F&W Game Changers: Guy Fieri
Just recently, a good friend of mine-a stoic 40-something tenured professor and father of two-began to cry a little as he spontaneously recapped an episode of Guy's Grocery Games. After speaking on the phone with a contestant's 9-year-old daughter, host Guy Fieri allowed the contestant-a financially struggling single mother and chef-to sidestep the show's final challenge and simply take home the $20,000 prize. A bit of feel-good TV magic? Sure. But these days, who couldn't use it? And what's more, showmanship and philanthropy are a natural blend for the Mayor of Flavortown.
Fieri has tended to be low-key about the latter, surprisingly. Just a few years ago, as wildfires ravaged Northern California's wine country, reports surfaced that the chef and TV star was out there feeding frontline workers. I contacted his team to see if he wanted to talk about it for a story, and they politely declined. He just wanted to do the work, serving the people who were putting their lives on the line to save the place he grew up in and still calls home. Fieri did this again, again, and unfortunately again as several million acres were consumed by flames, sometimes joining forces with José Andrés' World Central Kitchen or Operation BBQ Relief, but always keeping firefighters, first responders, and anyone else who needed it fed, while staying out of the spotlight himself.
Speaking of tears, the first time I met Fieri in person, he got misty, recalling an early affirmation from Emeril Lagasse, a fellow chef turned star turned mega-fundraiser. The compliment was along the lines of Fieri being the future, and for a man who'd started The Awesome Pretzel Cart in fifth grade, studied cooking as a high school exchange student in France, and worked in restaurants from then on because he knew it was his calling, that must have felt like something of a benediction-but also a mandate.
In 2020, as COVID-19 laid waste to the industry he holds dear, Fieri answered the call, and this time he flipped on his siren. Partnering with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, he worked his industry contacts, making personal pleas to CEOs, celebrities, and his legions of fans to contribute to the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, providing one-time $500 grants to 43,000 restaurant workers who suffered financially due to the pandemic. That cash stacked up to $21.5 million in seven weeks. His star-packed Guy's Restaurant Reboot handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a number of restaurant entrepreneurs on a livestream in early June. If we've learned anything about Guy Fieri, that's just an appetizer. On a recent planning call for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the first thing he asked was, "How can I help raise a ton of money for charity?" I admit it, I teared up.