Flay Does it His Way – Interview with Chef Bobby Flay
Originally published in ‘Zalea Magazine in October, 2007.
Few names in American culinary circles is as polarizing as Bobby Flay. His fans and critics alike can be numbered in legions. For every person who describes him as arrogant or cocky there are a dozen who call him brilliant. Few, however, can debate Flay’s influence on American cuisine. More than any other chef, Bobby Flay is responsible for taking Southwestern cuisine from the dessert resort and depositing it on the table of every American.
Flay’s path to success began as a high school drop out. A native born New Yorker, Bobby was bored with high school and decided it was time to enter the workforce. At the age of 17 he began working as a line cook at Theater District legend Joe Allen Restaurant. Allen was so impressed with the young man’s talent and drive that he picked up the tab himself to send Flay to the newly opened French Culinary Institute.
By age 19, Flay had a degree in Culinary Arts and was the executive chef at Miracle Grill in the East Village. It was there that Flay’s bold Southwestern Cuisine caught the attention of restaurateur extraordinaire Jerome Kretchmer. Flay and Kretchmer teamed to open Mesa Grill in 1991 and a year later were the owners of the coveted Best Restaurant Award given by New York Magazine’s Gael Greene. They have since opened five more acclaimed restaurants in four cities and in two countries.
Flay’s second eatery, Bolo, specializes in Spanish cuisine, a trend that he pioneered in America. Italian restaurant icon Mario Batali has since opened a Spanish restaurant as have Alex Ureña and Frederick Twomey. Flay says that, “Spain has been left off the culinary map in this country. It has been all bistros, French and Italian cuisines. We opened Bolo 13 years ago and people weren’t sure what to think of it at first. The food in Spain is very herbaceous with lots of salty, gutsy flavors.”
In 1993 Flay was named Rising Star Chef of the Year by the esteemed James Beard Foundation. It was the same year that he joined the original troupe for the launch of a new cable network devoted strictly to food. The Food Network debuted with shows hosted by Flay, Batali and network anchor Emeril Legasse. Asked how the industry has changed since the launch of the network Flay says, “The industry has changed tremendously, but food in America has changed even more. It has gotten Americans to open their minds to new ingredients and new cooking styles. People are doing less fast food and learning to cook at home again.”
The following year saw the publication of Flay’s award winning first cookbook, Bobby Flay’s Bold American Food (Warner Brothers, 1994). Six more best selling cookbooks have followed with the latest being Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook: Explosive Flavors from the Southwestern Kitchen which was released on October 16th. According to Flay, “It has taken 17 years to put together. It is sort of a greatest hits of the items we have featured on our menu over the years. Some of the recipes will be featured in the shows I will be doing there (in Mobile, AL).”
In 2000 Flay did something no other Food Network chef had ever done – he escaped the “kicked up” shadow of Emeril Legasse to become a bona fide star in his own right. A Japanese television show had become all the rage on US shores; it was a cooking competition called Iron Chef. The Iron Chef team made a visit to New York City where Flay challenged Iron Chef Japanese Masaharu Morimoto in Battle Rock Crab.
During the contest Flay complained of faulty kitchen equipment which many of his critics considered whining. As the last seconds ticked off the timer Flay leaped onto the counter to fire up the partisan crowd. This display did not sit well with the eventual winner, Morimoto who went on record saying that Flay, was “not a chef.” The animosity eventually led to a rematch in Japan in which Flay revamped his celebration and his cooking approach to defeat Morimoto on his own turf. Today the two men are friends and fellow Iron Chefs on the US version called Iron Chef America.
The Chef considers himself a “Texan by marriage,” but says the flavors of the Lone Star State were a part of his cooking prior to marrying Law & Order: SVU star Stephanie March, “I have been cooking Southwestern food since ’88. Blue corn and chilies have always been a part of my pantry so I have always thought of Texas. It is ironic that I am now married to a Texan.”
Though Flay’s style of cooking both personally and professionally is quite healthy he admits that he regularly enjoys ice cream. “I love to eat it, but I shouldn’t. I don’t eat a lot of junk food or fast food, so ice cream is my guilty pleasure.”
Chefs often come across new ingredients that demand exploration. It is through this investigation that new techniques and even food trends are introduced to American palettes. Chef Flay is no exception stating that right now his enthusiasm is devoted to, “spice rubs instead of marinades. They a do a better job of penetrating the food with flavor.”
Flay first visited our area a few years ago to do a profile on Matt Shipp (chef/owner of Justine’s at the Pillars) for a show called Food Nation. When asked if he planned on reuniting with Chef Matt on his visit to Mobile he said, “I haven’t talked with Matt in a while, but I am going to try and get by Justine’s.” He also expressed an interest in trying West Indies Salad, a Mobile delicacy.
In 1982 Bobby Flay was a high school drop out working as a line cook. Twenty-five years later he is the owner of six renowned restaurants, author of seven bestselling cookbooks, and an Emmy-winning television star. So what does the future hold for the fourth generation Irish-American?
On Saturday November 3, 2007 Chef Bobby Flay will make two appearances at the Mobile Civic Center. He will perform live cooking shows at 11:00 a.m. and at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range in price from $39.00 to $69.00. For more information you can contact the Mobile Civic Center at 251-208-7906 or Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com).