On Fire: Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay Was Aimless until Cooking Sparked His Passions. Today, He's Pioneering New Flavors and Cuisines as Well as Food TV

By Speed, Marie | Success, November 2010 | Go to article overview

On Fire: Celebrity Chef Bobby Flay Was Aimless until Cooking Sparked His Passions. Today, He's Pioneering New Flavors and Cuisines as Well as Food TV


Speed, Marie, Success


Bobby Flay knows what lives at the center of his universe: food, he says, "and then all the planets around it like TV, products, restaurants. They are all satellites of that one word that basically makes up my life."

And food has been very, very good to Bobby Flay, now with a small empire comprising signature restaurants in New York, New Jersey, Las Vegas and the Bahamas, a successful television career, a new line of "quick casual" burger joints, and a new cookbook and reality TV show. Flay is married to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Stephanie March, has been an Iron Chef and has appeared in several movies. He has even barbecued steaks with President Barack Obama on the White House lawn. He is solidly among the pantheon of first-generation celebrity chefs who have become their own brands, spinning out new business ventures and products with the kind of name recognition that used to be reserved for movie stars.

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But it wasn't always that way. Flay, now 45, was a bad boy once, a red-haired fourth generation Irish kid from the city, who dropped out of high school and learned what he needed to know on the streets. He was quoted once as saying "We used to have a rule, my friends and I. If it was too crowded to get on the first subway [for school], we went to breakfast. And maybe that was the beginning of my food career: a Greek diner."

It didn't look like he had much of a future in those days. Then 17-year-old Flay got a job at Joe Allen's restaurant in New York's theater district, where his father was a partner. Flay began, literally, working up the food chain, and his interest in cooking intensified. He doesn't cop to an "a-ha!" moment, but he does remember the first day he woke up and actually looked forward to going to work--and that was the day things began to change.

Venturing Out

"When I was 17 or 18, my biggest roadblock was me," he tells SUCCESS. "Just getting myself together and getting to work on time. Once I got a little bit of discipline, then I was afraid to enter the world. I just thought I would work in that restaurant the rest of my life."

But Joe Allen was impressed by Flay's natural ability and paid for his tuition to the French Culinary Institute. "When I finally finished school," Flay recalls, "he basically said to me 'You need to get out of here. This restaurant is successful, but it's not the place you need to evolve your culinary career.' So I left."

Flay bounced around a bit before landing a job with famed restaurateur Jonathan Waxman at Buds and Jams. Waxman became a mentor, introducing Flay to the Southwestern and Cajun flavors that would become integral to his signature cuisines.

In 1991, Flay partnered with restaurateur Jerome Kretchmer in Mesa Grill. The restaurant was a smash hit; Southwestern cooking became the flavor of the moment, and Bobby Flay was on his way.

In addition to the food, which he calls "true American cuisine," Flay attributes a heavy dose of "street sense" to his recipe for success. "Instead of learning through textbooks, I learned through life, which is something I do every day. That has a lot to do with getting to know people, understanding both their strengths and weaknesses."

Flay says those life lessons, his everyday work ethic, and business challenges form the basis for his business acumen. He also says his father taught him the importance of taking care of his employees. "He taught me that if you make it more interesting for the people who work for you and work with you, they will be much more into doing a better job for you. One of the things I get a thrill out of almost more than anything is being able to create opportunities for the people who work for me."

Insistence on Quality

When asked what advice he would give up-and-coming chefs today, he says, "Patience is No. 1--not that I had it. …

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