NEW YORK – On the day after he turned 49, Bobby Flay could be found where most of his fans expect him to be: racing around with a knife in a big room bathed in spotlights.
The setting was a soundstage in Brooklyn, where last month he was taping a new Food Network show called “Beat Bobby Flay.” As with other programs that have involved the effortlessly charming, perpetually multitasking, maddeningly slim chef who can come across as the George Clooney of American gastronomy, the show was predicated on the simple idea that it’s fun to try to make Flay lose.
In reality, he doesn’t lose very often. Of all the chefs of the last two decades who have tried juggling the roles of hands-on cook, TV star, face of an expanding entrepreneurial empire and human being with some dignity left intact, Flay may be the least prone to slip. (Put in a call to Todd English or Rocco DiSpirito if you want a few lessons on how a ride on the gravy train can go off the rails. There’s a reason Flay has declined offers to swivel his hips on “Dancing With the Stars.”)
But one important achievement has eluded him. For several years, Flay has not had a restaurant that is considered part of New York’s pantheon, and he clearly craves the extra splash of respect that that once brought him.
In February, he and his longtime business partner, Laurence Kretchmer, plan to open Gato, the chef’s first new Manhattan dining establishment in nearly a decade. Gato represents an obsessive midlife quest for Flay, and a test case for whether any celebrity chef can command both the mass-market spotlight and credibility as a culinary auteur.
Can a guy who hosts “Worst Cooks in America,” oversees an expanding network of mall-ready burger joints and currently has more brand presence at the Mohegan Sun casino than in Manhattan return to his roots and win hosannas for a serious restaurant in his hometown?
New York will soon find out. “I’m putting myself on the line,” he said.
At this point, if anything has a chance of beating Bobby Flay, it’s fame itself – the widespread impression that he is drawn more by the glare of the soundstage than the glow of the stove.
“People think that I don’t cook,” he said. “And it’s just the furthest thing from the truth. But that’s OK, I can’t fight that battle anymore. And I think the people who shout that out just decide that they feel that way, because they want to get under your skin a little bit. But at this point it’s pretty hard to hurt my feelings. I’ve heard it all, and I’m still here.”
Not so long ago, Flay stood at the helm of three New York restaurants that helped catapult him into the comfortable perch that the chef now occupies: Mesa Grill, Bolo and Bar Americain, all places where the cooking was unpretentiously winning.
The first two, which opened in 1991 and 1993, respectively, fell victim to the force that has been Flay’s most troubling antagonist: the whims of the city’s real estate market. After more than 22 years in business, Mesa Grill closed last year when the rent was set to triple or even quadruple. That hurt.
“I was looking back at the restaurant, and my daughter could see that I was getting very emotional,” he recalled of leaving his last supper there, in August. “She was like, ‘Dad, you can cry, it’s OK,’ and I just bawled. Dude, it was my youth. It was my whole life. My whole career is based on the existence and the success of Mesa Grill. And all of a sudden it’s not there anymore.” (Mesa Grill lives on in Las Vegas and the Bahamas, though; Flay and Kretchmer also operate Bar Americains in Manhattan and the Mohegan Sun, and a surf-and-turf-themed steakhouse in Atlantic City, N.J.)
Flay already was bruised from the closing, about five years earlier, of Bolo, where he had helped stoke the city’s appetite for the salt, citrus and olive oil of Spain – and had scored three stars from William Grimes in the New York Times. Just as Bolo’s lease was due to lapse, developers materialized one day in 2007, Flay said, and informed him that they had big plans for that block of the East 20s. “These guys came in and they built a 60-story glass condominium,” he said. “Basically they told us, ‘It’s over.’ ”
On the day after Bolo roasted its last clove of garlic, Flay urged Kretchmer to start scouting for new locations. “Every time I’d see Bobby, he’d say, ‘I’ve got to reopen Bolo, I’ve got to find a space for Bolo,’ ” recalled Alex Guarnaschelli, the chef behind Butter, and another Food Network regular. She called Bolo his “girl that got away.”
Gato is Flay’s chance to remind New Yorkers about the thing that made him famous in the first place: his cooking. He calls Gato “the most important thing I’ve done in a decade – period.”
“I have to do it for me,” he said. “I would feel empty if I didn’t do it. I feel, like, unfinished business.”
While Bolo hinged on the cuisine of Spain, the menu at Gato will encompass other regions around the Mediterranean – Italy, Provence, Greece, North Africa. “Tons of olive oil,” Flay said. “Tons of salty flavors like anchovies and olives and capers. Lots of citrus. Tons of things like tomatoes and peppers, both hot and sweet.”
Lately, that Mediterranean influence has become as ubiquitous as pretzel carts in New York. “Now piquillo peppers are on everybody’s menu,” Flay said. Gato will be a short walk from a bounty of locations where next-generation chefs are offering up tantalizing permutations of the Romance languages approach, including Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, Lafayette, Estela, Cata and Balaboosta, where the chef, Einat Admony, happens to be a veteran of the kitchen at Bolo. Not far away, Tertulia and Toro celebrate Iberian cooking with booming enthusiasm and granular-level obsession.
In other words, Bobby Flay is not the cool new kid on the block anymore. He appears to be fine with that. “I grew up in New York, and New York basically invented competition,” he said. Jonathan Waxman, who became his mentor after Flay dropped out of high school and trained at spots like Jams, Bud’s and Hulot’s, said decades of experience had only sharpened his protégé’s focus.
“Listen, he can cook,” said Waxman, who is now at Barbuto. “Jazz musicians just get better and better as the years go by. I think chefs are the same way. You know who you are.”
From the standpoint of media buzz, though, the stretch from 1993 to 2014 may as well represent the chasm between Miles Davis and Miley Cyrus.
Back then, the Internet’s use as a gladiatorial arena for news-spreading, snack-snapshotting and merciless celebrity-flogging was still years away. This time around, Flay (who has been married for nine years to the actress Stephanie March) knows what’s in store. “I am a target,” he said. “There’s no question about it. But the only thing I can do is just try my best to open up a really good restaurant.”
About six years ago, when he and Kretchmer trial-ballooned the first Bobby’s Burger Palace, where each burger can be “crunchified” by the addition of potato chips and each milkshake is dense with 11 ounces of ice cream, they did it far away from the cold and watchful eyes of the metropolitan media. “We opened up at Suffolk County, where no one could find us,” Kretchmer said. “Because we wanted to figure it out.” After a little while in stealth mode, he said, “we got a little braver.”
Shake Shack planted the seeds of its brand mythology in Manhattan, then spread outward; Bobby’s Burger Palace has done the opposite. There are now 17 locations, and millions of dollars in annual grosses, but city dwellers still have to navigate a bridge or a tunnel to experience a crunchified Palace Classic. “I didn’t want to open in New York,” Flay said. “New York doesn’t prove or disprove concepts like this.”
Although he and his partner have set a lot of enterprises spinning, their overriding strategy for avoiding disaster may be manageability. They prefer to open restaurants that are easy to get to from their downtown Manhattan apartments. Flay has avoided building a spot in Hong Kong because it’s “too far away,” he said.
In the same spirit, he says he strives never to wander too far from what he sees as his core: He says yes only to TV shows that concentrate on cooking, as opposed to, say, trying to build a campfire on a tropical island. He and Kretchmer dodge the meddling of outside investors by simply declining to work with them; the two take on all the financial risk themselves. (Flay wouldn’t say how much they’re spending on Gato, but he conceded that even if its 130 seats are full every night, they’ll be lucky to break even. While the burger places each bring in an average of $2 million to $3 million a year, Flay said, all of that is poured back into the growth of the chain.)
Should you travel to a Burger Palace in, say, Paramus, N.J., you may spot Flay behind the counter, just as he sometimes materializes in chef’s whites at Bar Americain in Midtown. Because of his constant presence on the Food Network, people seem to assume that he spends most of his time in television studios.
In fact, he said, he can shoot an entire season of a show like “Beat Bobby Flay” in three or four days (with strategic wardrobe changes), leaving the rest of a month open for cooking and keeping tabs on his various restaurants, which he views as a higher priority than his TV career.
“It’s not even close,” he said. “I come from a place of food integrity first. I’ll never do anything to be a clown, you know what I’m saying? The Food Network has done wonders for my career, because obviously it has opened up a lot of doors in lots of different ways. But the thing that gets me jazzed every day are the restaurants.”
Especially Gato. Mere hours after he had taped the last segment of “Beat Bobby Flay,” he and Kretchmer boarded a plane to Europe. Though the menu at Gato is more or less ready to roll, the duo wanted one more gullet-stuffing pass through Paris, Rome and Barcelona as a way to get fired up about their debut.
In Barcelona they dropped into a tapas place called Paco Meralgo and ordered a deceptively simple dish involving eggs and artichokes. When Flay talks about that dish now, his voice grows nearly as heated as the oven-scorched cazuela it arrived in.
“They were the most perfectly scrambled eggs I’d ever had,” he said. “My feeling was, there is no other dish in the world right now. This is what I want to eat.”
Kretchmer recalled, “He turned to me and he said, ‘We’re doing this.’ ”