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Flagstaff chef John Conley wins Guy’s Grocery Games, launches fundraiser for Special Olympics
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Flagstaff chef John Conley wins Guy’s Grocery Games, launches fundraiser for Special Olympics

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During his latest appearance on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” in an episode that aired Wednesday night, Flagstaff chef John Conley ran around his Fat Olives kitchen, completing two timed culinary challenges against livestreamed competitors in which he fried shrimp, used a “zoodler” on cheese, tossed pizza dough and tasted his own creations.

His two dishes -- a fried shrimp tostada and cheeseburger pizza -- together scored 87 total points to his competitors’ 81 and 79. All three participants were previously featured in host Guy Fieri’s other show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Both Fat Olives and Salsa Brava, Conley’s two restaurants, now have been on the show.

As the winner of Guy’s Grocery Games, Conley was offered the opportunity to spin Fieri’s "Money Wheel" for the chance to win up to $20,000, or he could avoid the risk of losing it all and take $10,000.

“I’ll take it,” Conley said during the episode. “We’re going to take that 10 grand for Special Olympics and we’re going to flip it to 20.”

“Flagstaff, I’m coming for you,” he added, pointing at the camera. “We’re going to take that $10,000, put it up for matching.”

But then Fieri interrupted.

Upon hearing the funds would go to Special Olympics, Fieri immediately doubled the donation, and the three judges and later Fieri’s son, Hunter, each chipped in $1,000, in addition to the $1,000 Conley won in the first round, leaving him to secretly hold on to $25,000 until the show aired Wednesday, two months after it was filmed.

“This is my eighth Guy’s Grocery Games. I’ve won three of them. I feel very blessed,” he said Wednesday. “I won $25,000, which is the most anybody’s ever won on Guy’s Grocery Games.”

Now Conley has his own challenge for the Flagstaff community: to quadruple that $25,000 for donation to Special Olympics Arizona, in which Conley’s son, Adam, 22, has competed for many years.

“It’s important right now because these young adults with developmental disabilities, they have not been able to compete all year. The bank accounts are empty at Special Olympics,” Conley said, describing how these athletes have been on lockdown throughout the pandemic because of their elevated risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19. “It’s been incredibly difficult and they’re just champing at the bit to get out and compete. If we could raise $100,000, it’s going to pay insurance, buy new jerseys, new equipment, hotels, all these costs that Special Olympics has to pay for in order to provide competition for our most vulnerable.”

He has enlisted the help of local businesses and colleagues to spread the word about the fundraiser and on Thursday morning began collecting donations, sharing photos on Facebook of himself with community members giving him their checks.

Conley said he believes reaching $100,000 is possible because the community has surprised him once before.

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After his last Guy’s Grocery Games victory in 2015, when Conley won $16,000 for Special Olympics, his goal was to double it -- but in just three days, the community had raised $50,000. He drove 1,000 miles over the course of those three days collecting checks from interested donors who reached out to him via social media or by calling one of his restaurants.

“This town has been extremely supportive. This is my 33rd year here, with Salsa Brava, so I’ve been here a long time,” Conley said. “I truly believe in my heart of hearts whatever we put out into the world is what we get back, so I just think it’s really important that we are all good stewards of the community.”

‘Flavortown’ comes to Flagstaff

Unlike his previous appearances on Fieri’s show, the latest episode, “Delivery: DDD OGs,” brought the studio to Flagstaff. Rather than meeting in Flavortown Market, a 15,000-square-foot warehouse refitted as a grocery store in Santa Rosa, California, chefs were shipped two boxes of ingredients selected by Fieri’s family and visited by a small film crew on the day of the competition.

“We all had to quarantine, we all had to test, we had to test again. They were pretty stringent COVID protocols,” Conley said. “And then the crew came in and they had their own toilet paper, their own hand sanitizers. They had a whole kit, we had a designated bathroom just for them. It was serious.”

Though the dishes shown in the episode were made in real-time, and were the chefs’ only attempts at the two challenges, Conley said the process lasted 10 hours, with about eight of filming and the remaining time for breaks and even a “tasting school” video created by Food Network stars to teach competitors how to evaluate the taste of their own work on behalf of the judges, who also joined the competition virtually.

“They said, ‘Listen, you need to sell this. And so we’re going to help you create this sense about how to describe your food, what motions you should go through. Eat it and describe it. Eat it some more and describe it. Because you’re doing this yourself, you need to describe it in a way that the judges can taste it,’” Conley recalled of the class.

Conley thought he would feel more at home competing from his own kitchen, but because of all the times he’s been to Flavortown, he said, he knows where everything is, so to replicate the experience from Flagstaff was an added challenge for an experience that has become familiar over the years.

“Regardless of how many times I’ve done it, it’s stressful,” Conley said. “It’s the real deal. You’re not prompted. You don’t know what you’re going to get. And what I’ve learned is you just keep your mind blank. Don’t come in with a preconceived idea because you don’t know what you’re going to get thrown your way, so you just keep an open mind and you try to move with it.”

Conley’s winning episode is his second appearance on Fieri’s shows during the pandemic. He did a special “Takeout Edition” of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in April -- which he and his family recorded and submitted to the network for use in the show.

In addition to his many appearances on Fieri’s two ongoing shows, Conley has also participated in Food Network’s Messlord program, which sends chefs to cook at U.S. military bases and ships them around the world. He said through this program, he has traveled over one million miles to visit 55 military bases in 24 different countries.

Now, every time Food Network producers give Conley a call about an upcoming show, his answer is an immediate yes.

“You just say yes and then figure it out. I feel very fortunate. You kind of get in this cycle and you get better at it and more confident and then they want to have you back, so that’s kind of where we’re at now,” he said.

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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