When Guy Fieri Saved a Syrian Café in Tennessee

The trucks arrived early one morning in April 2010, parking in the lot and unloading cameras and mics. Riyad had never seen anything like it. So many people, each one affixed to his or her own piece of impossibly expensive equipment.

So much energy so early in the morning, and there, emerging from a limo, was the man around whom the entire system seemed to orbit. He walked straight toward Riyad and looked him in the eye.

“Hi,” he said. He was squat and well fed, his hair in blond spikes. “I’m Guy Fieri.”

Riyad knew who he was. He’d watched his television show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, using it as a window into other kitchens. Now Guy Fieri was here to take viewers into Riyad’s.

“Hi,” he said, “I’m Chef Rakka.”

Riyad extended his hand, but Guy Fieri pulled his back. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not feeling good today.” He didn’t want to shake Riyad’s hand because he had a cold. “So, here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna shoot for 90 minutes, maybe two hours, and then we’re gonna get out of here.”

“Okay,” Riyad said. “That’s fine.”

That was not fine. Riyad had been waiting months for this day. Ever since he’d gotten that very first phone call from the producer, he’d held on to the belief that one visit from Guy Fieri would turn his restaurant around. Yes, things had picked up, slightly, since the day he’d told his staff he couldn’t pay them. The recession had ended. The recovery had begun. He’d returned to a regular pay schedule, and even if there were a few close calls, he’d managed to pay the bills every month. But still he knew they were always one slow month away from returning to the brink. He needed whatever boost Fieri and his audience could provide.

Before Fieri arrived, a producer talked with Riyad at length about what they would record. He wanted Riyad to make filet mignon kebabs, cooked on a salt block. And he would need to cook them twice — once with Fieri, once with only the producers, to be used for b-roll. The end product would show the two shots, spliced together. A filet, though, would cost Riyad about $120. He had only enough money to buy one. So, days before the shoot, he asked his mother-in-law to loan him money, and she did. He needed it. Linda needed it. They needed everything to be perfect when Guy Fieri came to town.

And now Guy Fieri was sick. So sick that he wanted to leave after 90 minutes, not the six hours they’d scheduled. The less time they were in the restaurant, Riyad worried, the less time he’d be on the show. Or what if Fieri remained lethargic, and the material they shot came out weak, and Café Rakka didn’t make it into the episode at all?

Now Fieri rumbled through the restaurant, eyeing Riyad’s setup. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “We’re gonna do a full walk-through. If I see something in here that I don’t like, something that makes me think my viewers are gonna be disappointed if they show up, then I’m walking away.”

Riyad said he understood. He respected it. Fieri wanted to do right by his audience.

“Don’t bring me some dish you cooked yesterday,” Fieri said. “Don’t bring me some dish you cooked at home. You’re gonna cook it right, and you’re gonna cook it here.”

Riyad nodded.

“Good,” Fieri said. He turned around and kept walking through the restaurant, opening cabinets, looking under countertops, taking inventory of knives and produce, ovens and spices and meats.

At one point, while Riyad was talking with a producer, he heard Fieri calling from the back room, “Where’s the chef? Bring me the chef!”

Riyad rushed back to find Fieri, standing in front of an old freezer. “What is this?”

Riyad sidled up to Fieri. Together, they looked inside the freezer, where there was no meat, no ice, but instead stacks upon stacks of fine china.

“Well,” Riyad said, “we didn’t have a china cabinet. But we had a freezer. So we just decided to use that instead.” The freezer hadn’t been plugged in since the day they opened. It was clean and spacious, so for Riyad, it became a cabinet.

Riyad watched Fieri’s cheeks swell, his face opening up into his first smile of the morning.

“All right,” he said, looking not at Riyad but at the china. “There’s something funky about this place.”

He turned back to his producer. “Let’s get to work.”

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