Guy Fieri: Learning from His Father

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri talks about why his father is his greatest inspiration.

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- Posted on May 7, 2010

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri and his father

Who’s my greatest inspiration?

No, it’s not a chef, though I’ve met some awesome cooks road-tripping across the country…you know, the ones at mom-and-pop joints who serve up crazy-good food. And sure, there are football players and movie stars who make me think, Wow, he’s a cool guy.

But real greatness? That I find closer to home. My biggest inspiration, the best role model this Guy could ever hope for…it’s my dad, hands down.

I grew up in Ferndale, California, a little dairy town north of San Francisco with a historic Main Street, and quaint Victorian houses. We moved there in the early seventies—the last stop in a meandering migration from Columbus, Ohio.

My parents might’ve looked like hippies with their long hair and green van, but they were old school when it came to values. They were big on hard work, responsibility, persistence. And they believed that if you’d been given a dream, it was worth exploring.

They did it themselves, opening a country-western clothing store in town, even though neither of them had experience in retail. Mom had been a teacher and dental assistant. Dad had served in the submarine corps.

I loved hearing stories from his Navy days and colorful episodes from his own growing-up years in coal-mining country.

“Don’t let the specifics get in the way of a good story,” Dad likes to say.

My parents bought an old house in Ferndale. Dad fixed it up, learning as he went. He put my sister and me to work too. Dad loves to tell the story of the time we built a deck. He’d tacked all the boards in place. They just needed to be nailed off.

That was my job. I had my hammer and I was pounding big 16-penny nails into the wood. Sure, I was only six, but Dad had taught me well—those nails were going in straight!

Some family friends came over for dinner and saw me. “What the heck is Guy doing?” they asked my dad.

“Finishing off the deck.”

“But, Jim, there’s like a thousand nails he’s got to put in!”

Dad shrugged. “He’s got all weekend.”

It wasn’t child labor. It was just how we did things. We kept cows, pigs and horses, and my sister and I had chores. Mine were bringing in firewood and feeding the animals every night. There was a huge trough for watering the horses. It took forever to fill.

One night I got tired of waiting and turned off the water before the trough was totally full. I went back inside and crawled into bed. Guess who woke me? Dad. “You get out there and water those horses.”

“I did,” I said weakly.

“You know what I mean, son. Go finish what you started.” I went. There was no skating by. Do a job once and do it right. Dad had no tolerance for laziness.

That included mental laziness. He always urged us to think for ourselves. “I don’t know” was not an acceptable answer. I remember one day we were driving to the dump. I was staring at a grassy field, zoning out. “What are you thinking?” Dad asked.

“I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.”

“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way you’re not thinking something.”

“Well, I was wondering, what happens to that grass? It grows and grows. Where does it all go?” What followed was a discussion about dairy farming and how much grass cattle go through.

To this day, I’m on a quest for knowledge. You can learn so much just by asking people about what they do.

Don’t be afraid to ask, that’s what Dad taught me. Don’t be afraid to try either, especially when it comes to chasing your dreams. You’ve got to know what it takes to make them come true, right? For instance, there was a time I wanted to be in the rodeo. I wanted to ride bulls.

“You want to be a bull rider, you’ve got to practice,” Dad said. “I’ve got it set up. Go down to Ron Queen’s Saturday morning.” Ron was a horse trainer who had a bunch of young bulls. Early that Saturday I put on my cowboy boots and hat and biked the five miles to Ron’s.

“I’m ready,” I told Ron. He tied a rope around a bull and loaded it into the bucking chute. I jumped on its back. Right away I got bucked off. I tried again. Same story.

“Put some rosin on the rope,” Ron said. “You’ll get a better grip.” I held on tight. The bull came out of the chute and made such a racket it riled up a cattle dog in someone’s pickup. The dog leapt out of the truck, over the fence and bit the bull in the nose.

The bull freaked out and sent me flying. My arm got hung up in the rope. I did a face plant on a rock, busted my lip. Then the dog bit me in the back of my leg!

“Gonna ride one more time?” Ron asked.

I got to my feet, dazed. My right arm was killing me. “Sure,” I said. My parents didn’t raise me to give up as soon as the going got tough. I got back on that bull and held on with my left hand.

This time I managed to stay put for eight seconds (you’ve got to stay mounted that long for your ride to count). I never did it again.

Never needed to. I had other dreams to explore. If it weren’t for my dad I would never have become an entrepreneur or had the guts to start my own restaurants. My very first business was a lemonade stand.

I had it down—sixty-nine cents for the mix, a five-gallon jug of water, ice, cups and a busy corner on Main Street.

Then one year our family went skiing in Squaw Valley and I discovered something more exciting than lemonade. I found a guy at the lodge who sold hot pretzels. Big, salty New York-style pretzels slathered in mustard.

I spent all my lunch money on ’em. Dad couldn’t believe it. “That’s all you ate? Pretzels?”

“Yeah, ten of them!”

“That good, huh?” Dad said. “Want to open a pretzel business back home?”

“How do I do that?”

“Ask the guy where he gets his pretzels. Get the address.”

I ran to the pretzel cart. “Excuse me, sir,” I said. “I really like your pretzels. Can you tell me where you get them?”

The man stared at me. “Are you kidding? So you can sell ’em next to me?”

“But I don’t want to sell them here, just maybe at home,” I tried to explain. “I mean, I’m only eleven.”

“Not a chance, kid,” he laughed. “It’s a trade secret.” I was crushed. I went to my dad and told him what happened.

I should’ve known Dad wouldn’t look at a problem without coming up with at least one solution. “Go and watch him,” he said. “Wait till he fills up that cart and see what he does with the box the pretzels come in.”

I sat there, watching and waiting, for three hours. Finally I saw the pretzel man toss a box in the trash. I did a Dumpster dive and dug it out.

I went running proudly to Dad like a dog with a bird. He tore off the address and we chucked the rest of the box.

Back home he helped me write a letter to the pretzel company. We got a three-wheeler from Goodwill. After school, I met Dad at his buddy’s wood shop and we built a pretzel cart. I painted it yellow.

“What do you want to call it?” Dad asked. “The Awesome Pretzel Cart,” I decided. That summer at the town fair I set up my cart and sold hot pretzels. I made a thousand bucks. A sixth grader with his own business. It was awesome!

I’ve heard it said that what the mind can conceive, man can achieve. That’s Dad in a nutshell. Everything I’ve ever done, he’s been there encouraging me, working with me to figure things out and, yes, sometimes kicking me in the rear.

Now I’m a father myself, with two boys, Hunter, 13, and Ryder, four. My parents live next door, and the boys spend a lot of time with their grandfather—they call him Jamps.

Still, I like to think they’ve got a pretty good role model right at home. The other day Hunter and I were playing “You wanna bet?” As in “You wanna bet why they have three awnings outside that store?” My way of getting my son to figure things out, to think for himself.

“What do you mean you have no clue?” I said. “I’m not taking that for an answer.”

“You know what, Dad?” Hunter said. “You’re just like Jamps.” Did I say I’m a good role model for my sons? That’s because I was blessed with the best!

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