Friday, April 18, 2014 | 2:01 a.m.
Thursday was the day Emmy Award-winning TV host, chef and restaurateur Guy Fieri returned home to premiere his first Las Vegas restaurant. The UNLV graduate pays tribute to his alma mater with Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen & Bar at the Quad, and he gave me a sneak peek at the space and the mashup menu of bold flavors and unique twists on traditional dishes.
It’s been an incredible journey for the spiky-blond-haired New York Times-bestselling author who began his love affair with food at age 10 selling soft pretzels from “The Awesome Pretzel,” a three-wheeled bicycle cart he built with his father. By selling pretzels and washing dishes, Guy earned enough money in six years to study in France as an exchange student where he gained his appreciation of international cuisine.
It brought him to our UNLV culinary school, and in 1996 his career was launched when he opened Johnny Garlic’s in his hometown of Santa Rosa, Calif. A decade later, he premiered his first TV show, “Guy’s Big Bite,” on the Food Network after winning Season 2 of “The Next Food Network Star.” Today, this culinary rocker also hosts the cable network’s top-rated show, “Diners, Drives-Ins and Dives,” for which he’s filmed several episodes in Las Vegas in its 17 seasons.
Guy graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management at UNLV in 1990, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate for his public service and commitment to the school. I had the pleasure of presenting him with a UNLVino Dom Perignon Award of Excellence at the celebration party at Rain in the Palms.
On Jan. 1, 2012, the Food Network premiered his star-studded “Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off,” which has just wrapped its third season with Rio headliner magician Penn Jillette placing second and winning money for our Opportunity Village.
Guy and I walked his Vegas Kitchen & Bar kitchen with his executive chef, Anthony Leitera, and manager Michael Speagle. We sampled various dishes and then hit the bar to taste some unique drinks and draught beers. The two-level, 6,500-square-foot space features a large outdoor patio and dining area to seat 200 patrons with incredible Strip views.
The open, eclectic steel-and-wood design is filled with Guy’s famous tattoos incorporated as design elements, along with memorabilia from his UNLV days. Check out the menu binders and the embossed table napkins.
The Vegas Fries take Guy back to his college days. The sidewinder-cut fries are tossed in buffalo seasoning and wing sauce topped with shaved blue cheese and accompanied by blue-sabi dipping sauce. His Fireball Wings are a unique rendition as lollipops tossed in a buffalo-style sauce spiked with a blast of Fireball Whiskey.
Don’t miss the zesty tastes in his one-of-a-kind Vietnamese sandwiches made with crispy baguette taco shells packed with pulled pork, cilantro, sweet chili mayo and a spicy Sriracha dip. Talk about an exotic, never-ending array of flavors and tastes.
We sat down before the opening for a one-on-one chat:
So you have your hand in everything that’s here? It’s Guy Fieri from start to finish? Napkins with your tattoos? Where is that on your body?
Right here on my arm by my shoulder. It’s called a sugar skull. I lost my little sister three years ago to cancer, and that’s her tattoo. The way you honor someone when they’ve passed is by the Day of the Dead, the Dia de Muertos. You present the sugar skull. So that’s all in honor of my sister.
We lost Morgan to cancer at age 38, a single mom. Family’s a huge thing to me, so everything in the restaurant to me is my house. For a few years, I’ve been saying I’m coming to Las Vegas. This is now full circle.
This is restaurant No. 10 or 11. Restaurant 10 in terms of a freestanding restaurant. I’ve got eight of my own in California, one in New York, this one here, nine cruise ships, one university program, four restaurants getting ready to open up — Baltimore, Laughlin, Atlantic City this summer. Some like this one. Some will have a different concept. One’s a steakhouse, one’s a Mexican theme. So the total jumps to 14 pretty immediately.
New York is the biggest one; in fact, it’s the biggest restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life — 18,000 square feet, two stories, two kitchens, a real juggernaut doing really well.
But Las Vegas is going to be the favorite?
When we first started this process, there was a lot going on in this building with the Quad and the build-out with the Linq. We started configurations to put in a stairwell, we had to put in an elevator, there were a variety of things that took place. But here’s the thing I love about it. The end result of what we have is this cool, not too big, not too small, right on the Strip, open windows, see it all, open patio, open in the dining room, really cool bar and open kitchen.
Do you know why the open kitchen is so important to me? I mean, I don’t know how you like to eat, but to me I love to see chefs being on the stage. I wanna see what’s going on! I wanna see really where the action is. I think that’s one of the reasons we love sushi bars because we love to see people preparing the food and creating it right in front of us.
So although the kitchen is not directly in the middle of the dining room, as I originally hoped for, we have to work within our limitations. The Caesars team has been unbelievable. If I had a recommendation, they took it into account. I would say out of my wish list, my bucket list of things I wanted out of this restaurant, I’d say 90-percent-plus happened.
What took you so long to come to Las Vegas? The kid who left Las Vegas found fame and fortune in other parts of America.
I’ll tell you what it is and what it is not. I didn’t have to do Las Vegas for the business. I had to do Las Vegas personally, but I didn’t have to do Las Vegas like everything was hinging on it. There are a lot of TV shows going on, a lot of projects going on, a lot of things taking place, opening a winery, doing a lot with my foundation, and I’ve got two young kids, Hunter and Ryder. Hunter’s a junior in high school, Ryder’s in second grade. I’ve got these two going on, you know all these different pieces happening. It’s a lot going on.
When we started, we had talks with different groups in town and things would get some momentum, but people would fall out. Someone would leave, someone new would come in and didn’t know about the deal. So, honestly, I just kinda let it all naturally mature. I didn’t push it. I didn’t wanna have to be in there with a next-year-must deadline.
I just gave it some time like sitting on the egg. It couldn’t have been a better wait. This couldn’t be any better than now. Look at this location. I’m not stuck indoors. I’m so happy. Yes, would I have liked to have had it three, four, five years ago? Without question. But am I completely, overwhelmingly satisfied now? I’m out of my mind! The timing is right — just perfect.
When did you leave UNLV?
Well, I went to school so long, Robin, my dad thought I came out as a doctor. I went to the grand opening night of the Mirage. That was 1989. That’s when they landed the space shuttle, but this new hotel had tigers, dolphins. I wasn’t quite out yet. I just remember when it was Old Vegas. I mean when there was only Caesars tower when I was here first.
I remember meeting you when I got the award from UNLV at the Palms with the Dom champagne trophies. Wow! I remember watching all your shows — you are the man! You set the tone, and you’ve really taken over Las Vegas and to think that this has all come full circle. That was two years ago when I got my honorary doctorate from UNLV.
And I’m a huge patriot of my school, I’m a huge patriot of our country, so I’m one of those guys who has a lot of appreciation for things, especially history, so to put it all into perspective that the Mirage is right there, Caesars … I’m involved with Caesars? I couldn’t get a job at Caesars when I went to school!
I was at the California Hotel doing my internship, you know, because I had long hair — not good back then. It wasn’t bleached white, it was just long, and I was still a rebel. It was so funny I went to UNLV because I’ve always, I’m not a rebel trying to be different, I’ve just always been a little bit whacked. I’ve always been a little bit crazy.
But I also have a big thing about authenticity. I just talked to the team, and they’re getting ready to serve the guest test tasting. I can’t have my team serving if they haven’t even tasted it. There is a difference between “would you like to try the burger or you’ve gotta try this burger.” So I said let’s just delay everything we’re doing and make sure the team gets to taste the food so we’re authentic in the fact that we really love what we serve.
But back to the whole thing, coming back to Las Vegas, doing this, having my connections with UNLV, working with the Caesars team, it’s really emotional. It gives me goose bumps to say it. It’s like graduation all over again. I was still a kid when I left. I had just turned 21. I did my internship at the California Hotel downtown. They made me do three weeks at the front desk, three weeks in catering but only in the kitchen for a week.
All I ever did since I was 13 was work in kitchens, work in restaurants. That was my job the whole time. I went over to Los Angeles, worked for a small-chain Italian concept running an entire district for them but at 25 left and went to Northern California where I am from and opened my first restaurant. That was my whole goal.
Did you ever think the dream would get as big as it’s gotten?
Are you crazy? I specifically left the corporate world so I could wear T-shirts, blue jeans, and honestly I always wanted to be my own boss. My parents owned their own business. When I left the corporate world to open my own restaurant, my parents mortgaged their house to lend me $50,000, my business partner’s parents lent him $50,000. We opened our first little restaurant, and it blew up!
We came from the city, went to the wine country, we did this funky, scratch-made restaurant called Johnny Garlic’s and did great. We have opened more of them. Did I ever think about TV stardom? I don’t watch a lot of TV. I wasn’t even aware of the phenomenon of what was going on in food television, what you started with the Food Network. The opportunity to be a star chef, to imagine it would be here in Las Vegas, I couldn’t comprehend it.
You are totally different from anybody else in the industry — the appearance, the attitude. I picture you revving down on a Harley Davidson about 100 mph through a vineyard in Northern California.
It’s not too far from that. They asked me what kind of things would I like to have at the big opening. I said I’d love to have my 1968 Camaro. And they said, “Alright, we’ll bring the car down.” So my red Camaro I use on the show, which is my car, is here.
Have you ever turned a motorcycle upside down and cooked off the tail pipe?
I have cooked on quite a few things, but I can’t say it’s ever been on a motorcycle. I have seen some extreme cooking where we wrapped a salmon and put it on the manifold of a Chevy, lifted the hood and roasted it.
After all these years, what’s your philosophy of food?
I really believe you’ve gotta put the power in the people. They’re the ones who are gonna make the experience. Food’s gotta be great, the environment’s gotta be great, drinks gotta be great, but the real key, because what we want is when folks come here to Las Vegas, to not come here just once, but we want this to be the place where you hang out all the time. Whatever they come to do, I want them to meet at Guy’s Vegas.
So this is the high point of your life in a sense because you grew up here, you went to school here, you graduated here. But I want to ask what was the lowest point when you were here?
The lowest point? I can’t really say. I’ve not lived a lot of low places. Losing my sister is the lowest point I have ever had in my life. That was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. But I didn’t have a lot of money when I went to school. I paid for myself to go to college. I lived in some pretty cheap places. I worked at a meatpacking plant here in town and cleaned the floors. I took the big blade and scraped the suet off the floor. I ran the patty machine.
Back then, if you weren’t 21, it was very difficult to get a job in Las Vegas. If you didn’t have juice, you didn’t have anything. So the job category for me wasn’t the greatest, but I thought I contributed, I actually really contributed a tremendous amount of working in the meat industry and came out understanding relationships. I remember being a driver and being stuck waiting to drop my delivery off, dealing with mean purchasing agents and nice receiving guys and understanding which case of meat they got.
But to come back now in this style, in this situation, playing ball with Caesars, that to me is it. Any level would’ve been awesome, but playing this is going to the Super Bowl. You call it the return of the prodigal son, but I call it as big as I’ve ever experienced.
Next up for you is your own winery?
The wineries are real … that’s a long process. We did our first vintage, put into the barrel 1,500 cases of Pinot, a bunch of Zin and a Bordeaux blend. I love being a farmer. I’m organic. I have a big organic garden in the field right next to my house, organic chickens, I love the organics. That’s what sometimes people don’t get about me. They think, “Oh, the dude with the bleached hair, earrings, tattoos and rock and roll — there’s no way he does organics.”
But I come from Northern California, from kind of a hippie background. My parents were from the 1960s, not dopers by any means, but my parents had their own leather store, candles, leathers and all that kind of stuff.
I have more restaurants coming, I have a new cookbook that’s coming out titled “Guy Fieri on Fire,” a new show “Guy’s Grocery Games” in which I’m a producer. A lot of stuff, but opening this in Las Vegas, on the Strip, is really a major moment, and I’m just breathing it in.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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