Outside Memorial Hospital last week, hospital workers lined up in the parking lot, standing on red Xs spaced 6 feet apart, for a glimpse of Guy Fieri.
The Food Network chef, game show host and Hollywood Walk-of-Famer was busily signing 300 boxed meals for staff, with another 300 to go for the night shift.
For hours on Wednesday, he stood under an awning as it rained off and on, his hand clenched around a black Sharpie, writing a quick “Great Work” or “Thank you!” while posing for a photo with anyone who wanted one. His hand was cramping up, but he wasn’t complaining. I asked.
Behind him the culinary team, including me, our faces covered with superhero-themed masks, cranked out hundreds of hot meals for the hastily-organized event. The menu included more than a thousand pounds of pulled pork, Caesar salad, vegetable penne pasta and focaccia served to medical staff from Fieri’s $300,000, 48-foot mobile kitchen.
It was no small task: 600 boxed meals were signed and handed out at Memorial on Wednesday, plus 700 meals at Sutter hospital Tuesday and 800 boxed were meals planned for Kaiser on Thursday.
“This was a little bigger than we thought,” Fieri said Wednesday. Already he had run out of the 1,500 superhero T-shirts made for the hospital staff, but he promised to bring more next week.
With the three-day “Hospital Week” thank-you tour he came up with just 10 days earlier, Fieri said he simply wanted to feed some Santa Rosa hospital workers who put themselves on the front lines, along with EMTs, firefighters, police and other first responders also risking their safety. You know, just an intimate little soiree feeding 2,000.
I was part of the culinary crew, working alongside Fieri, his family (including eldest son Hunter working the line), several of his closest friends, his Knuckle Sandwich culinary team and local chefs John Stewart (Zazu, Black Pig Meats), Duskie Estes (Zazu, Farm to Pantry) and Domenica Catelli (Catelli’s).
(Irwin helped arrange the event but was not paid to do so. Fieri covered the costs of the event. Irwin is the dining editor at Sonoma Media Investments and founder and CEO of Sonoma Family Meal, which pays local restaurants to cook for people in need.)
Spoiler alert: Fieri is pretty much exactly what you see on TV, times 100. Dressed in a camo chef’s jacket with a knife sheathed on his hip, he was in constant motion, signing boxes, calling back to the kitchen for vegetarian orders, checking on staff boiling penne in a tent behind the rig.
The rig itself was pure Fieri, natch. Covered in a green and gray camo pattern, it was over the top of the top, with a 30-gallon tilt-skillet, reach-in freezer and refrigerator, multiple high-capacity burners, a smoker, broiler, two fryers, a custom sound system and several flat-screen televisions. It has to be pulled by a semi. The galley kitchen made for tight quarters, so a second outdoor kitchen was used to boil pasta and prep.
But it’s Guy who people wanted to see. Near the end of the day, Fieri elbow-bumped a fire chief asking for a picture with his truck. Picture taken, he headed back to the line.
“Thanks brother. Thanks for everything you do,” he said, handing a meal to a firefighter. Most were quietly wide-eyed at seeing a celebrity up close, actually handing them a meal. He never rushed anyone through the line, didn’t have media or handlers present and seemed genuinely grateful to be serving his community.
His mother, Penny Ferry, stood nearby. “He has such a big heart,” she said. Fieri’s friends working the event said the same, having known him for years, long before he became famous.
Though Guy doesn’t seem fazed by the bad rap he sometimes gets in the media, his friends and family are pained by the nastiness.
The vitriol, said Stewart, is part of being a household name and brand rather than being seen as a person. “America hates a winner. They love tearing people down,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fieri just kept dishing up meals and offering thanks.
“Really appreciate what you’re doing” he said as women in scrubs giggled and asked for yet another picture.
“Here, take a meal, sister.”