Celeb-chef Guy Fieri speaking with Courier-Journal reporter Jere Downs. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Guy Fieri is a force of nature, a hurricane of hype and self-styled culinary hipness that’s seemingly indefatigable.

The Food Network chef’s celebrity circus, complete with his Garnet Red 1969 Chevy Camaro convertible, came to town yesterday for the grand opening of Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse on Fourth Street Live! The initial opening happened Saturday night to give the staff some practice before the ringmaster himself arrived Monday. And when he did, a crowd was waiting. Where Fieri goes, fans flock and follow. Some came to eat his food, others just to see their bleach-tipped, denim-clad demigod and nab a pic to prove they’d met the legend.

Like it or not, shtick sells, and Fieri lays the shtick on thick. Which is what admirers want and expect from the star of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” or “Triple D,” in Fierispeak. Inside the restaurant, Fieri was off the hook and in his element, working a back room stuffed with VIPs and reporters, shaking hands and spreading the Gospel of Guy.

The bar at Guy Fieri's Smokehouse. | Photo by Steve Coomes
The bar at Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse. | Photo by Steve Coomes

He’s larger than I’d imagined, probably 6’ 1”, broad-shouldered and stocky. Yet he moves with the quickness of someone half his size, bouncing from table to table, telling the restaurant’s story, talking up the food, explaining the steam punkish décor, the cocktail menu—and answering question after question without flagging. I’ve read of politicians who can do that: shake hands, bring their full attention to the person in front of them, block everything else out and make them feel like the only person in the room. He’s got that touch. He’s that charismatic.

At the press table, Fieri preached a fiery sermonette about the virtues of meats smoked on the bone. Smokehouse as a concept isn’t about barbecue or sauce, he said, it’s about slow-cooking with smoldering wood.

Sashimi tuna tacos. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Sashimi tuna tacos. | Photo by Steve Coomes

“That’s where the flavor is, in the bone,” he said. “And why would I want to do barbecue in Louisville anyway? There’s plenty of good barbecue here already.”

He talked about the cultural history and mystique of smoking food, its preservative role and the patience required to do it correctly. Whether TV Guy was saying that or Sincere Chef really meant it, I wasn’t immediately sure. But doubtless he was passionate in his delivery.

Food came to the press table on plates for sharing (journos will eat out of a trough if offered) and what we received got mixed reviews. (See the whole menu here.) The Bacon Mac ‘N’ Cheese Burger was tasty, if not a bit salty, the Sashimi Tuna Tacos with wasabi were good, though disconsonantly sauced, and a pile of fried potato curls with the burger was curiously sweet. The smoked JuJu Chicken wings stood up strongly on their own, as did the perfectly smoked baby-back ribs, though I wasn’t crazy about the choice of mustard seeds in the rub.

Call me a literalist, but I couldn’t warm up to the name “Trash Can Nachos” either, though the presentation was clever and, as billed, every layer contained bits of smoked brisket and beans and cheese.

“I wanted them to be layered—with meat, and beans and cheese on every layer—not just a pile of chips with everything on top,” Fieri said. “I hate being the last guy who just gets chips.”

Trash can nathos. | Photo by Steve coomes
Trash can nachos. | Photo by Steve Coomes

It was about then I got the feeling of how I hate being the reporter charged with determining the genuineness of a somewhat polarizing cultural icon. Fieri is who he is, tattooed arms, spiked hair, faux worn chef’s jacket (one shoulder was purposely patched, the other deliberately threadbare) and the motorcycle-rebel-rocker-type. Like it or not, he owns the persona and is paid a fortune to bring it. It clearly makes him happy to live that life and his admirers outnumber those of any U.S. president in recent history. There hardly could be more innocent fun, so let ‘em all eat shtick, right?

Yet still expecting the stage persona, I got ready for my 10-minute podcast interview (to air Friday) and sidled up next to him in a booth. As I cued my mike by naming the track “EDT 19, Guy Fee-eddy,” he immediately said, “You got my NAME right! That’s cool!” He was genuinely grateful some schlub pronounced his name right. “Hmm, maybe he’s actually normal,” I mused.

He asked about my background, and when I told him I’d cooked many years ago, he piped up, “So you’ll know what I’m talking about.” Then he launched into some of the struggles he faces convincing kitchen crews to cook his way. “I pay attention to detail. Mis en place! We do things a certain way to get a certain result. And sometimes they’ll say, ‘We can’t do all that. And I say, ‘Oh yes you can.’”

Some of that motivation is inspiration, he said, but sometimes it’s a stern reminder that cooking is about following a chef’s direction “to do things the right way. It’s my passion for it!”

He was intense but engaging, friendly the entire time, literally the kind of person you want to get beers with and talk food with for hours. Throughout the conversation he was picking up things I said and re-injecting them into the flow, proving without trying that he was paying attention. Call me jaded, but I rarely expect that from people I interview. Many times sources are only interested in dumping out the programmed message in their heads with little relevance to the questions asked. Fieri was interested in the conversation, and his brown eyes followed mine throughout. That’s different.

The chat didn’t end with us promising to send Christmas cards. It was done and the next reporter was being readied. But I walked away liking him, which I didn’t expect.

That doesn’t mean I’ll set the DVR for Triple-D or “Guy’s Grocery Games” or any of his shows. Just not my thing. And I’ll probably not return to Smokehouse anytime soon, as loud and brash is not my scene. But I’ll enjoy the memory of interviewing him for a long time to come, and relish telling others that the experience was “money!”

Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse is located at 434 S. 4th St., and is open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (bar open late), Friday and Saturday 11-11 (bar open late). Call 502-417-6619 for more information.