It’s a charmed life. But Fieri’s mind, like most, is elsewhere. Before he became a restaurateur, an effervescent Food Network personality and the frequently memed mayor of Flavortown, Fieri worked in a variety of food service positions. With restaurants shuttered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, millions of those jobs — plus billions of dollars in sales, according to an estimate from the National Restaurant Association — have been lost. Unable to resume production on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” Fieri has channeled his energy into partnering with the association on its restaurant employee relief fund, which will be distributed to eligible applicants in $500 grants.
As of Friday, the fund had reached $10 million. Fieri has a goal of 10 times that — because “you can’t go on a road trip and not have a destination” — that he aims to achieve with corporate sponsors.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life. This is all I know,” Fieri says. “The TV thing is kind of like ‘Happy Gilmore.’ ‘I’m a hockey player,’ and then he gets into golfing. This is what I do. I love the restaurant business, and I know it inside and out. As soon as this happened and the restaurants started closing, I looked at my wife and said, ‘What are all these people going to do?’ ”
Fieri opened his first restaurant, Johnny Garlic’s, in 1996. (Though it wasn’t technically his first food business venture, if you count the childhood pretzel cart.) He recalls the “greatest thing in the world” being when a radio personality would walk into the place and then talk about it on the air, as a DJ named Jeff Blazy did at the time. The restaurant saw instantaneous results.
Decades later, the same seems to be true of Fieri visiting an establishment on “Triple D,” as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” is colloquially known. The show, which has amassed more than 30 seasons, follows the frosted-tipped celebrity around as he visits and shines a spotlight on mom-and-pop joints across the country. When Thrillist interviewed the owners of several featured establishments a few years ago, a Georgia barbecue shack noted a 200 percent increase in business.
“These are the places we celebrate the milestones,” Fieri says. “These are the places we go to get our fundraising donations for our kids’ soccer team. These are the places where we go on our first dates and our last dates. The good, the bad and the fantastic can all happen in restaurants.”
He continues: “This is a terrible time. Please recognize that you could have people losing everything — your favorite pizzeria, your favorite Indian restaurant, your favorite sushi joint, your favorite watering hole could all go away and be gone, and these people are onto a whole ’nother nothing.”
It is unclear when the show will be able to resume traditional production. Shoots in Hawaii and Texas were canceled, Fieri says, adding that “everyone’s kind of in limbo, and what I keep trying to remind them all is that this, too, shall pass.” Until then, he relies on the videoconferencing platform Zoom, where he, along with a dozen of his favorite “Triple D” restaurants, will create the show as best they can.
Eventually airing on the Food Network, the quarantine version of “Triple D” will be shot on five GoPros with the help of Fieri’s 23-year-old son, Hunter, his newest producer. The restaurant owners will send Fieri their recipes, and the camera crew members, led by longtime director of photography Chico Rodriguez, will monitor the GoPro footage from their homes through FaceTime.
“You want to talk about a gigantic hot mess?” Fieri says with a laugh. “That’s exactly what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be awesome, creative. Just meeting the other day with the 12 of them was hysterical. I thought, how are we going to get something that really resembles television?”
For those who might be wondering, Fieri doesn’t dye his own hair.
“I might be like Joe Dirt by the time we do ‘Triple D’ in two months. There’ll be a whole new look,” he says. “I am recognizing just how much gray I’ve got. I won’t be having to [dye] it much longer.”
But his spirit remains the same. He can’t stand still — it drives him crazy. The other week, he made three kinds of meatballs — Italian, Mexican and Asian, he says — and then moved on to ribs, clam chowder, noodles and pizza dough, now in the oven. Fieri hasn’t had this much downtime since taking a break after his younger son was born. He feels fortunate to spend the time this way.
He and Hunter made a “French onion soup chicken” the other night, adding more roux to thicken up the sauce. This is the time for experimenting, Fieri says, and as the host of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” he shares a few shopping tips: Grab rice and beans, but maybe get them dried. Try quinoa and farro as grain alternatives. Stock up on spices. Cleanse your freezer of cookie dough to make room for big slabs of chicken thighs, pork butt and other meats “that’ll be a little more bang for your buck.”
“Listen, in today’s world, we’re in the greatest — you get videos, you go to the Food Network app,” he says. “Shameless plug. You go on there and have all my brothers and sisters teaching you.”
With the money saved by cooking at home, Fieri hopes those with means choose to support restaurant employees by ordering takeout now, by eating out more often once establishments open again or contributing whatever they can to relief funds like the National Restaurant Association’s.
“The recognition and support and enthusiasm has just been overwhelming,” Fieri says. “Part of what the restaurant business is about is the feeling. These are people who, when you walk through the door, smile at you and ask how your day is. The bartender sits and listens to your issue. Everybody’s got this personal connection, so when people in the business see the world they’ve taken care of is now taking care of them, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”