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Digging Diners

Celebrity chef and AAA member Guy Fieri champions the
country’s “mom-and-pop” eateries.
By Juliet Pennington

When AAA caught up with celebrity chef, restaurateur and television personality Guy Fieri to talk about diners, he instead kicked off the conversation by talking about AAA. With the same fervor and exuberance he displays on television, Fieri sang AAA’s praises.

Guy

Above: Guy Fieri, Food Network host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” says Americans like to take chances creating and eating their favorite foods.

Below: Fieri has been a AAA member since 1985.

Car

“I’ve been a AAA member since, wait, let me get my card out … Here it is. Since ’85, when I turned 16 and my dad got me my first AAA card,” the enthusiastic Food Network standout and prime time game show host said. “I swear, I tell people this all the time: How can you not have AAA?”

Switching gears, but with equal gusto, Fieri, host of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” talked about Americans’ fascination with diners, which he said is really more of an interest in nostalgia.

“When we talk about diners, drive-ins and dives, I don’t like people to think a diner has to be an old train car, an old diner car,” he said. “I call them funky little mom-and-pop joints. The name doesn’t sound as exciting for a TV show, but what it is is real food by real people.”

He said that people are “much more food savvy” than they’ve ever been, in large part because of the Food Network, cooking magazines and other food-related mediums.

“So I think it’s just this appreciation for real food by real people who don’t want to be sold a bag of beans in a hyped-up meal package that really doesn’t deliver the flavor, the quality or the nutrition,” Fieri said.

And while most people think it’s the food that makes a diner special, the food guru with spiky bleached blond hair and trademark tattoos said it’s also the people–those who work in the restaurants and those who frequent them.

To find a great place to eat, he suggested that people “slow down, take a look around.”

“You just have to get off the beaten path. You gotta go down a little road that’s a one-way with bad parking because that’s where these hole-in-the-wall joints are that are offering such great stuff,” he said. “I’ll tell you something: Next time you’re going through a town and you don’t know where to eat, call your AAA operator and ask for the number of the garage that’s gonna come help you out. Call those dudes and ask them where they eat. They’ve got a pretty good feel for where the best [diner] food is.”

When asked if he has a favorite diner/mom-and-pop joint, Fieri said that was like asking a concert promoter for his or her favorite band.

“There are so many, I mean, go to the South and go down to Benny’s Seafood in Miami and have mofongo (a mashed and fried plantain dish popular in Puerto Rico). It will blow your mind. It is just out-of-bounds fantastic,” he said.

Fieri said he doesn’t have a “favorite” diner food, but rather is a “junkie” for any and all quality cuisine.
“I mean, I love food. The discussion in my house starts at about 9 o’clock in the morning,” said the married father of two boys. “We’re in discussion now. … Everybody throws in an opinion–it’s like we’re at a bargaining table.”

He said his sons, Hunter, 14, and Ryder, 5, enjoy cooking. “I don’t push it on them, but I do share it with them. I do encourage them,” he said. “We’re a big pizza family. We have a big pizza oven in the backyard, so they get very involved in that.”

Fieri, who owns numerous restaurants and has a cookbook called “Guy Fieri Food” that’s being released in May, said he has found that with food, Americans want “crunch, big flavors, sauce … and they’re very texture-oriented.”

“They love, love choice and creating their own thing,” he said. “And they like–and I like–the freedom of expression.”

“And the freedom to create, the freedom to take chances … you can take chances with food. You can make mistakes,” he said. “I ask people all the time: Do you think everything I cook, everything I bake is perfect? Come meet my fat Rottweiler, Medusa. I swear she’s programmed to watch how much fork movement there is at the table.”

He added that “cooking makes people happy, and I like to make people happy.”

And that ties into what Fieri said he likes most about being a celebrity.

“It’s about what it does for other people; what it does for kids,” he said. “Having the opportunity to inspire kids to learn about food, inspire kids to cook, to believe in themselves, to have an imagination, to set and go after their goals, to be responsible … all those things.”

Juliet Pennington is a staff writer for AAA Horizons magazine.

Mar/Apr 2011 Issue


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