May 14, 2013

Superstar chef Guy Fieri always reinventing

When he was honing his kitchen skills and fusion palate, superstar chef and restaurateur Guy Fieri left his imprint (and tire tracks) all over Sacramento – and vice versa.

Love him or hate him, he's our Guy.

That Cajun chicken fettucine? It debuted at American River College before selling millions. Bananas foster a la Fieri? First flambéed at the Sacramento Red Lion.

When he was honing his kitchen skills and fusion palate, superstar chef and restaurateur Guy Fieri left his imprint (and tire tracks) all over Sacramento – and vice versa.

"My whole philosophy of food: Do it as good as you can do it," Fieri said as he sampled two of his all-time favorites: Lava Rock shrimp cocktail and Sashimi Won Tacos.

The flavorful sauces, mango jicama slaw and creative garnishes all add their own notes to the final presentation.

"I'm always thinking about food," he added. "What am I going to make? Saturdays and Sundays are big food days for me; I spend all day at home on food."

At heart, Fieri remains a family man with deep Northern California roots who loves to cook (and drive fast cars). And he has a lot of fun doing both.

"I've got four different projects going on all at once," Fieri said with a broad smile. "I'm trying to keep it all concentrated, keep it focused."

With his familiar spiked blond hair and skull-covered chef's coat, Fieri recently returned to his old haunts to revamp his Sacramento signature restaurant. Last month, Johnny Garlic's (his sixth in the regional chain) replaced his former Tex Wasabi's on Arden Way in a move to strengthen and revitalize his original and fastest-growing brand.

The concept – California pasta grill – still works, he noted. The memorable name continues to make people chuckle, too. And contrary to Fieri conspiracy theorists, it didn't come out of a focus group.

"Garlic is a common denominator in food," he explained. "It's about my ethnicity. 'Johnny' is all-American; garlic, the universal superingredient. That's how the name came about. And it stuck."

This week, his fourth cookbook – "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: The Funky Finds of Flavortown" (William Morrow, 314 pages, $21.99), another spinoff from his cable show – debuts with nods to Sacramento. Jamie's Broadway Grille, Dad's Kitchen and Squeeze Inn are among the local gems featured in the book.

The Food Network's original superstar, Fieri hosts three TV series: the phenomenally popular triple-D franchise plus "Guy's Big Bite" and reality challenge "Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cookoff" with Rachael Ray.

Expanding his reach, he's been on a cross-country roll, not without bumps. (In November, the New York Times' savaging of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square went viral.) Expect a new Guy venture in Las Vegas soon.

With a shrug, Fieri sloughs off criticism. His brand still thrives.

Instead, he's turning his attention to children and family. He launched a foundation – Cooking With Kids – with the goal of wooing children into the kitchen.

"Cooking is a life skill; it's something they'll always be able to do," he said.

On weekends, Fieri cooks with his wife, Lori, and two sons at their Santa Rosa home. His oldest son, 16-year-old Hunter, is just starting out in the kitchen of the original Johnny Garlic's near their home.

"I told him I'm not buying him a car, so he said, 'When can I get a job?' " Fieri said. "I didn't push him; this is something he wants to do. But he had to start at the bottom and work up."

Fieri, who started out as a kid selling pretzels from a three-wheel bike in Ferndale, wants Hunter to learn the old-school way.

"He'll learn salads, pizza, grill, sauté, front of the house," Fieri said. "He said, 'Dad, I already know how to cook' – and he does. He cooked with me in the West Wing of the White House.

"But he doesn't know how to clean a pan if it's been burned. You know that if you've washed dishes – and you won't burn that pan again."

On Johnny Garlic's menu, Hunter inspired "Hunter's Creations," a wild game entree of the day such as wild boar spareribs.

Fieri's late sister, Morgan, has her entree, too: a vegetarian burger.

"My tribute is to name a menu item for people," he said. "It's my way to keep people alive, to recognize them.

"I lost my little sister to cancer two years ago," said Fieri, who has her image tattooed on his left arm. "She was a 38-year-old single mom with so much life. She challenged me to make a better veggie burger, so this is what I came up with."

Like his re-invented Sacramento restaurant, Fieri continues to come up with new twists on his old favorites.

"Food is a never-ending story," he said. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here, but tweaking the nuances. The challenge is to make it all happen."

Guy about town

Guy Fieri's newest Johnny Garlic's restaurant (the former Tex Wasabi's) is at 2243 Arden Way, Sacramento; (916) 927-8399.

Johnny Garlic's also has a location in Roseville at 10505 Fairway Drive; (916) 789-2000.

Hours at both restaurants, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Details and menu:

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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