Celebrity chef Guy Fieri arrived at a Santa Rosa evacuation center on Thursday morning with a trailer, a crew, a wood-fired oven and a barbecue smoker, cooking meat for evacuees and sending plumes of smoke into an already smoke-filled sky.
Fieri spoke with KQED at his mobile operation in the Veterans Memorial Building parking lot on Thursday. "We're feeding folks in the shelter that have been displaced," he said. "Plus volunteers here on the ground, plus the military. We just did around 1,200 for lunch, we started this morning. Now everyone's having a little break, and we're getting ready to do dinner. That'll be about 2,500."
Fieri said he was in bed Monday morning at his house in Santa Rosa when his wife woke him up. "The smoke was really bad," he said. "We had to evacuate at two in the morning, and we grabbed what we could, taking pictures off the wall as fast as we could. Jumped in the truck, loaded in the dogs, and away we went."
The couple spent five hours outside the fire boundary in waiting. Fieri's house, "a block and a half from Coffey Park," the neighborhood destroyed in Monday night's blaze, was spared, he said.
Fieri was raised in Ferndale, a small hamlet in Humboldt County. He has lived in Santa Rosa since the 1990s, where he has owned restaurants, filmed his Food Network game show Guy's Grocery Games, and raised a family.
"So I called the Salvation Army in Santa Rosa and I said, 'I'm ready, I've got an army, I'm ready to help,'" Fieri said. "And they said, 'Bring it.'"
Despite his history in the city, criticism follows the bleached-hair celebrity wherever he goes in Santa Rosa. As soon as photos of Fieri's operation popped up on local social media, a storm of opinions followed, with some deriding the setup as a publicity stunt and the choice of a barbecue smoker, especially, as inconsiderate to victims of the fire.
"If that's what you think and you're that shallow at a time like this with what we're facing, then there's no changing your mind about that," Fieri said, addressing critics. "This isn't a PR stunt. You don't see my banners up. I'm not promoting anything. I'm just here cooking. This is feeding people. People need help, and I'm here to help. That's it."
When asked about the choice of barbecue smoker considering the smoke and fire in the devastated area, Fieri got defensive. "I don't even have anything to say about that," he said. "That's a ridiculous question. And that's a ridiculous statement. I mean, come on. What do you want me to do?"
Fieri was certainly not the first in the food industry to arrive to the shelter. For the past four days, chefs and restaurant owners all over Sonoma County — including Dustin Valette in Healdsburg, Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire in Forestville, Mark and Terri Stark in Santa Rosa, Duskie Estes and John Stewart in Sebastopol and many, many others — have assisted at shelters and cooked truckloads of free food for first responders to augment Salvation Army and Red Cross efforts. On Tuesday night, Vero's Kitchen came to the Veterans Building and prepared taco plates for the hundreds housed there. Many civilians like Jennifer Torrey, a data analyst at Exchange Bank who does private chef work and has been cooking at the shelter around the clock since Monday, have stepped in to help at the Veterans Building.
Now, Fieri's star stands to eclipse their efforts. A source close to the evacuation center said that the celebrity operation in the parking lot — surrounded by yellow tape and uniformed security guards to keep people out — may take over all cooking duties from the small volunteer kitchen crew inside the building.
At 1pm on Thursday, volunteers inside the building's auditorium served hot dogs, pork and beans, and other simple fare. One volunteer who asked not to be named said she did not know the status of Fieri's involvement.
"He's just out there doing his thing," she said.
For information on how you can help evauees in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, see here.