NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of New York's most successful chefs and restaurateurs, Bobby Flay.
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It’s lunch time at Bar Americain on West 52nd Street, and just before the crowds come in, there's a discussion between Bobby Flay and his executive pastry chef, Vicki, about the chocolate cake.
“Why can't you make the layers thinner?” Flay says.
“Because it’s not going to taste better that way,” Vicki responds.
“That cake has been a debate since we opened the restaurant," Flay says. “I want lots of layers. If it was up to me there would be 15 layers, but thin layers, and she feels that the cake is better if layers are thick."
You might say, “Thin layer, thick layer - how bad could it be? It's chocolate cake.” But that's one of the reasons why Bobby Flay is a successful chef and restaurateur - precision.
“If I didn't take another look at that cake, eventually maybe somebody else wouldn't take a look at it, and maybe Vicki wouldn't take a look at it, and two months from now it wouldn't be as good because we wouldn't be watching it close enough,” he says. 'I always tell my cooks, you can't cook by eye, you must always taste."
Most of the country knows Bobby Flay from his shows on the Food Network, “BBQ With Bobby Flay,” “Food Nation” and “Boy Meets Grill.” But New York restaurant goers know him because of his three highly regarded places here: Bar Americain, which opened this year; his Spanish place, Bollo; and his first restaurant, Mesa Grill.
“People ask me sometimes, ÎDo you still have to go to the restaurants?’ Man! That's all I do,” he says. “And there's no magic to it. You have to get up and you have to go to work every day and make sure it's going well.”
And yet the visibility he's gained on the Food Network can't be denied. It wasn't that long ago that chefs were seen as guys in loud kitchens with dirty aprons. Now, they're like rock stars.
“I think it's good because it really gives the younger people in our country another profession to think about as they're sort of growing up,” Flay says.
But Flay also says there is a downside to the recognition brought by being on television.
“If you're on television and somebody comes to your restaurant and you're not there, they're sorely disappointed - having nothing to do with the food,” he says. “It just makes it much more difficult."
Flay's appearances on the Food Network are the stuff of emotional and intense response on the Internet.
“I don't read any of that stuff," he says. “If you go on these forums like on the Food Network or other places, it's usually the same four or five people going back and forth.”
Food Network devotees recall Flay's appearance as a guest in Japan on the show “Iron Chef,” when he jumped up onto his cutting board, which chefs in Japan consider sacred.
Is that natural, or does he play a role because that's what those shows require?
“I am not an actor,” he says. “I couldn't be an actor and I have no interest in being one. The only thing I can be on TV is Bobby."
With shows on the Food Network, several books out, and three successful Manhattan restaurants, you might think that the notion of doubt wouldn't be part of Flay’s vocabulary.
“There's always a little bit of doubt in my mind that the next day people aren't going to show up,” he says. “Listen, you can do 400 covers tonight and the next day open the door and nobody walks through. That's the way we always think.”
The concern might be understandable, but New Yorkers do seem to be walking through the doors. And yet, with all of Flay's precision and preparation, some things are out of his hands.
"There is always that one little thing that is not the most obvious thing that becomes signatures of the restaurant,” he says. “You don't get to decide as the owner, it's the customers that do."
So how did Bobby Flay become one of the city's most popular chefs and restaurateurs?
“I'm not formally trained, I didn't go to college, I didn't go to business school,” he says. “I went to the ÎSchool of New York City,’ and I'm totally, totally proud of that."
Flay's “School of New York City" began on the Upper East Side, where he grew up. He says he went to every Catholic school in New York, which is only a slight exaggeration. He was asked to leave Xavier High School not once, but twice — once in the ninth-grade, and then again in the tenth.
“Then I went to LaSalle Academy, which is another parochial school down on Second Street, and I didn't do too well there either,” he says. “High school was not my thing."
Flay eventually got his diploma. But his education really began at the restaurant Joe Allen, where his father was a partner and helped get his son a job.
"Three or four months into it, I remember saying to myself, ÎThis is it for me. This is what I want to do.’ And I was 18-years-old,” he says.
Before Joe Allen’s came along, was he at all nervous about what he was going to do in life?
“I didn't really think about it that much,” he says. “I mean, it's really amazing when I think about it now. It's like I was on the brink of total destruction as far as my personal life was, because what was I going to do? I mean, if I didn't find cooking I don't know where I would have ended up."
Where he ended up was at a then new school called the French Culinary Institute, with a full scholarship paid for by Joe Allen.
In 1991, he opened his first restaurant, Mesa Grill, on lower Fifth Avenue, at a time when New York's economic troubles meant there weren't many new restaurants.
“We built Mesa Grille for $300,000 15 years ago,” he says. “Now you couldn't build a door for that kind of money. It was just a different time in the restaurant business."
Mesa Grill was an immediate success, and Bollo followed a few years later. Then in 1996 came the start of the Food Network.
It would eventually help make Flay a national celebrity, but not so initially.
“When it first came on it was in very few homes around the country,” he says. “In fact, in New York, I think we actually shared the channel with the New Jersey Network, and it came on at 1:00 in the morning. It was on from, like, 1 to 8 a.m., [so I was very big with the people who couldn’t sleep].”
It's ironic that, considering his lack of success in school, Flay has had a great desire to teach. So he helped with a culinary arts program last school year at Long Island City High School, which resulted in Food Institute scholarships for five of the kids.
The opening this year of Bar Americain means that Flay has a presence in Midtown and downtown. His restaurants are often packed, and the reviews are good.
And yet, he says, “You're as good as the last meal you cooked. Really, you could be a customer of my restaurant, come here five times and have great meals. On the sixth time, if it's not so good, the seventh time you're going to think about not going there."
But these seems to be pretty successful times for Flay and his restaurants. He's a big golfer, though it's clear nothing stirs his passion like the food business.
He has a daughter from a previous marriage, and got married this year to actress Stephanie March, a match that indirectly comes back to his first passion, the food business.
“She says the way I was able to get a date with her was because I could get a reservation at Nobu at 8:00,” he says. "Look, I’m really lucky person. I’m lucky in so many ways. Lucky because I found something that has become not only my personal life and my professional life together - it's really one life together when you are in this business - but it’s opened really great doors for me. I’m like the happiest guy right now."
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: