Everybody said he was crazy when Guy Fieri opened Tex Wasabi's Rock-N-Roll Sushi BBQ in downtown Santa Rosa three years ago.
"Even my business partner thought I was nuts," said Fieri, 38. "People said we were a novelty, that we weren't going to take it seriously."
But the unlikely fusion of Asian cuisine and Texas barbecue has been such a hit that Fieri is building a second Tex Wasabi's in Sacramento. The $1.2 million restaurant - his biggest yet - is expected to open in June.
And Fieri is about to get some national exposure as a contestant on "The Next Food Network Star," a reality show starting at 9 p.m. Sunday on cable TV's popular Food Network.
He's in a cook-off with seven other chefs for a chance to host a TV food show.
It's a heady time for Fieri, who began his restaurant career at age 12, selling pretzels to rodeo fans in his hometown of Ferndale.
Fieri and his partner, Steve Gruber, had three Johnny Garlic's restaurants in Sonoma County before he dreamed up the Tex Wasabi's concept.
They also own Russell Ramsey's Chop House, an upscale steakhouse in Santa Rosa.
Now, there's talk of franchising the concept for the Johnny Garlic's and Tex Wasabi's restaurants.
"We've had some conversations about it," he said. "We want to show that it's going to work in other markets, and make sure we've worked out all the kinks."
He's succeeded in the notoriously brutal restaurant business because he isn't afraid to take risks, Fieri said.
"You realize everybody's scared, but you just go into it with a positive energy," he said.
When he was 16, Fieri spent a year in France as an exchange student. "That's when it clicked that I wanted to be a food person," he said.
He worked as a cook and manager for restaurant chains from Eureka to Southern California before starting a restaurant with Gruber in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The business lasted less than two years.
Fieri and his wife, Lori, decided to relocate to Northern California to be closer to his parents, who owned a western clothing store in Ferndale.
"We moved to Santa Rosa with two dogs, $5,000 and a pickup truck," he said.
He got help from his parents to open the original Johnny Garlic's on Farmers Lane in 1996. Within three years, Fieri and Gruber started two more Garlic's in Windsor and Petaluma.
The business hit some bumps in the road. In 1998, at least five diners who'd eaten at Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa fell ill from a bacterial infection. Later, the chain became one of the first in Sonoma County to get certification to train employees in food-handling safety.
In 2002, the Santa Rosa restaurant was closed after a fire caused more than $500,000 in damage. The restaurant reopened in 2004 as Russell Ramsey's.
The partners sold the Garlic's restaurant in Petaluma several years ago. Fieri said business was hurt by the slump in Petaluma's Telecom Valley economy.
"In the restaurant business, you have to be willing to evaluate your status, and it wasn't going as aggressively as we wanted," he said.
Fieri said he doesn't know if his appearance on the Food Network series will help business, but he's confident it won't hurt.