Before Bobby Flay was a Food Network star, he was the enterprising chef behind New York City’s esteemed Mesa Grill. Since then, his company, Bold Food, has launched 27 restaurants, including Bolo, Bar Americain, and several Bobby’s Burger Palace locations, which together employ close to 1,500 people. And Flay, 50, has become a household name by hosting more than a dozen Food Network shows. Last year, he dipped back into Manhattan’s culinary scene with a new Mediterranean restaurant, Gato. No matter how much is on his plate, Flay is happiest when he’s whipping up something new.
–-As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
My family has lived in New York City for five generations, maybe longer. I grew up in Manhattan and went to basically every Catholic school in New York, until I dropped out of high school.
My first job was at a restaurant called Joe Allen. It’s still there, actually. It’s not necessarily known for its food. Its fame is based on its being in the theater district. I worked as the busboy for a couple of weeks. As I was walking out one day, the chef asked if I wanted to work in the kitchen. I said, “Sure.” They taught me how to use a knife, how to make a salad, and how to make a dressing.
That job shaped my life. It wouldn’t have happened if I had had anything else to do that day. Soon I was in the very first class of the French Culinary Institute. Joe Allen, the restaurant’s owner, gave me the tuition. When he brought it up, my first thought was, “Oh, no, not school. I don’t wanna go back.” But, truth is, I was becoming seriously interested in cooking. It was the first thing in my life that really caught my eye. Before that, all I cared about was hanging out with my friends.
During the holidays, my friends and I used to get together and play poker. We were 17 or 18. Soon, they were making a ton of money, and I was making 8 cents. They owned their one-bedroom apartments. That, for me, was like Shangri-la. At one point, I quit the restaurant business to go work on Wall Street for about six months, as a clerk at the American Stock Exchange. But there was no creativity to it. It was all about the dollar. I went back to the kitchen.
CREDIT: Emily BerlI went to work for Jonathan Waxman at a few of his restaurants: Jams, Bud’s, and Hulot’s. He was the first person to bring real California cuisine to New York. He was also the first to teach me what real good food was. I don’t know what he saw in me. Maybe it was my confidence and work ethic.
By 1988, I ended up as chef at a restaurant called Miracle Grill, a Southwestern restaurant in the East Village. When we opened, nobody cared. But then New York magazine gave us a gigantic review, and people came in droves.
Jerry Kretchmer, who owned Gotham Bar and Grill and was a New York state assemblyman, came in to eat dinner with his wife. Later, his people called and said he wanted to talk. He’s like, “Let’s open a restaurant together.” I said, “OK.” And he said, “All right, here’s the way it’s gonna work: You and I are gonna look for spaces together. I’ll handle the money, you’ll do the menu, and I’ll get you the ink.” This was Mesa Grill. All of a sudden, it was like I was playing at Yankee Stadium.
I think I’d like to go back to that opening again. It was January 15, 1991, the day we went to war with Iraq the first time. It was also the first time you could watch a war on TV. People were getting up out of their chairs, asking for their food to go, and going home to watch Fox News. I had just turned 26 and was really young and unafraid. But I could have done it better.
A moment I wouldn’t want to relive is the time Frank Bruni from The New York Times took a star away from me. I think he just thought I took my eye off it. It puts you in your place–very quickly. I still feel like there’s a piece of my body out there missing somewhere.
When The Food Network came along, I was like, “A 24-hour food channel? They’re going to run out of stuff in a week.” They had no money to fly people in, so if you could get there by subway, you could get on a show. A lot of chefs didn’t want to do it. I’m like, “Well, you guys are missing the point, because every time I’m on TV, I’m gonna get people to understand that I own a restaurant, and I’m gonna put more asses in the seats.” I came up with my own show ideas. I created Throwdown and Beat Bobby Flay.
Flay’s latest creation, Gato, a Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, opened in 2014 to rave reviews. On the menu: lamb sausage pizza and paella with kale and artichokes.
CREDIT: Courtesy Company
All those chefs have sent in their tapes since then. It makes perfect sense to market who you are and what you’re doing. Honestly, I still don’t think I’m very good at it. I don’t practice; I’m not acting. I just try to be myself as much as possible. Sometimes I’m good at being myself and sometimes I’m not.
Jerry’s son, Laurence [Kretchmer], and I opened more restaurants together. In 2008, we opened our first Bobby’s Burger Palace. When chefs go out to dinner, we’re not looking for champagne and caviar. We’re looking for a good bourbon and a great burger. I always thought it would be cool to have my own burger place. And I think people want to eat better food, even in casual environments. We have 18 Bobby’s Burger Palaces right now, and we’re going to open more. It’s not a franchise model. We own everything.
In 2013, we closed the original Mesa Grill in New York after the landlord quadrupled the rent. We were sad, but ultimately, restaurants are like Broadway shows. Some have long runs and some have short runs. Mesa Grill lasted more than 22 years.
Against my better judgment, I opened Gato last year, which was a monster of an opening. It’s been rewarding in many ways–most having nothing to do with money, ’cause it’s hard to make profits in New York restaurants. Bobby Flay Steak in Atlantic City and Mesa Grill in Las Vegas are two of our highest-grossing restaurants. But I’m sort of a junkie for the adrenaline, to be in the kitchen creating. The thing about cooking is that, thankfully, no one’s figured out how to make it come out of a computer yet.
The way that I juggle things, I kind of have everything going on the same track at once. Each day, I go where I’m needed most, whether it’s Gato or my office or my production studio, Rock Shrimp. Sometimes, I’ll be in 10 places in one day. The seeds of what I’m working on always grow from my professional kitchens. Right now, you’ll see me cook with a lot of Mediterranean flavors on TV because of Gato. I’m thinking in capers and anchovies and black olives. It all sort of works in unison. But the most important thing to me is my restaurants, bar none. Not even close.