Who else but Guy Fieri, an ascending Santa Rosa restaurateur when he exploded onto television 11 years ago, would decide that what his fire-anguished town needs right now is a smoker?
Fieri and an entire team of benevolent barbecuers encamped Thursday outside the disaster evacuation center at the Santa Rosa Veterans Building and began to cook — big — for fire victims and first responders.
Fieri, whose popular TV shows include “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives” and the locally shot “Guy’s Grocery Games,” was asleep early Monday at his home in west Santa Rosa, just blocks from Coffey Park, when the stench of smoke came, followed by the sight of approaching flames.
“The next thing you know, we were evacuated,” Fieri, 49, said at the smoke-and-grill compound in the vets’ building parking lot.
The older ranch-style house he owns with his wife, Lori, did not catch fire. But soon the two of them began to hear from, or about, friends and associates whose homes had been destroyed.
Before the end of the day Monday, Fieri got in touch with someone he’s known for decades, Blaine Goodwin, regional development director for the Salvation Army. Goodwin, who’d been chased from his home in Bennett Valley, recalls Fieri saying to him, “I want to help. What can I do?”
Goodwin said Fieri is in good company, as many restaurateurs, caterers and others in the food industry have stepped up this week to help feed evacuees, firefighters and police officers.
“I’ve got to tell you,” Goodwin said, “the outpouring has been fantastic.”
Since Monday morning, hundreds of people in the local food industry — from chefs to farmers — have pitched in to assure that fire victims and responders aren’t only fed, but fed well.
Professional food handlers have been in dire need, since so many have packed up their knives and come together. At Backyard Restaurant in Forestville, owners Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire have rallied industry friends, taking in thousands of pounds of fresh food and working nearly around the clock to make nourishing meals for people in crisis grateful to receive them.
Delighted to receive the offer of help from Fieri, the Salvation Army’s Goodwin replied that real food was needed at the evacuation centers in Santa Rosa. Fieri, one of the country’s best-known chefs, got on the phone. He asked buddies, fellow chefs and people he works with, or used to work with, to come help him feed people displaced by or responding to the fires in and near Santa Rosa. They grabbed their aprons.
“I’ve got my attorney here,” Fieri said, glancing about the crew that worked the grand barbecue trailer, two smokers and the preparation tables. “I’ve got ex Johnny Garlic’s (restaurant) employees. I’ve got my best friend. A high school friend’s wife. My mortgage broker, you name it.”
Fieri reached out also to friend Paul Thompson of Windsor’s Low Voltage Security. Thompson provided pop-up tents and other hardware for the emergency food station.
Cesar Orozco of Sonoma County Catering Co. came with a crew. And also Richard Bacchi, whose Gorilla Barbecue restaurant in Pacifica was featured on Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.”
It pleased Fieri to learn that pitmaster Jim Modesitt of Big Jim’s BBQ in San Rafael was already grilling tri-tip sandwiches for first responders, and that a team from Missouri-based nonprofit Operation BBQ Relief, founded in 2011 to provide hearty food to victims of disasters, had arrived in Santa Rosa.
Over the course of 11 days following the hurricane disaster in greater Houston in late August, Fieri said Operation BBQ Relief fed 350,000 people.
“These guys are no joke,” he said.
Fieri suggested the nonprofit, Modesitt and he combine forces to produce plentiful, high-quality meals for people at Santa Rosa’s evacuation centers and for first responders. Operation BBQ Relief solicits donations to cover its costs. Fieri will pay for at least his part of the feeding mission.
“We’ll sort it out someday, if it needs to be sorted out,” he said.
The partners’ menu for lunch Thursday was pulled pork, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and garlic bread. It was delivered by the Salvation Army to more than 1,000 evacuees and volunteers at the shelter at the county fairgrounds immediately south of the vets’ building and the Finley Community Center on West College Avenue. The Salvation Army delivery van pulled away from the emergency barbecue complex minutes after noon. Fieri addressed his team.
“Hey! Good job, everybody,” he said. “First round done.”
The plan for that evening was to have dinner for more than 2,000 people ready at 6 p.m. Fieri said that within days he expects that he, Operation BBQ Relief and the other grill partners to be feeding 5,000 victims, volunteers, first responders and members of the National Guard at a time. He said he’ll stay on as long as his help is needed.
What was on the TV personality’s busy schedule for him to be doing while his town and county struggled with the historic devastation deal by firestorms?
“I forget,” he said. “It can’t be that important.”