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The 12 Days of Guy Fieri: A Look Back at the Pretzel Cart That Started It All

A holiday-themed tribute to a food media icon

Lead image photos: Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Entertainment/Getty Images; Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Illustration by Eater

Please stow any carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you, and make sure your tray tables and seat backs are in their full upright positions, because we are about to embark on a nonstop flight to FlavorTown U.S.A. The 12 Days of Guy Fieri — a yuletide celebration of the fellow who, like Santa, rides a big red vehicle across the country making people’s dreams come true — starts right this second.

From now through the Friday before Christmas, Eater will be celebrating the legacy of a food-media icon who made a name for himself by highlighting the hard work of mom-and-pop restaurateurs, all while spreading his own gonzo culinary vision around the world. Stay tuned for highlights from the last decade of Triple D, a glossary of Guy’s lingo, a retrospective of his off-camera hero moves, and a look at Fieri’s impact on pop culture outside of the realm of food and restaurants.

Before we cannonball into highlights from Fieri’s long and storied TV career, it’s time to look back at where it all started: a homemade pretzel cart in a tiny town in Northern California.


Flipping through Guy’s back pages

Toddler Guy with his parents, Jim and Penelope
Food Network

Guy Ramsay Fieri grew up in Ferndale, California, a small town about 200 miles north of San Francisco. His parents were health food-eating hippies who owned a leather and candle store, as well as a western gear shop. “I never got to have white bread or baloney,” Fieri remarked on Food Network’s Chefography. “I was brought up with steamed fish and brown rice and bulgur.” Even as a young lad, Guy craved bigger, bolder flavors, and he jumped at any opportunity to cook for his parents and his sister, Morgan.

During a winter trip to Tahoe with his family, a 10-year-old Guy became obsessed with the soft pretzels that a vendor was selling in the ski lodge. “This guy steams it and he dips it in a little bit of salt and he put mustard on it, and I always loved flavors like that when I was a kid,” Fieri told Dan Pashman on the Sporkful podcast. “So I ate one and the doughiness and the chewiness... I’d never seen anything [like that].” After spending all of his allowance on the Bavarian treat, Guy convinced his dad to help him set up a pretzel operation of his own. When they got back to Ferndale, Guy and his father started building a pretzel cart, and soon elementary school-age Fieri was in the food business, peddling his favorite snack from the Awesome Pretzel Cart at local fairs and events.

YouTube/MIBTV

During his teenage years, Guy caught the travel bug. Although he was too young to join a proper exchange student program, he’d saved up nearly enough money from his pretzel business to fund a trip abroad. As luck would have it, one day a family friend directed a French wine cork salesman who was passing through Napa up to the Fieri household for dinner. “We’re sitting there, having dinner with this French dude — thick French accent — and a light in my head went off.” Guy told Brian Koppelman on his podcast earlier this year. “Bing! This is my ticket to France.”

Guy started a written correspondence with the French visitor, and before too long the 15-year-old was headed to Chantilly, France with arrangements to stay with a family and attend a local school — even though he “couldn’t speak a word” of French. His host family didn’t have the greatest sense of hospitality, but Fieri says he “learned to survive by going to my French friends’ homes.” During his year abroad, Fieri eventually fell in love with the boulangeries and local merchants, and ended his trip convinced that he would someday forge a career for himself in the food world. “The click went off, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m a food person,’” Guy explained. “That’s what I want to be — I want to own my own restaurant.”

Back in Ferndale, Guy got a gig bussing tables at a local hotel restaurant and eventually parlayed that into a job as the flambé chef, thus marking the start of his relationship with theatrical, flame-heavy cooking. Fieri studied hospitality management at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where he invented a recipe that would eventually become his signature dish: blackened chicken in a creamy alfredo sauce. Post-graduation, Fieri worked for the Stouffers restaurant group down in Southern California, followed by a stint managing the operations at the Louise’s Trattoria chain.

During his time in Southern California, Guy met a like-minded entrepreneur named Steve Gruber, and they decided to open Johnny Garlic’s, a “California pasta grill,” in Santa Rosa, not far from where Guy grew up. The family-friendly restaurant eventually spawned a handful of spinoffs, as well as a sister establishment with a menu of sushi/American barbecue mashups called Tex Wasabi’s. This is the restaurant where Fieri decided to film his audition tape for Next Food Network Star. “I can take the restaurant and bring it to the home,” he says in the clip, after making one of his signature “jackass” sushi rolls. “And I think that is something that will be sellable.” The tape landed him his big break on the show, and the rest is history.

After more than a decade of food TV stardom, Guy still hasn’t forgotten his roots: The Awesome Pretzel Cart lives on as part of Cooking With Kids, a nonprofit organization that Fieri is involved with, which helps kids learn about cooking and running a business.

This concludes Day 1 of The 12 Days of Guy Fieri. Stay tuned for more on the star’s totally out-of-bounds life and legacy tomorrow.

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