard at the Wrigley Building downtown. Guy has arrived to record some voice-overs for an episode at a studio on the 16th floor, but he doesn't have his driver's license on him and the security guard won't let him past the lobby.
"Who are you?" the guard demands.
"I'm filming a TV show here in Chicago," Guy responds patiently.
"Well, you need an ID."
Guy convinces him to call the studio and have the folks up there vouch for him. After a short exchange with someone on the other end of the line, the guard turns to Guy with the phone still to his ear.
"So, you know how to cook or something?" he asks.
"Yeah," Guy says, "something like that."