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Fieri in the Belly

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Even over the phone, you can hear the hair. Guy Fieri is talking about his old job as table-side flambé captain at the Red Lion hotel in Eureka with the same fist-bumping joy he has over a drippy burger on his Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

"It was the best job. Food is my song," he says. "There I am, just talking to people. It was hangin' out with the guests, making their food and telling them how I was making it." He calls it a kind of "food concert," a performance that's not such a far cry from what he does now on a variety of stages. He admits the Red Lion uniform "sucked" though — brown polyester with a ruffled dickey, which seems like a bad choice around open flames.

If you've been living in a cave — wait — scratch that. Pretty sure you can't hide from the bleach-spiked, Oakley-sporting, red-convertible-driving guru of greasy spoons who, since winning the Next Food Network Star competition, has blazed a highly seasoned trail across the country filming grill cooks and eating their wares with gusto. And you have to have heard that he grew up in Ferndale.

Fieri's got a number of TV projects to his name, including a new game show, Guy's Grocery Games, which is like a market-to-table Iron Chef. Fieri has built himself a small empire with a chain of Johnny Garlic restaurants, Guy's Burger Joints on Carnival cruise ships, Guy's American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square, a soon-to-be-opened place at Caesar's in Las Vegas, three books and a line of Guy Fieri merchandise that covers everything from his Donkey Sauce and cutlery to chunky, silver man-jewelry.

He's had that entrepreneurial spirit since he was a 10-year-old kid hawking pretzels from a cart in Ferndale. "Back then, no one knew what a soft pretzel was." Well, at least not in Ferndale. After trying one in Tahoe, the young Fieri was smitten. "Here it is, salty" — he's lost a moment in hot pretzel reverie before continuing, "I spent all my lunch money eating those pretzels." He asked the vendor where he could order them to sell back home, but was rebuffed. Fieri's dad suggested he dumpster dive for the packaging and track down the wholesaler on his own, which he did. Now Cooking with Kids, Fieri's foundation, sets children up with pretzel vending operations to get hands-on experience in the food business. "I never went to culinary school. I learned what I learned from the industry," he says, adding that a trip to France also exposed him to the possibilities of great food. Still, you can take the boy out of the burger joint ....

Since last week, Ferndale's flashy favorite son has been back in his old stomping grounds, touring Humboldt eateries with his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives crew ("triple D," as fans call it). While he misses one of his old favorites, Curly's, Fieri always hits up Ferndale Meat company for sausages, and he's excited about the growing food scene in Humboldt. "All the dairies, all the agriculture that's up there ... You're right there. You're right in the middle of it." He says he's "surprised and happy to see how many great restaurants were up there" the last few times he's visited.

For months now, people have been speculating about which two or three establishments he might be filming, and who might get the boost that comes with being highlighted on the show. (Fans of the show follow an online map of the U.S. studded with locations that have been featured.) It turns out the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives team is covering a surprising eight restaurants. "The places we're going to, I've eaten at six of the eight locations. We were only going to three." But, he says, he pushed for more, since "we can use as much attention as we can for Humboldt County." He continues, "If it's my chance to shine the light on what we have up there, I'm gonna do it."

Guy laughs when pressed to reveal what restaurants they'll film. Suddenly, PR team member Ethan Rabin — silent on the other line until now — jumps in to say that Guy can't give any information about where he's going. We've since learned they were filming in the kitchen at Paul's Live from New York in Eureka last Wednesday, and there have been sightings at Café Nooner and elsewhere.

Fieri's fans are legion (go ahead and Google "Guy Fieri tattoo"), but he has his share of haters, too. In regards to a particularly brutal review of his Guy's American Kitchen and Bar restaurant in The New York Times, Fieri says, "It's not what motivates me. Wasting time thinking about it is wasting time ... . What am I gonna do, change their opinion?" His voice is bouncy again when he says he'd rather focus on positives, on his work with kids, for example.

In fact, the Fortuna and Ferndale booster clubs are raising money for extracurricular activities by raffling tickets to visit the set of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives filming in Humboldt. Winners will get to be on the show, too. "It's been really neat to see," Fieri says, "The ticket sales have been good ... . For anybody that's a real big fan, this is your chance."

When asked if the racially charged incidents in Ferndale (including the high school football team's 2013 probation stemming from racial slurs at games and the recent embarrassing footage of a man in blackface at a Ferndale Booster event) reflect the town he grew up in, Ethan Rabin chimes in again to say they have another appointment in one minute. Fieri says, "I don't know anything about the topic," and then, "Of all the places I've been, this is still the place I come back to." Whatever a few of the "1,400 people across the river" do, "there's no place like Ferndale." He attributes his success to growing up in Humboldt County and Ferndale and all the people — the teachers, business people, family and friends — "who invest in your success."

He and his family still come up a few times a year, including on trips to Ruth Lake. "When you live there as a kid, all you want to do is get out of Humboldt County. Then you grow up as an adult and all you want to do is come back." His kids love it, too, he says, especially all the things to do outdoors and being by the ocean.

Will we ever see a Fieri restaurant on Main Street? Well, the family does own a property, and for a moment he jokes that his son might be interested in starting something. (Hunter, 17, is starting up his own mobile pizza operation.) But Fieri says, "I'm just not ready to do it right now, but one day there might be a restaurant right up there. One day you might see it." If that day comes, most likely we won't be able to miss it.

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