Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012 | 6 p.m.
Fieri was excited to return to UNLV, tweeting, “Dig my alma mater @UNLVHotelAlumni… great school and great memories” to his half-million Twitter followers before his visit. The 1990 Harrah Hotel College graduate and his crew spent the day filming students and professors for a segment airing sometime next month.
UNLV President Neal Smatresk greeted Fieri before he began shooting his introductory statements from his trademark red 1967 Camaro convertible in the parking lot behind the Stan Fulton Building, near the intersection of Swenson and Flamingo Roads.
“Guy Fieri’s a good example of how UNLV can change our students’ lives,” he said, beaming.
Since his graduation, Fieri opened six restaurants in California, won the second season of "The Next Food Network Star" and began a successful television career hosting food and game shows such as "Guy’s Big Bite"; "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives"; and "Minute to Win It." (On Sunday, Fieri celebrated his 44th birthday with his wife, two sons and a cake from the famous Baltimore-area Charm City Cakes.)
During that time, UNLV doubled its student enrollment, becoming a major research university and a world-renowned destination for hospitality education. Fieri said he was impressed with the growth of his alma mater.
“I’m a proud grad of UNLV,” he said. “It’s a great school, but it’s still a big, small school.”
Fieri — who counts watching the Runnin’ Rebels win the NCAA basketball championship in 1990 as his most memorable experience — credited the university for his successes. He returned this week to Las Vegas not only to profile Las Vegas-area restaurants on his show but also to give back to the university that he says has taught him so much.
“You need to pay it forward, give back and think about others,” he said of his visit to the Stan Fulton Bistro, UNLV’s teaching restaurant. “If everyone supports each other, we’re going to prosper as a culture.”
The Bistro isn’t the typical American diner that Fieri showcases on his TV show, he said. Still, Fieri wanted to showcase the restaurant, which serves an eclectic mix of food similar to Fieri’s fusion restaurants in northern California: Cajun-Italian chain Johnny Garlic’s and Southern barbecue and sushi chain Tex Wasabi’s.
“I need to make an investment (in future chefs),” Fieri said. “Or else, who knows what kind of food we’ll be eating? … I wanted to get focused on how real food is cooked.”
Fieri stopped by the Bistro’s kitchen to visit Executive Chef and Professor John Gremo, a 1993 UNLV graduate. About four years ago, the two chefs collaborated together to cater an event as part of UNLV’s Chef Artists series, which brings in celebrity chefs to teach culinary students.
“It’s great for the kids,” Gremo said. “It’s big for our program because Guy shows our kids that there are so many things they can do besides just working on the Strip. Guy really loves UNLV, and it means a lot he’s giving back.”
Fieri spent a couple of hours filming with Gremo and a handful of culinary students, teaching them tricks of the trade. Gremo and his students were cooking spicy Thai shrimp for a conference happening Friday on campus. Although the students seemed to appreciate Fieri’s cooking tips, it was his creative message that resonated the most.
One of Fieri’s eclectic recipes — the Cajun Chicken Alfredo — was developed right in UNLV’s test kitchen, Fieri told the students. Fieri’s peers and professor were skeptical about the Italian-Cajun fusion dish, but now it’s the most popular dish at his Johnny Garlic’s restaurants, he said.
Vincent Eade, an UNLV professor in his 26th year teaching employment law to Harrah students, said Fieri was one of his most memorable students. Fieri invited Eade to join him on camera because he was Fieri’s faculty advisor during his four years at UNLV.
“I’ve taught thousands of students over the years, and there is only a limited number of students you automatically remember. Guy is one of them,” Eade said. “He’s got a super-sized personality and incredible people skills — ideal for our industry.”
Fieri personifies the Rebel spirit, even as a UNLV undergraduate student, Eade said.
Although Fieri was a “good student,” Eade was worried Fieri wouldn’t be able to graduate if he couldn’t make a good impression during his hotel internship. The hospitality industry has a strict dress code, Eade warned Fieri, who at the time walked around campus in his trademark shorts and bright shirts and long hair.
“I’m not sure Guy ever learned how to color in the lines,” Eade said, laughing. “When I told Guy he’d have to wear a suit, he looked at me like I was going to cut off his right arm. I’m probably the only person in the world who got him to wear a suit.”
Fieri’s iconic personality and Hollywood fame have helped the Hotel College recruit students from around the world, Eade said. During new student orientation, Eade shows off a slideshow with notable Harrah college alumni: presidents, CEOs and vice presidents at hotels around the world. Invariably, however, Fieri’s photo elicits the most buzz, he said.
“He’s such an iconic figure,” he said. “He’s probably our most recognizable alum.”
Being called a rebel and an icon is a huge honor, Fieri said. He plans to return to Las Vegas in the future and open a new restaurant concept. He’s hush-hush about what it’ll be, except to say, “It’ll be something eclectic — just good, full-flavored food.”