June 9, 2008 -- Despite his many devoted fans — grill fanatics and cooks who appreciate the extra spice his delicious southwestern cuisine puts in their lives — Bobby Flay also inspires envy.
He's confident, sometimes to the point of being brazen, and he found success at an unusually young age in one of the toughest restaurant markets in the world: New York City.
Flay owns five different restaurants, has written seven cookbooks and stars in three television shows. But there is one thing that makes Bobby Flay a bit less of a super-human: He was a "really bad high school student."
"I was registered in high school, but I didn't do any work. And sometimes, I wasn't even there. Actually, a lot of times I wasn't there," he said. "We used to have this rule, my friends and I … if it was too crowded to get on the first subway, we went to breakfast. And maybe that was the beginning of my food career, a Greek diner in New York."
Discovering the Kitchen
After getting thrown out of three high schools, Flay earned an equivalency diploma. Then, one day when he was filling in for a bus boy at his father's restaurant, Flay was offered a job in the kitchen.
"It wasn't actually a groundbreaking moment in my life. It was just, I didn't have anything to do that day. So I was like, 'Sure, OK, I'll put some chef whites on and I'll work in the kitchen.' That was my first sort of foray into a professional kitchen," Flay said. It may have been "just a job" at first, but about six months later, things began to change.
"I remember sitting in my bed one morning and staring at the ceiling and saying, 'You know what? I'm really looking forward to going to work today.' I actually remember the day. From that moment on, I looked at it very differently," Flay said.
He moved up the food chain in a rite of passage familiar to everyone in the restaurant industry, first working on cold plates and then graduating to hot plates. But it was his decision to join the first class of the French Culinary Institute, now a famous New York cooking school, that Flay describes as one of the most important events of his life.
His father's friend and cooking mentor Joe Allen paid for Flay's tuition to the school, where Flay now teaches as a master chef.
At the FCI Flay focused on developing his palate.
"I think there's definitely natural abilities of being able to taste flavors, but I think that you have to experience different things to really hone your palette," Flay said. "That's not to say that some people have naturally a better palate than others. My wife [former "Law and Order" star Stephanie March], for instance, has a tremendous palate."
'I Fell in Love With the Ingredients'
In New York, Flay eventually paired up with Jonathan Waxman, and discovered his love of southwestern cuisine, and a fascination with blue corn.
"We didn't know what to do with it, but it was there and it was cool. It was blue. Blue food that was actually naturally blue," he said. "This is before there were bags of blue corn tortilla chips everywhere. And fresh and dry chili peppers, no even idea of what they were called or what to do with them, but I bathed myself in them, because I wanted to know how to use them. I fell in love with the ingredients. I fell in love with the flavors, the colors, the textures. And then I went to the Southwest and did some more discovery."
Today Flay specializes in southwestern cuisine, which he features at his three Mesa Grill restaurants. In July he'll add an American icon to his repertoire by opening a chain called Bobby's Burger Palace.
"You've had good burgers and you've had bad burgers, right? I think that we have a technique down that is going to say, 'This burger is good and I want it again and again and again,'" Flay said. "I feel like American food is undiscovered. I think that so many people, including people that live in this country, think that American food is hamburgers and hot dogs and macaroni and cheese."
Flay paid homage to American food in 2005 with Bar Americain in New York.
"Bar Americain is a celebration of American food. When I say American food, I really mean American food by definition, not like new American food, which means anything you feel like cooking," he said. "Bar Americain is the celebration of the regions of America — the Southwest specifically, the South, the Southeast, the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, the Midwest. I think that we have the best food in the world."
The Business of Confrontation
Flay's love and appreciation for American cooking have helped drive his career, and in a series of face-to-face culinary challenges Flay has gone up against some of the best American chefs in the country.
On "Iron Chef" he recently won a battle against fellow New Yorker Marcus Samuelsson, and in his Food Network show "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" he's continually traveling around the United States, learning about local cuisine, only to confront his teachers with a cook-off where the winner earns much-publicized accolades.
"I can tell you that I've traveled the entire country through food, and we found some of the most incredible ingredients and a lot of the dishes that are authentic in a particular region very rarely get out of their region for the rest of the country to see," Flay said.
Because of his success, people often ask Flay about the food industry. But his advice is to try out the restaurant industry first rather than make a quick decision.
"What I always suggest — before you decide to take the plunge, which means quitting your job, spending a lot of money for a culinary school — go and beg any restaurant that you would like to work in to work for free for a month doing anything, because you'll get the environment in a month. You'll understand the environment in a month," he said. "At that point, if you feel you want to go forward, then you should go forward and take the plunge."
Back when Flay was busing tables he most likely never imagined a future life revolving around food, or one where he'd be excited to go to work everyday. "Basically, food is my whole life … I'm not complaining about it. It's my business life; it's my social life; it's the way I relax."