Guy Fieri: Full Throttle
With his bleached-blond spiky hair, colorful tattoos, and over-the-top personality, Guy Fieri epitomizes his motto, “go big or go home.” Fieri was already a successful restaurant owner when he was persuaded by his friends to enter the reality TV series "The Next Food Network Star" in 2005. His victory on the show kickstarted a culinary empire that includes cookbooks, TV shows, endorsements, restaurants, pots and pans, and barbecue sauces.
Forty-five-year-old Fieri has been cooking most of his life. “I was born in ‘68. In the early ’70s, there was quite a hippie movement going on. My parents were into macrobiotic cooking — brown rice, steamed fish — it just wasn’t my thing,” Fieri recalls.
His entrepreneurial spirit was ignited at the age of 10, when his dad helped him build the “Awesome Pretzel Cart” on the back of a three-wheel bike. At 12, he got a job washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. “I hated washing dishes, and my dad said the best way not to wash dishes was to be the best dishwasher I could be and get done fast, so I could stand on the line and watch what they were doing,” he says. “Sure enough, one night a line cook didn’t show up and they asked me to help. I was 12 years old, putting burritos together. I was out of my mind, I was so happy.”
Fieri earned enough money to study abroad as a 16-year-old exchange student in Chantilly, France. His love of food deepened there, as did his determination to one day open his own restaurant.
He achieved his goal when he opened Johnny Garlic’s, an Italian trattoria, in Santa Rosa, CA, in 1996. A second outpost opened in Windsor, CA, in 1999, and a third in Roseville, CA, in 2008. Shifting direction, he next opened Tex Wasabi’s, which serves a fusion of Southern BBQ combined with California-style sushi.
“When I lived in France, what people knew about food compared to the United States was very different,” says Fieri. “In the U.S., it was fast, quick, convenient. When I went to France ... food was really cherished.”
CELEBRITY CHEFS ARE A SURE THING IN VEGAS
Guy Fieri recently announced he is opening an as-yet-unnamed restaurant at the entrance of The Quad Resort & Casino, which is owned by Caesars, in Las Vegas. The restaurant is slated to open later this year.
“This is a true homecoming for me,” says Fieri, a University of Nevada Las Vegas alum, having graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management. “I remember the beginning of the food revolution in Las Vegas, in the early ‘90s, and now I am finally opening my very own restaurant right in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. I am stoked.”
But he’s entering a crowded market. Las Vegas resorts have more celebrity-chef signature restaurants than anywhere else. Here’s a list of some of the options.
Debra Dohnert, senior manager of special events
and travel for the American Institute of Certified Public
Accountants (AICPA), follows one mantra for the numerous food
and beverage functions she creates for the New York City-based
organization: "Imagine all the networking opportunities that
will never happen if you do not incorporate elements that will
get attendees talking," she says.
For Dohnert, these elements have included color-changing spoons
and straws, martinis paired with manicures, lunch served in
individual wicker picnic baskets, and edible designer handbags
and shoes, just to name a few.
"In the meetings industry, we have to constantly push the
envelope. We have to be bold and daring with F&B," she
says. "I realize part of my job is to create conversation
starters and memories. Nothing makes me happier than to have an
attendee comment on the F&B at an event I orchestrated.
That tells me that the F&B made a contribution to the
dialogue of the meeting."
Dohnert is not alone in her approach. Through a combination of
factors, from the growing popularity of celebrity chefs and
haute-cuisine reality TV shows, to a greater interest in
healthy cooking and eating, F&B is serving a more strategic
purpose than ever at meetings and events. F&B-related
speakers, workshops, and events (many can hardly be called
"meals" anymore) have taken on a greater portion of meeting
itineraries as planners have found that the way to increase
attendees' engagement is often through their stomachs. Here's a
look at four strategies for using F&B to support the
communication process at an event.
1. Leverage Celebrity
One way to create a buzz is to have a celebrity chef get
involved with the food and beverage at a function, either
through a direct appearance or simply by having the chef's
restaurants connected to the preparation of the food. And it
has gotten much easier to make that connection in recent years.
"As the events industry continues to thrive, we've seen more
and more world-renowned chefs enter the catering world," says
Arthur Backal, CEO and founder of Backal Management Group, the
company that provides event management services to Apella, a
meeting and event space located within the Alexandria Center
for Life Science in New York City. Apella is affiliated with
celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, as his restaurant, Riverpark, is
its exclusive caterer.
Backal says that while food has always been a source of
entertainment for social events, today's influence of
celebrities in social dining on the consumer level has led to
that same innovation becoming more widespread in the F&B
portion of today's meetings.
One of today's hottest culinary rock stars is Guy Fieri, the
restaurateur and host of the shows Guy's Big Bite and Diners,
Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network. It's no secret that
Fieri is a big fan of comfort food, but this celebrity chef
also has a passion for F&B at events.
"It's important to understand that your attendees are human,"
says Fieri. "They are real people who have needs, wants, and
desires. Yes, they can be required to be there, but if you
really want them to tune in, you need to fulfill their senses,
their desires, and their wishes. Food is something we take
pride in. We love to talk about what we made for dinner last
night or the restaurant we went to. When you go to an event,
the food is a big part of your opinion of the event, be it good
At the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami founded by
Lee Schrager, the former head of food and beverage at
InterContinental Hotels, Fieri showed how much fun meetings
F&B could be. He slipped the sound engineer his personal
iPod and started whipping up margaritas to the blaring tunes of
Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fieri dubbed it his "rock 'n' roll food show,"
and the Guy Fieri Road Show was born. He has continued to
appear at events, offering his blend of cooking demo and rock
2. Create Food Experiences
Even if a planner can't afford to have Guy Fieri at their
event, his approach to F&B can carry over to group meal
functions. "Food should be viewed as a vehicle to entertain at
meetings and events. If that's the starting point of the
process, the options to merge F&B with the overall event
experience become much greater," he says.
According to Andrea E. Sullivan, president of Media, PA-based
BrainStrength Systems, if the connection of the cuisine to the
environment is strong enough, F&B can help to provide
context for the content of the meeting. "We learn better when
all of our senses are engaged," says Sullivan. "Engagement of
all five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch -
trickles down into almost every aspect of a meeting."
When VIASYS Healthcare hosted a gala awards evening for its top
sales producers at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, in Florida, the
organization wanted the experience to reinforce the theme of
the event, which was that their sales efforts were helping to
create "A New Day" for the company. To start the evening,
attendees gathered in the courtyard where a group of children
dressed in butterfly wings handed out tiny envelopes. The
attendees were instructed to open the envelopes. When they did,
70 butterflies were released into freedom.
The group then interacted with wildlife that is native to the
Everglades - brought to the event by Ngala, a nearby
safari-themed meeting facility. The Ngala exhibition led
directly into a ballroom that had been transformed into a
detailed replica of the Everglades. As the group enjoyed a
lavish show, a series of nature-themed courses were served,
culminating in a dessert called "Dare to Dream," a confection
designed to look like a flurry of monarch butterflies emerging
from their pupae.
"The dessert, which was served at the end of the evening,
connected directly to the activity that began the event. This
was a very powerful way to underscore the overall message
VIASYS was trying to convey to the group," says Harith
Wickrema, faculty member at Temple University and president of
Harith Productions, the Willow Grove, PA-based production
company that created the event.
3. F&B Should Be Accessible
As the role of F&B increases at meetings and events, how
the attendees eat it is taking on added importance.
Stéphane Bellon, vice president of corporate food and beverage
for Kempinski Hotels, Europe's oldest luxury hotel group, calls
this concept "eat-ertainment."
In Kempinski's property in Vienna, Bellon designed a full
permanent kitchen ("Die Kueche") where, during lunch or dinner,
participants can gather around three cooking islands. "Food has
and will always have a social role," adds Bellon. "The
environment in which food is eaten at events should encourage
In a group setting, Fieri prefers dishes that he calls "one
bite, two bite." These are small servings that are passed on
trays. A tip Fieri shares is not to give the same server the
same tray twice.
He also believes that the first thing that should happen when
attendees walk through the door is that they should be greeted
and offered a drink. "The point is to make food and drink
accessible to people immediately," he says. "Nothing makes
attendees ask themselves 'Why am I here?' more than walking
into an event and seeing the service bar loaded up 15 people
This means having trays of cocktails ready to give as a
welcome, but keeping it small and simple. "This doesn't mean
you give them a 24-ouncer," says Fieri. "Give them a little
An event where there is a tray of crackers and cubes of cheese
isn't going to make much of an impression. Instead, if there is
a chef rolling sushi, the event will take on added excitement.
"Yes, there will be a cost difference, but the reality is you
inspire people through their bellies," says Fieri. "Food is one
of the most accessible ways to engage people."
Apella's Backal suggests manning food and wine stations with
knowledgeable servers who can interact with the attendees and
facilitate networking. "Food and beverage is a common
denominator for guests to bond over, but unexpected
presentations and engaging servers can act as
conversation-starters," he says.
Carol Johnson, corporate meeting administrator for Tom James
Company, a Franklin, TN-based manufacturer and retailer of
custom clothing, makes sure the breakfasts she plans are
creative. "We have breakfast from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., and our
people are going to be in sessions the rest of the day, so I
have to get them going," she explains. "I have omelet stations,
waffle stations. People like to watch the chef as their
breakfast gets made. I have to wake my people up and I do this
by offering them lots of different things for breakfast. I want
them to get their mind off the fact that they have to be in a
session in the next few hours."
AICPA's Dohnert recently had the challenge of creating a
memorable lunch function for a group of 300, when the room they
were meeting in at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, was changed.
Undaunted, she opted to create an impromptu picnic. Dohnert
purchased wicker picnic baskets into which the chef placed
lunches consisting of buttermilk-baked chicken breast, orzo
salad with olive and artichoke, coleslaw, and cornbread made
with the pastry chef's grandmother's recipe. Each basket also
had lemonade in it. This "Out of the Box Picnic Lunch" was
followed by a dessert reception created by the property's
executive pastry chef, Simone Faure, which featured designer
handbags made from cake and fondant, shoes filled with
truffles, and other accessories made from chocolate. Called the
"Sweet Couture" line, Faure can create anything from high heels
to designer sneakers. Through a mix of fast thinking and
delicious ingredients, the F&B event proved a highlight of
4. Make Local Connections
Impactful food and beverage gatherings should have a local
flavor. In his show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Fieri
searches for local food, showcasing communities and their
people. This approach can be taken for meeting F&B.
"If you're meeting down South or in any other iconic area of
the country, people are anticipating you're going to have
something that is indicative of that area," explains Fieri. "If
I am going to Texas for a meeting, I am going to expect someone
to throw down some really good barbecue. If I'm going to New
England, I'm going to anticipate there is going to be some
lobster rolls somewhere."
And to make it really work, the presentation must tie into the
local destination as well. "We eat with our eyes before we eat
with our palate," says Fieri. "If your event is themed around
Cinco de Mayo, the environment should contribute to
spotlighting the food. Some event planners say, 'I'd rather
have really great ethnic food than I would all the
decorations.' But remember that your meal will not feel as
authentic when you're scooping it out of a plastic bowl as it
will when you are scooping it out of a terra cotta bowl. The
joint authenticity of the food and its presentation is
Fieri adds that if you're having a taco night, make them
authentic tacos. "Don't just dress it up with a piñata, a
couple of sombreros, and a poncho," he says. "Have some real
refried beans, real guacamole. Do a good carne asada, have a
chicken adobo. People are expecting it."
Wickrema recalls an event he planned in Mexico where he went to
a local marketplace in Tonala, a town not far from Guadalajara,
to find props that would help turn the ballroom at The Westin
Resort & Spa Los Cabos into a Mayan temple. His biggest
find was a locally produced clay reproduction of the Mayan
calendar that was perfect as a place setting for the dinner.
The artisan of the piece didn't have enough of them for the
entire dinner, so Wickrema commissioned him to create 60 more
in his workshop just for the event. "It's the authenticity of
the décor that resonates with the attendee, even if they have
no idea what went into the creation of it," he says. "If you
find that emotional connection, you add a little bit about the
destination into your event."