AS the first chords of “Sweet Home Alabama” thrummed through the Circus Maximus at Caesars Atlantic City on July 31, the 1,600 people in the sold-out crowd were already on their feet. They howled for the star. When he emerged from the wings in flip-flops, mirrored sunglasses and a red chef’s coat with skull-shaped buttons, they howled louder.
It wasn’t until Guy Fieri had autographed a yellow bell pepper with a Sharpie marker and tossed it to a fan, sprayed the people in the orchestra seats with a bottle of water and vigorously denounced the induction stove he was about to use onstage (“Give me flame or give me death!”) that his fans settled down. It didn’t last.
“There are three people you need in life: an accountant, a fishmonger and a bail bondsman,” he began, and again the crowd erupted.
Their Guy — rebel, clown, frat boy, chef — had arrived.
Since 2006, when he won a Food Network reality show that earned him his first series, Mr. Fieri, 42, has brought a new element of rowdy, mass-market culture to American food television. He was raised among tofu-eating California hippies, spent his junior year of high school in France, and says he hasn’t eaten fast food in 15 years. But this platinum-haired, heavily tattooed chef-dude has proved that he has a Sarah Palin-like ability to reach Americans who feel left behind by the nation’s cultural (or, in his case, culinary) elite.
“You feel like he has that same background just like you do, never pretentious, nothing fancy,” observed Ami Wilson, who went to the Atlantic City event with her husband, Matthew, a police officer in central New Jersey.
Kathleen McCormick, who brought her two teenage sons to see Mr. Fieri from their beach house nearby on the Jersey Shore, said, “He’s the only one who never talks down to anybody.” (She said that other cooking shows were “too preachy” for them.)
Susie Fogelson, the head of marketing for the Food Network, explained his appeal. “I haven’t seen anyone connect to this range of people since Emeril,” she said in an interview, referring to the star chef who put the network on the map. With his bowling shirts and burgers, Mr. Fieri makes Emeril Lagasse look like Alain Ducasse.
And while some chefs and critics dismiss his “act,” Mr. Fieri is sincere and smart enough to hold an audience’s attention, in person and on screen.
“He really resonates with men,” Ms. Fogelson said, adding that Mr. Fieri’s prime-time shows attract more male viewers than any others on the network.
The fact that it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, that there were numerous children and oxygen-toting seniors in the seats, and that he wasn’t about to do anything more radical than sear a duck breast didn’t do anything to diminish the energy Mr. Fieri brought to the stage. The charisma that recently inspired a middle-aged mom to throw her lavender-colored bra onstage during a cooking demonstration was on full display.
And although his props and costumes evoke a hard-core rebelliousness, his persona is friendly and jovial, serving up a solid helping of American family values with a garnish of patriotism.
He has visited warships in the Persian Gulf and cooked in the Navy mess that serves the White House; he owns 10 sports cars (all American-made except the Lamborghini); and last year was grand marshal of a Nascar race, a ceremonial honor that has also been bestowed on Kim Kardashian, Kevin Costner and the radio host Todd Clem, known as Bubba the Love Sponge.
Lots of chefs have tattoos, but Mr. Fieri is the first to put tattoo art on his own line of aprons and potholders. He has 19 tattoos, including one dedicated to Evel Knievel, a longtime idol and powerful fashion influence.
Mr. Fieri is the rare reality-show winner who has translated a small-screen victory into a national fan base, and the rare chef who has transcended the food-TV genre. As the host of NBC’s new “Minute to Win It,” he presides over a prime-time game show in which people, for the chance to win a million dollars, compete at feats that require not strength, courage or knowledge, but the ability to perform stunts with household goods, like unwinding a roll of toilet paper really, really fast.
The Food Network has betted heavily on him, giving him prime-time slots, and making him the face of the network’s new collaboration with the N.F.L., a series about tailgating that will be shown this fall. “We found a high correlation between viewers of football and of ‘Diners,’ ” Ms. Fogelson said, referring to “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” Mr. Fieri’s most popular show.
He says that his chef-rock star-sports fan persona reflects his real passions: food, family, music, fast cars, sports and generally having an excellent time. Now, he worries about turning that persona into a person, with a lasting following and a real culinary agenda.
“Look, the fame rocket is only on the upward trajectory for a limited time,” he said in an interview a few days after the show, riding in the back of a car between television shoots in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I have to do what I can for the program while it lasts.”
For Mr. Fieri, the program includes his family in Santa Rosa, Calif. (sons Hunter, 14, and Ryder, 5; wife, Lori; parents, Jim and Penny, who live next door); his buddies, who go by names like Gorilla, Mustard, Kleetus and Dirty P.; and his five restaurants, which brought him financial stability (if not culinary fame) long before he sent an audition tape to the Food Network.
Mr. Fieri, with partners, runs three branches of an Italian-American pub called Johnny Garlic’s; and two hybrids of California-style sushi and Southern barbecue called Tex Wasabi’s. Johnny Garlic’s serves dishes like Cajun chicken pasta Alfredo; a signature dish at Tex Wasabi’s is found in the “gringo sushi” portion of the menu: the Jackass Roll, filled with pulled pork, avocado and French fries.
“A lot of people who like sushi don’t really like raw fish or seaweed,” he said. “So I make what they do like.”
Mr. Fieri’s cheerful embrace of taste at the expense of tradition is an example of what makes him so popular, and of why other chefs tend to dismiss him. He’d rather have the loud love of the guys in the audience at Caesars than awards from the James Beard Foundation.
“He is an original,” said Norman Jones, who came to Mr. Fieri’s Atlantic City show from Warminster, Pa., where he works at a Christian residential program for troubled children. “He goes to regular mom-and-pop places and gives them the respect they deserve.”
“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” isn’t a cooking show as much as a carefully engineered reality show. Mr. Fieri descends on a casual restaurant that may well serve only chili dogs, or it may be a Chinese-Jamaican place in a Florida strip mall or a family-owned taqueria in Chicago that pickles its own chipotles. (Early on, he said, many restaurant owners turned the show down because they didn’t want their place identified as a diner, drive-in or dive.)
Avoiding the reverent tone that many food shows take on as soon as the camera enters the kitchen, Mr. Fieri goes in looking for what’s interesting and funny. He has Rachael Ray’s friendliness but avoids her unstoppable cutesiness, and fans say that his honest opinions come across. (Among the dishes he has barely managed to taste on camera: pigs’ tails; liver; and, last week, a sludgy brown soup made from fresh snapping turtle, a Pennsylvania tradition.)