This summer, chicken sandwiches had a moment. Popeyes finally released its own iteration of fried chicken on a bun to compete with the beloved/maligned stalwart Chick-fil-A, while other brands like Wendy’s and McDonald’s made their own attempts to hold their ground. It might have seemed like the hoopla came out of nowhere, but chicken’s trajectory has been on the rise. Just ask the chef behind a steadily growing chain of chicken tender restaurants, Guy Fieri.
Over the weekend, Fieri’s second Chicken Guy! location opened its doors in Miami’s Aventura Mall following the brand’s flagship location debut last year at Disney Springs in Orlando, Florida. More locations are on the way, including one at FedEx Field in Washington D.C., another at San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium, and a freshly-announced Mall of America outlet in Minnesota.
Fieri’s big bet on chicken didn’t come out of nowhere. Chicken Guy! is the result of a partnership with Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl. The pair had already collaborated on a Fieri-created burger menu at Earl’s celebrity-themed restaurants, but when Fieri came to Earl with an idea for a burger restaurant concept a few years ago, his business partner countered with a bit of food trend forecasting: “The future is chicken.”
Yes, Chicken Guy! sells a sandwich, too, so when I spoke with the chef and TV host over the phone I had to ask whether Fieri—who has eaten nearly every conceivable sandwich on his country-crossing series Diners, Drive-ins and Dives—had any inkling as to why there’s such a fervor around fried chicken sandwiches. According to Fieri, the answer is the question. “It’s the fried chicken, is what it is. We talk about comfort food… every culture has got a fried chicken in one way or another. Everybody can get down with fried chicken.”
While Fieri was a restaurateur well before his Food Network fame, the chef credits his breadth of dining experiences in front of the camera with helping develop the product he sells at Chicken Guy!. “I’ve seen people do it right and I’ve seen people do it wrong,” he said. “We put pickle juice in our fried chicken and people are like ‘where did that come from?’ I don’t know but I had to have picked it up from somewhere. We also have proprietary things we do, we use a pressure fryer. I’ve only seen that in two out of a thousand restaurants I’ve visited. So where exactly it came from and how it all melded together I don’t know, but without question I’ve gotten to see the best of the best in the business.” The result, according to Fieri? “It’s fried chicken, but it’s damn good fried chicken.”
With dozens of restaurant openings under his belt, Fieri is no stranger to the successes and pitfalls core to an industry that’s seen a sea change in the past quarter-century. And Fieri acknowledges that, regardless of his celebrity status, the competition is greater than ever. “The world is so much more tuned into food now than they’ve ever been. And I give Food Network a tremendous amount of that credit,” he said. “People know the difference between good and bad. There were a lot of restaurant chains and concepts that were prevailing in the 80s and 90s and now they’re not. And there’s a reason, people are like, ‘Bullshit. That stuff was pre-made and you heated it up in a microwave.’ I’m really happy to see the way it’s going.”
Fieri singles out Reno, Nevada, as a location he visited on his travel show a decade ago. At the time it only had a few worthwhile restaurants to highlight, but a recent return visit revealed the restaurant scene is “blowing up.” It’s a national trend he doesn’t see slowing down, either, meaning there will be plenty of places for his Diners series to highlight. “The way the restaurant industry is headed right now, I’ll do this the rest of my life. My kids will be doing this show.”
Given his unique look and penchant for perfecting fried chicken, it’s possible to make a comparison to another celebrity chef, Colonel Harlan Sanders. But unlike Colonel Sanders who became an icon after he started selling chicken, Fieri has been a pop-cultural presence and internet meme almost since “Triple-D” began airing in 2007. His trademark spiky blonde hair, goatee, and (fewer than you remember) flame-licked bowling shirts have only helped lend Fieri’s enthusiastic personality to parody. But he takes it all in stride. “Everybody asks me about Saturday Night Live when Bobby [Moynihan] was doing the Guy Fieri pieces,” he said. “To me, that’s the biggest form of flattery. You’ve got someone who’s taking it and having fun with it and it’s not mean-spirited…maybe it was mean-spirited, I don’t know. But no, it never bothered me. I think it's funny and I really appreciate that people get a kick out of it.”
Part of Fieri’s persona includes his honorary title as the Mayor of Flavortown (as confirmed by his Twitter bio). While I’d like to assume that gig is a lifetime appointment, given the ramping up of the presidential race, I asked Fieri what his campaign slogan would be and which issue would take priority in his platform. Fieri joked his slogan could be something like “it’s all about love, peace, and taco grease,” but his actual answer was more heartfelt. “Teach your kids to cook.” To Fieri, it’s more than a means of ensuring a younger generation can whip up dinner, but a method to encourage broader life skills. “You show me a kid that’s making food, I see a kid that’s making decisions. And maybe if we can get them making decisions about what they’re eating and to understand how that affects their body and their behavior, we can start getting them tuned into the fact that they can make decisions that empower them and make them feel good or make them not feel good. Maybe that helps in their decision-making process when it comes to other things like drugs and vaping and booze—all kinds of stuff.”
Fieri has put his money where his mouth is on that issue, donating $35,000 to his youngest son Ryder’s middle school to fund a grant proposal that led to the founding of a culinary arts program. Ryder, due in no small part to his dad’s tutelage no doubt, acts as teaching assistant, leading demos on important basics like cutting onions. Fieri recalled his son quickly realized most kids (and even many adults) didn’t already have those kinds of knife skills. “It’s nice to see him having some appreciation for it.”
That appreciation will likely be enhanced by a more personal culinary project inside the Fieri family’s Santa Rosa, California, home. When we spoke, Fieri said the family was breaking in its recently-finished custom kitchen. Even with only three people in the house (their eldest son Hunter away at college), they went big: There are larger, full-size sheet pan-accommodating ovens, professional-grade burners with double the BTUs of most home stoves, and a wood-fired pizza oven in the backyard, which Ryder is adept at using. “We don’t cook mildly around here,” Fieri jokes.
Another kitchen customization request that harkens back to Fieri’s time behind the line in his restaurants? Foot pedals on the sinks. It’s a nod to a part of his early career as a full-time chef that he doesn’t get to experience as much anymore. “You do what you love, and the opportunity I have to do what I do is fantastic, but I definitely miss it. Going in and doing [a restaurant] opening and training, working in those capacities, fulfills the need. But, yeah, I miss the good old days when it was just restaurants.”
That’s not to say Fieri has in any way lost himself in the fray. The chef can describe a through-line that connects everything he’s done from his early Santa Rosa restaurant days to multiple Food Network shows and to Chicken Guy!: “To me, food is really about expression and feeling, about what you want and how you live. It’s the greatest medium for me to express myself. I live loud, fast, and crazy and I get to do that with food. It’s straightforward and simple, but fun and exciting and eclectic with big flavors. It’s not pretentious. I’m not a fancy guy. I make great food, I make quality food, I make authentic food. Who I am, how I cook and live, and what I enjoy is pretty consistent with what I’m showing folks on TV and showing folks in my restaurants and showing folks in my cookbooks. What you see is what you get.”