Guy Fieri talks new ‘Tournament of Champions’ and Chicago as ‘one of my favorite food cities’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Guy Fieri helms a lot of Food Network shows, but he seems especially passionate about the new season of “Tournament of Champions.” Inspired by “Iron Chef,” Fieri said he tried to pitch this competition for “a couple of years” to give outstanding chefs a new platform to showcase their skills.

In a 12-minute interview with the Tribune last week, Fieri discussed surprises of the tournament, which airs at 8 p.m. ET Sundays; his introduction to Chicago cuisine and the need to support restaurants struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the highlights.

—It’s a bicoastal tourney, but Fieri wants to eventually expand to other regions

“Top Chef” winner Brooke Williamson triumphed in last year’s inaugural Tournament of Champions. She returns for this year’s contest, which features 16 chefs squaring off in head-to-head battles in the main tournament.

Each match is different, thanks to the “randomizer,” which determines the protein and produce that must be featured; the necessary culinary equipment; the type of dish and the length of cooking time. Fieri joked he won’t be receiving holiday cards from any of the contestants this year because the combinations are so outrageous. A panel of esteemed food experts score the dishes on taste, execution and presentation in a blind judging. The tournament victor is slated to receive the championship belt, a new SUV and a mystery prize.

“It’s crazy. I designed the show. I set the brackets with the Food Network and my production team. I host the show. I do all these things. I’m there for every single aspect and every moment of the show, and I’m still caught off guard the entire time. I didn’t think we could make it bigger and badder and better than ‘TOC I,’ and yet we did,” Fieri told the Tribune.

“I screened all the shows getting ready for them to air, and I gotta tell you, you’re going to see upsets. You’re going to see tears. You’re going to see pissed-off chefs. You’re going to see amazed judges. You’re going to see a terrible, goddamn randomizer. You’re going to see it all.”

Season two premiered March 7 with four chefs vying for the eighth seed spot in the West Coast bracket. The episode scheduled to air Sunday follows the clash to represent the eighth seed in the East Coast bracket. The other 14 slots were preselected, and those chefs play on upcoming episodes.

This year’s competition is once again an East Coast/West Coast showdown. But what about the Midwest? “It never was intended to be an East Coast/West Coast thing. That’s really 100% true. When we started bringing the names in and the chefs in, for who was going to be in this competition, it happened to be that they became East Coast/West Coast,” Fieri said.

“When we did ‘TOC II,’ we did ... say OK, we’re going to keep this East Coast/West Coast because people like it, and the East Coast/West Coast chefs do have kind of a battle. ... But what I really want it to become is I do want it to become regional, where they start coming and representing their area and their background and their history and their culture and their food styles.”

—The competition is helping benefit restaurants

The chefs play on behalf of a restaurant of their choice. Food Network said it is donating $10,000 to the restaurant selected by the winner of each round, which Fieri said was a last-minute decision.

“This year we did something really special. I always give big thank yous. I get to play in the greatest league in the world, and my commissioner is Courtney White. She’s our president of the Food Network. I’m always pushing the boundaries of what I want to do and how I want to do it,” Fieri said.

“And I called her 12 hours before we went on set to shoot ‘TOC II,’ and I said, Listen, we’ve got restaurants that are going out of business. We got chefs that have restaurants that are going out of business. We have chefs that are friends with restaurants that are hurting. I said, We need to do something and recognize all these restaurants ... And so we came up the idea of having the chefs play on behalf of a restaurant when they did their competition.”

Fieri has been one of the loudest advocates for the restaurant industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. He is said to have helped raise more than $25 million to assist restaurant workers in need through a relief fund in partnership with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

—Fieri had not been to Chicago before ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’

Fieri has featured more than 30 Chicago-area restaurants on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” since the Food Network series premiered in 2007. One of the early episodes highlighted the now-closed south suburban drive-in Frosted Mug, where Fieri tasted the Alsip restaurant’s homemade Italian beef sandwich slow-cooked in a pizza oven.

“I had never been to Chicago before I started doing ‘Triple DDD,’” Fieri said. “All you do is see it in the movies. Or see ‘Saturday Night Live,’ (the) ‘cheezborger, cheezborger’ (sketch). First time I had a hot Italian beef, I just thought I was going to lose my mind.”

Fieri took part in the NBA All-Star Game festivities at Wintrust Arena last year and called Chicago “one of my favorite food cities.” Several Chicago restaurants were spotlighted on a spate of 2018 “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” episodes. Area restaurateurs told the Tribune before the pandemic they saw a tremendous increase in foot traffic when their businesses first appeared on the show and when those episodes re-aired on TV. (They are now available to stream via the new Discovery+ platform.)

—He started ‘ghost kitchens’ in the Chicago suburbs

Fieri recently launched Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen, a series of delivery-only outlets operating in existing restaurants and kitchens in some 30 states. Menu items include cheesesteak egg rolls, a bacon mac n’ cheese burger with Fieri’s signature donkey sauce and Cajun chicken Alfredo. Diners can order online through or via third-party delivery apps.

There are three Illinois locations — in suburban Lombard, Orland Park and Wheeling — as of press time. Fieri teased expansion plans when asked about bringing his “ghost kitchen” concept to Chicago.

“We’ve had great success with it, and the great thing is, a lot of restaurants that aren’t able to do the volume of business they want to do in the front of the house because of COVID restraints are now able to open up and really keep the team members working and keep the business going by doing delivery,” Fieri said.

“I don’t like to let the cat out of the bag, but we’ve had some great expansion and really great response. We’re in about 25 major cities right now. There’s about 50 to go. So I would anticipate, no promises, but I would anticipate something coming your way.”