Did Guy Fieri mean to become the head cheerleader for America’s mom-and-pop restaurants? Not according to him. But fifteen years into his runaway hit food and travel show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, he’s learned to wear that hat alongside others that include chef, dad, and car enthusiast. “I just wanted to give funky places some recognition,” he says. “I thought it’d last a season or two.”
Thirty one seasons later, “Triple D,” as Fieri calls it, is the Food Network’s longest-running show and Fieri its most prolific face. The morning we chat, Fieri at his home in Santa Rosa, California, I’m three hours ahead and nearly 3,000 miles away in Brooklyn—and he has a flight to catch. The Fieris are off to Maui for a vacation that was postponed last year, and he’s trying to find documents while saying goodbye to his dogs Roxy, Smokey, and Cowboy. At one point I overhear his wife telling him to hurry it up. “How hilarious would it be if you made me miss my flight?” he jokes.
And yet, he pinballs through our conversation with a blaze of energy and focus I know well, after years of virtually riding shotgun in the ‘68 Camaro he drives on the show. He compliments my questions, while going on anecdotal detours about Guns ‘n Roses concerts and trips to the Outer Banks. He liberally uses his TV-famous catchphrases—“Oh! My friend!,” he says recalling a roast beef he once ate; “It’s money”—which are as much Fieri’s flair as his bright bleached hair, Ed Hardy tees, and Oakley sunglasses. Talking with him is its own kind of ride, and it feels good.
Making people feel good like this is Fieri’s currency. Ostensibly a food show, Triple D has evolved beyond spotlighting the bison burger from a honky tonk in South Dakota or the goat curries of Little Haiti, to celebrate the hard working teams, often immigrants or the children of immigrants, that make these plates worth driving out of your way for. During 30-minute weekly episodes, he trumpets their stories and exalts their food with ecstasy-induced eye rolls, fist bumps, and bear hugs. It could all risk feeling a bit staged if you didn’t see yourself, just a little bit, in his theatrics. When I’m on the road and I stumble upon a little place that turns out to be fantastic, I, too, could hug a stranger. “When you step inside someone else’s universe, and they are telling you all about it, it is the best thing in the world!” he says.
Those small businesses that helped make him the face of quintessentially American dining are the same stock hit hardest by the pandemic. Maybe because this wasn’t lost on him, or maybe because he is just an all around good dude (or, I’d argue, a bit of each), Fieri sprang into action at the start of the pandemic when the government failed to do so.
Just weeks into California’s lockdown last March, he launched his Restaurant Relief Fund, which has raised over $22 million dollars for hard-working hospitality staff. The majority of the 43,000 recipients so far have been female, a demographic that has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-induced job loss. On Friday, he’ll host the live-streamed Conscious Collection: A Virtual Fine Wine and Spirits Auction where big ticket items on the block include dinner for ten with Sting and Trudie Styler at their home in Florence and cellar visits to Louis Roederer in Reims, France, with all proceeds going to America’s restaurant workers.
A lifetime exploring the United States is possibly why Fieri is that champion of the places and people you may only happen upon—and why he wants them to be there in the future. He’s been road tripping across all fifty states since he and his sister would pile into his parent’s Ford pickup and tie a camper to it while growing up in Northern California. It’s an annual tradition he’s carried on with his own two kids.
“The United States is so ready for discovery,” he says, “it is the most diverse and eclectic place anywhere. And for less money than it costs to go to Europe you can have the trip of a lifetime.” When he talks about the United States, his voice adapts this a sense of amazement; it’s as though he can’t quite believe that this country he has known for 53 years actually exists.
These days, he’s upgraded from the family pickup truck to a 48-foot motorhome that requires a commercial truck license. “Two hour drives don’t get me going,” says Fieri, a dedicated motorhead, “But 12 hours? Yeah!” That motorhome has taken the Fieris from California to Miami via the Texas panhandle, stopping at camping grounds so that Fieri could cook (chicken parmigiana is a favorite). During the pandemic, they drove through Utah and Nevada, stopping in locations like Area 51. “I felt like I had discovered the moon,” he says. These family road trips are still sometimes the source for finds that’ll end up on Triple D—like the seafood joint Cravens, behind a gas station in North Carolina, where he happened to stop late one night to grab a bite. (“I wasn’t about to waste a meal on a gas station rotisserie hot dog,” he says.) Later this summer, the Fieris will drive the motorhome up the west coast into Canada, borders permitting.
It’s expected, then, that his show charts a course that has become a literal road map of American food and storytelling. I’ve found myself scrolling through the Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives website when I’ve ended up in those mid-drive, in-between places, like Bradenton, Florida, where Triple D let the world know that ‘real deal’ Cubanos could be found at Jose’s Real Cuban.
As I plan my own summer travels, these are exactly the kinds of businesses I’m excited to get to know again. In part, because the pandemic showed us that even something as iconic as an American roadside diner isn’t guaranteed to be there tomorrow (Jose’s Real Cuban, for example, is now permanently closed).
One thing’s for sure—Fieri won’t ever take them for granted. “Part of Triple D is reminding people that we live in this unbelievable country,” says Fieri. “You just have to get out there and see it.”
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