Guy Fieri: Miami Is One of the Great Food Cities

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The South Beach Wine & Food Festival arrives February 19 through 22 with more than 75 events, tastings, parties, seminars, and dinners. The bash, which benefits Florida International University's dining and tourism programs, brings thousands of fans and celebrity chefs to Miami.

With his spiked blond mane, Guy Fieri may be one of the most recognizable celebrity chefs in the world. The Ohio-born 47-year-old's career trajectory skyrocketed in 2006 when he won on the show The Next Food Network Star. Suddenly, millions of fans wanted to take a trip to "Flavortown" with the high-energy character. But few people know Fieri's relationship with food began in his childhood, when his father offered to help him build a pretzel cart. Later, with partner Steve Gruber, he opened his first Johnny Garlic's restaurant about a decade before Food Network "discovered" him.

These days, Fieri is the host of several Food Network shows, including Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Guy's Grocery Games. He owns about a dozen restaurants and has partnered with Carnival Cruise Lines to bring Guy's Burger Joint to some very big ships. Even the infamous pan of his Times Square restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, by the New York Times' Pete Wells didn't set Fieri back. A few days later, the celebrity chef caught the redeye from California to the Big Apple to give his rebuttal on the Today Show: "People see me as a TV guy. I'm really a chef. I'm really into restaurants."

The unstoppable toque is filming in California but will take time to fly to Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, where he will cohost Meatopia: The Q Revolution Saturday evening. New Times spoke with the mayor of Flavortown about what he has in store for the Magic City.

New Times: You're hosting Meatopia, a New York event that's making its Miami debut this year. What can we expect?

Guy Fieri: [Meatopia founder] Josh [Ozersky] is quite a character and a good buddy of mine. When a buddy calls and asks, "Would you be involved?" I say sure. It's not just about the food. It's about chefs coming together. It's about the creativity. It's about the artistry. You want to talk about thinking outside the box? This event is on the other side of the room from the box. If you're coming to see something unique and odd, you'll see some of that. If you want to see someone roasting a whole 1,100-pound steer, you'll see that. If you're interested in talking with the chefs and finding out what they're doing, it's going to be all of that and then some.

What will you cook at the event?

I'm bringing my team and we're going to be doing roasted pigs with some creative twists. Nobody wants to talk about what they're doing yet because they don't want to let the cat out of the bag. When we start talking about how we want to present our dish, we all start getting into it.

You'll also do a cooking demo at the Grand Tasting Village, where you've done everything from make frozen cocktails for a thousand people to toss pizzas. What's planned for this year?

I'm closing out Saturday's Grand Tasting Village, so in true Guy Fieri form, you'll see some exciting stuff. Of course, you'll always get a cocktail. I'm getting everybody ready, mentally prepping them to go to the big parties afterward. We'll have fun with it, we'll get loud, but I want people to have a takeaway on what a great festival this is.

We have a fiduciary responsibility -- that's a big word, isn't it? We have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure people are entertained because there's a lot of money being raised for kids, and tickets aren't cheap. I said I'm the last guy, so don't go turning the lights out, because if the party gets going like I want it to get going, we'll stay until I say it's time to wrap it up. One of the dishes I'm making, I can't tell you what it is, but there will be a wow factor.

Your show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives [AKA Triple D] has filmed multiple times in Miami, and your Guy's Burger Joint is on several Carnival ships that sail from South Florida. What's your attraction to our city?

In my opinion, Miami is one of the great food cities. People go for the weather and for the ocean, but there's so much cultural influence and great food. It doesn't matter where you find that food. It can be a hole in the wall. I've had some of the best Haitian food I've ever had in my life in Miami. Can I tell you where the restaurant is? Absolutely not, because I was taken there by some of my buddies. SushiSamba is one of my favorite places to go. I love Sakaya Kitchen, Tap Tap, Blue Collar, La Camaronera. When we come out for the festival, we're coming a day early and hanging out with Chris from Scully's and going out on an airboat.

Would you ever open a restaurant here?

I think there might be a possibility. But I've come to learn when opening restaurants in markets I'm not from is that you need to have somebody local on the ground. Take Sakaya Kitchen: I wouldn't in a million years think that was a good place to open a restaurant, but [owner Richard Hales] also has Blackbrick right across the street in what looks like a residential neighborhood. You know where I would want to put a place? Right in the middle of South Beach. Yeah, I think you need a little Guy Fieri California-style.

Tell us about your start.

Out West we didn't know what a soft pretzel was, and I was in Tahoe skiing and there was this guy who sold soft pretzels. I must have spent my entire allowance on those pretzels. So my dad said, "Why don't you make your own pretzel cart," and he helped me build this cart when I was in fifth grade. I was selling pretzels at rodeos and the fair. When I was a sophomore in high school, I had saved up enough to be an exchange student. I was only 15 and I took a semester of French at the local college, and when I was 16 I lived in France, and that's when it all hit me. That was it. Game over. This is what the world of food is.

Did you ever want to go on the celebrity track?

I'm not a TV person. That's exactly what the funny part is. All I ever wanted was to be a great dad, like my dad. I wanted to have my own business; I wanted to be creative. I just wanted to open my own restaurant, and I was happy as can be when I did that. I had a great business partner, and we opened another restaurant and another. Then one of my buddies said there's this show on Food Network, and I had no idea what I was getting into. But I sent a video in because everyone hassled me and dared me, and I didn't want to do it, just like anyone wouldn't want to do it.

I figured, This is going to be a neat experience. I'm going to meet Emeril Lagasse and I'll get to see New York, because I had never been there. I had no idea how it would fly, and I won. The beauty of this has been getting to know all these great people and all the things I get to do. We've done over 800 Triple D locations. And that's the reason I'm a chef, because I love making people happy. I love the smile on someone's face when they bite into something and they say, "Wow!"

Fieri will appear at the following SoBeWFF events:

Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village featuring MasterCard Grand Tasting Tents & KitchenAid Culinary Demonstrations: Saturday, February 21, from noon to 5 p.m. at the Grand Tasting Village, 13th Street and Ocean Drive, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $225.

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's Meatopia: The Q Revolution, presented by Creekstone Farms, hosted by Guy Fieri, curated by Josh Ozersky: Saturday, February 21, from 7 to 10 p.m. beachside at the Delano, 1685 Colllins Ave. -- Enter beach at 1 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $250.

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter @LaineDoss and Facebook.

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