Guy Fieri in Diners, Drive-Ins, and Disasters
Photography by Craig Lassig; Guy Fieri by Associated Press
David Page stomps through his television production studio, gesturing toward abandoned cubicles, empty chairs, and dusty computers.
"We've had to lay people off," Page booms.
He tears past walls lined with advertisements for the Dari-Ette Drive-In, Rosie's Diner, and Pop's Greasy Spoon. The rotund producer storms into his office and spills onto his chair behind a desk plaque that reads, "Because I said so."
This Plymouth, Minnesota, office was the unassuming home of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, the Food Network's runaway hit. Each episode features three eateries introduced by spiky-haired, rock 'n' roll chef Guy Fieri, a smalltime restaurateur who rose with the show's popularity to become the face of food television.
Diners has become a cultural phenomenon. Fans make pilgrimages across the country to visit restaurants featured on the show, using a branded iPhone app, "Flavortown," as their guide. (One couple, Ben and Barb Stillwagon, has visited 250 restaurants from the series.) Two #1 New York Times bestselling books have been published based on the show.
The program was created by Page, who has produced 11 seasons, starting in 2006. The Food Network rewarded Page Productions by renewing its contract seven times, most recently last September, when the network commissioned seasons 12 through 14.
That's when it all went to hell.
Fieri stopped showing up for scheduled shoots. He canceled voiceover sessions. Page tried to herd his host, but Fieri wouldn't return the producer's calls.
Then Food Network officials told Page they were taking the reins from him. Page remembers general manager Bob Tuschman saying Fieri had "demanded" it.
This May, Page sued the network for breach of contract. In August, the Food Network answered with a counterclaim alleging it was Page who breached the contract by "mistreating staff and others working on the series."
Now Page is lashing out at Guy Fieri in a no-holds-barred brawl that threatens to swallow the hit show and its star.
"Guy will say whatever he needs to say to prop up his image of Guy as a really nice guy," Page says. "Everyone has to be part of Team Fieri. Team Fieri didn't feel any such reciprocal obligation."
PAGE'S RÉSUMÉ READS LIKE AN ODD FIT for the Food Network. Rather than working in kitchens, he cut his teeth as a bulldog investigative news reporter.
The son of a New England academic, Page was educated at a prep school but decided to attend Oklahoma State University because it had a good broadcasting program and he "didn't want to work so hard."
At college, Page co-hosted a radio show with his roommate, Charlie Hines, who remembers the time they spoofed the campus with a War of the Worlds-style hoax about drunken sorority sisters taking over the grounds. Their creativity extended to matters of the heart, as they tried to talk co-eds into spending the night by informing them a tornado was coming and their bathtub was the only safe place to ride out the storm.
"It was an urban myth," Hines explains.
Page may have been known for his wild antics, but Hines recognized David's "innate sense of journalism." After college, Page fulfilled that promise by taking a job at a TV station in Phoenix, where he developed a reputation as a "tenacious reporter" and a bit of a hothead.
"He certainly didn't suffer fools gladly," remembers KTAR news director Al Buch. "I can see where he might butt heads with people who want to gloss over facts and do things on the short."
Page produced investigative reports exposing Medicaid supplemental insurance fraud and unsafe railroads. In short order, his work earned him promotions to larger markets.
It was in Atlanta that Page's career took a major left turn. He had always been an on-air correspondent, but one day Atlanta ABC news director Andrew Fisher broke the news that Page wasn't telegenic enough to stay in front of the camera. It was a polite way of saying Page was too ugly.
"There's people that God intended to be on TV and people he didn't," Fisher told him. "In your case, he didn't."
In the mid-1980s, Page took a job as an overseas producer for NBC news, where he won an Emmy Award in 1989 for breaking news about the Romanian Revolution.
"If he ever stubbed his toe on a story, I'm not aware of it," says James Polk, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who worked with Page on stories about cocaine use in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse and money-laundering in Nevada banks. "I thought he was one of the best."
A decade later, Page won another Emmy as a senior producer on 20/20, for a piece on PTSD. But the segment almost got spiked over concerns of ABC's lawyers, recalls Michael Bicks, who worked with Page on the report.
"It was a complicated story," Bicks says. "Page's perseverance got it on the air."
Eventually, Page grew tired of the news grind. He struck out on his own, creating a production studio. The first major offering was a special about diners starring Al Roker. It bombed.
But when the Food Network later came calling, Page revived the idea.
"Yeah, I've got this show," Page remembers telling Food Network executive Christianna Reinhardt.
That show was Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
PAGE ORDERS A GRILLED HAM sandwich with hash browns at Mickey's Diner in St. Paul, one of the joints featured on the special with Al Roker.
"They make the pancakes here from scratch," Page says. "The navy bean soup recipe was the owner's grandfather's."
Page stops a waitress walking past to thank her for staying "true to the diner."
If anyone should know, it's him.
The first episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives was filmed at the Bayway Diner in Linden, New Jersey. It was here that Page met the man who would become his star.
Guy Fieri had been a small-time chef who won a reality show, The Next Food Network Star, earning him a development contract. Not knowing what to do with the pudgy prodigy, network executives assigned him to Page's fledgling project.
At first, Page worried that Fieri would single-handedly sink the show. With his bleached goatee and indoor sunglasses, Fieri didn't resemble any host that food television had seen before.
But on that first day of shooting, Page quickly realized Fieri was a diamond in the rough.
"He has probably the most natural talent of any performer I've ever worked with," Page says.
Still, it didn't take long before Fieri made his first rookie mistake.
"He started making a lot of mob jokes about people being found dead in telephone booths," Page remembers.
Page decided to get Fieri in line before he made any more of a fool of himself.
"You're not from here; I am," Page lectured. "Nobody here thinks that's funny."
Fieri took the advice, cut out the clowning, and nailed the rest of his lines. The show premiered in November 2006 to rave reviews.
It was intended to be a one-off special. The network had real doubts the gimmick could sustain itself through a whole season.
But fans fell in love. The cameras brought viewers into the kitchens, where they could almost smell the fried chicken and homemade biscuits. No detail had escaped Page's notice—he'd spend hours in post-production tuning the sound of clanking dishes and sizzling griddles.
"Television done properly is simply voyeurism," Page says.
Most of all, the audience loved Fieri. They laughed at his goofy one-liners and oddball charm. Guy proclaimed good diners "Flavortown," praised meals as "hot Frisbees of fun," and bragged that a great dish could be served "on a flip-flop and it would still taste good."
Fieri's onscreen talents and Page's backroom production made for a formidable team. In his 2008 book, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, Fieri called Page a "creative genius" and declared Page Productions "the best in the world."
But as his star power grew, Fieri stopped returning Page's phone calls. When NBC hired Fieri to film the primetime game show Minute to Win It, Guy started canceling shoots with Page. A posse of friends—a bawdy band of homeboys with names like Gorilla, Kleetus, and Dirty P.—trailed Guy everywhere, and his manager, Tom Nelson, took to calling himself "the consigliore." The group became known as the Garlic Mafia, and Fieri styled himself as the mob boss.
"Almost everyone who becomes a star in television develops an abnormal sense of self," Page says. "In the worst-case scenario, they become surrounded by sycophants who tell them everything they want to hear."
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FIERI and Page boiled over during a Christmas special filmed in Alaska. It was October 2009, but to maintain "the illusion that it's Christmas," Page asked everyone on set to dress for December. Fieri emerged from his trailer in shorts.
Page fought his star talent and won: "Guy wore long pants," he says, exasperated.
But it was a pyrrhic victory. Page wound up getting chewed out by Fieri, who threatened to complain to the network about who controls his wardrobe. It was a slap in the face for Page, who had always prided himself on making Fieri presentable.
"You have to protect Guy from all of his poop jokes," Page says. "Anytime any woman mentioned 'cream,' Guy went into a sexual riff. When cutting the show, you had to tell the editors to watch Guy's eye line, because it's always on breasts."
Fieri also needed protection from homosexuals, or at least advance warning. Early in the show's run, Page got a phone call from Fieri, who'd just walked out of a restaurant in a huff.
"Guy had decided that the two men running the restaurant were life partners," Page remembers. "He said, 'You can't send me to talk to gay people without warning! Those people weird me out!'"
From then on, show researchers were required to note any indications of homosexuality detected during pre-interviews. (Fieri declined to comment for this story through his spokespeople.)
Former field producer Kari Kloster confirms that Fieri made the odd demand about gay guests, and says she witnessed the star become more controlling on set.
"I spent over a year going on the majority of shoots as one of the field producers, and it was very obvious to me, very early on, that I was one of the only field personnel who felt that I worked for David Page," says Kloster, now a vice president at Page Productions.
She remembers an afternoon of shooting when Fieri ran late. Kloster went looking for Fieri and found him camped out with the crew, shooting promotional material for a project unrelated to Diners.
"Some people who work in television fall into this excitement at the idea of thinking they're close friends with the talent. They get a kick out of having a celebrity on speed dial," Kloster says. "When you start to think you have that relationship with someone like that, you tend to do what they want and lose sight of what your job is out there."
The infighting only intensified when it involved money.
"The longer we shot, the more he started taking financial liberties with our budget," Page says of Fieri.
The final straw was a dispute over how to divide revenue from the bestselling Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives books. Fieri had promised to "split" the proceeds. Instead, Fieri gave Page Productions nothing.
When the second book was commissioned, Fieri approached Page to ask for access to some of the show's research material. That led to an "uncomfortable discussion" over compensation, Page claims.
"They were demanding tremendous research from my people, and pictures, but they didn't want to pay for them," Page says. "Guy said to me: 'You know, it's true: Jews are cheap.'"
FOOD NETWORK REPRESENTATIVES declined to address many of Page's allegations, but Vice President of Communications and Public Relations Irika Slavin denies the network removed Page at Fieri's request.
"Guy Fieri is and always has been a consummate professional, and we look forward to continuing our work with him," Slavin says in a prepared statement. "Our lawsuit with Page Productions has settled and we will have no further comment about it."
Before the lawsuit was settled, the network had much more to say in court papers. According to the network's countersuit, Page can be blunt bordering on brutal.
In one email the network submitted as evidence, Page calls an employee "a vile uninformed piece of shit." Another email refers to a colleague as "one fucked up dumbass loser." In a particularly dark passage, Page wishes death on an employee who disagrees with him: "I hope you die so I can dance on your fucking grave."
Nobody who worked with Page would confuse him for a shrinking violet, acknowledges Ian Logan, an editor at Page Productions. "Passive-aggressive David is not. You know where you stand with David at all times."
Everyone who knows Page has a story about a time he let them have it. Supervising producer Drew Sondeland remembers the bruising reception he got after he dropped the ball on a tape delivery.
"He said some pretty harsh things," Sondeland says. "But it was a pretty big fuck-up. He explained why it was a big deal. It wasn't just him screaming at me."
Some employees have walked away disillusioned. As Page puts it: "There's a lot of people who couldn't cut it."
Jayne Ubl was almost one of them. A grizzled veteran of television, Ubl worked on Diners for nine months and says it almost destroyed her self-confidence.
"You get beat up," Ubl says. "After a number of months I started asking, 'How did I get so terrible at this job?'"
Head writer Margaret Elkins agrees Page's criticism can create an existential crisis. She wound up in Page's doghouse last year and grew so tired of his haranguing that she finally had to confront him about it.
"I said to David: 'You've got to know, you're killing me,'" Elkins recalls.
Page's response was to get angry. "I can't believe you would tell me you think I'm an asshole!" he told her.
To Page's credit, he eventually settled down and apologized for his behavior.
That angry side is in full flower when it comes to the court battle. Page says the Food Network's lawsuit was an attempt at creating a "revisionist history" that he was fired for "creating an intolerable workplace." Page calls it a "convenient excuse" to smear him.
Food Network host Tom Pizzica worked with Page on another show, Outrageous Foods, and supports him. Pizzica says the problem was as much Fieri as it was Page.
"I think it was just two people whose egos are very big, and they can't be in the same room together," Pizzica says. "That's how people are in this industry."
A DOZEN WRITERS, EDITORS, and producers gather around Page, who holds court on a leather couch in a Longfellow living room. Today is the premiere of a new episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and Page and his production crew want to see what it's going to look like without them.
Rumors flew that the show would be canceled after the Food Network ended its relationship with Page Productions. But Page handed over all the footage his team had shot for future programs, including a couple of finished episodes. The network gave the tapes to Citizen Pictures, a Denver studio, to re-cut and repackage.
Page's team is anxious to see how the Food Network will handle the credits. The staff wonder if their hard work will be acknowledged.
As the show begins, the crew grows silent. Fieri appears onscreen and the familiar jingle plays. They laugh at Fieri's jokes. For the first time, they're watching as outsiders.
Then they realize that the new production studio hasn't used their soundtrack. When the credits roll, they see that their names have been deleted.
Some in the room are baffled by the edit, wondering why the network took a completed episode, changed its sound, and stripped their credits.
For Page, it takes all of his strength to remain magnanimous.
"I'm not going to tell you the show sucked," Page offers. "It was different than we did it."
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