The Iron Chef Throws Down on Culinary Trends, Food's Future, Salt Bans, and More
It's Sunday night. The heat is on in Kitchen Stadium as “Iron Chef America” host Alton Brown introduces “a veritable pantheon of culinary giants,” the first of whom is “Iron Chef Bobby Flay.” Or maybe it's any given afternoon on Food Network and Bobby is cooking up something delicious on “Boy Meets Grill.” Or it could be any given evening that you watch as Bobby challenges somebody to a “Throwdown.” Or Saturday mornings when you can “Grill It! With Bobby Flay.” Maybe you like to watch the morning news on CBS. Wait a minute! Isn't that Bobby Flay cooking something up for Early Show host Harry Smith? We'll soon enjoy “Brunch With Bobby Flay” on the fledgling “Cooking Channel.” And now comes word that the ubiquitous chef is headed for NBC in the fall with a new restaurant reality show. Oh, and lest we forget; he's also a judge on “The Next Food Network Star.”
All this from a man who insists that television is his “part-time job.”
Born and raised in New York City, still his primary residence, Robert William Flay is a fourth generation Irish American who retains the look of a man who would be right at home in a Dublin pub. Instead, he has built a hugely successful career as a chef and restauranteur, operating ten establishments from New York to Las Vegas to the Bahamas and points in between. He is a 1984 graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, a school he continues to support through his work as a visiting chef when his schedule permits, and through the Bobby Flay Scholarship, awarded annually to a student in the Long Island City Culinary Arts Program.
Although of Irish descent and French culinary education, Bobby's preference is for Southwestern cuisine. I meant to ask him about that when I recently caught up with him at the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show in Atlanta.
Bobby was chatting with Harrison Parish, an 18-year old high school student who had just won the title “Best Teen Chef” in a competition sponsored by the Art Institute of Atlanta. Harrison had asked Bobby about his start at the Food Network.
BF: When I started at the Food Network, it was a startup cable network. They had no money. Zero. The chefs that were guests on the network, they weren't flying them in from California or anything. If you couldn't get there by subway or taxi, you weren't on the network. I lived in New York and got my first experience slowly as a guest. Then I auditioned for my own show and kind of went from there.
RJ: Do you think that when you first started in the business over twenty years ago, you would have seen a young man like this? You know, cooking just wasn't “cool” back then.
BF: No, it wasn't. It was not fashionable and I tell people this all the time; I needed a job. I dropped out of high school and I started working in a restaurant, and I liked it. But it wasn't because I thought it was going to be hip and cool and fashionable and I'd be on TV for it, that's for sure. And I think there's a lesson to be learned there. With younger people, when I go do a demonstration – like at the culinary school where I went – years ago, I would go there and students would ask questions and always at the end I would have five or six people who would come up to me and ask, “What's the best way to get a job in a kitchen like yours.” And I would tell them to behave like a mature person, get their resumè together, pick a chef they would want to work for, and basically tell them you would do anything to work in the kitchen and get your foot in the door. That doesn't happen anymore. Now what happens is, I do a demonstration and at the end of the demonstration, five or six people raise their hands and they want to know how to get their own television show. And I always say to them, “Well, you're in the wrong place. This is a culinary school. Learn how to cook if you want to be a chef. The TV stuff will happen if you really want it to happen. There are so many opportunities. If you just want to be on TV, go to acting school.” And the lesson to be learned there is that people like Emeril, myself, Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay – you know, there's probably over a hundred years' experience between us, and that's what gives us the longevity, the repertoire of things to teach and talk about. If you don't have the experience....Yeah, anybody can do five shows, but that's gonna run out quickly.
RJ: You need to have the chops to back it up.
BF: Yeah. You need to be able to talk to the camera while you're cooking with authority about what you're trying to demonstrate. And people know right away. The camera doesn't lie, that's for sure. I would tell somebody who said to me, “I think I have enough experience to have my own show” – what I would do is throw this lemon at them, have them catch it and talk to me about it for fifteen minutes. Talk about all the things you've done with a lemon in your life. They can't do it. And that's like the simplest form of – I don't want to say a test – but it gives me an idea of what their experience is. You know, everybody wants to be a star quickly, and I think the best way to go about it is to learn your craft first. Ten years ago, we didn't know about the Internet and the effect it would have. Ten years from now, it'll be something else. The idea is to really solidify yourself as a cook for yourself and for your career. Look, the Food Network could say to me tomorrow, “We've had enough of you.” Okay, great. I have my restaurants, which is what I do most of the time, anyway. Eighty-five percent of my time is spent in my restaurants. That's where I want to be. And also, to me, my restaurants are the core of who I am. The TV stuff is a terrific fringe benefit and they work in unison. Now, for instance, if I were just a really well-known chef in New York with a couple of great restaurants, I wouldn't be here. Food Network creates these opportunities and I think they go hand in hand. I don't think you can have one and not the other.
RJ: Where do you think food is going right now? Food is huge, as evidenced by these shows. You have young people like [Harrison] pursuing careers in cooking. But at the same time, restaurant attendance is off because of the economy and more and more people are re-learning to cook at home and discovering that food doesn't have to come out of a microwave. So, what direction do you see food going, in general?
BF: I think it's very positive. I think the fact that people are cooking more at home is a testament to the Food Network getting people to understand what's out there to actually eat and cook. I think we're getting away more and more from processed foods – slowly, very slowly – but, like when you listen to the First Lady – you know, she's built this garden that's a symbol at the White House to get kids to eat better. There's been a lot of push for that. You see Jamie Oliver doing it on ABC. I haven't seen the show [“Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution”] but I know what he's doing. He's doing really good work there. He took a place that was sort of over the top in their eating habits, but that's not the point. The point is that we should all sort of think of it that way, and I think it all starts with getting our kids to make better decisions. Like, Harrison – he's eighteen and he's kind of like the new generation – the future of cooking. It's incredibly exciting for young people. And I don't mean young people who are eighteen. I mean young people who are five, because they are going to have better eating habits than we ever had because of the awareness. I think the awareness is the most important thing.
RJ: Last thought. In recent weeks and months, there have been a lot of attempts to legislate our health. They're banning trans-fats. They're banning alcohol...
BF: Don't forget salt.
RJ: ...Right. Some guy who probably never cooked anything that didn't come with microwave directions wants to ban the use of salt in restaurant cooking. What are you're thoughts on that?
BF: On the salt issue?
RJ: On the whole issue of legislating our health and healthy cooking.
BF: I think some of it is okay. But the salt one is a new one. And, you know, I have to cook with salt. I mean, I have to.
RJ: Chemically, sometimes. It's not just a matter of taste.
BF: That's right, but, you know, we don't want to eat bland food, and the only way you can add natural flavor to food is with salt. What I say to people is to use good quality salt. But, there's also a study out – don't quote me on the numbers – but something along the lines of seventy-seven percent of our salt intake is from processed foods. Okay, and just five percent of it is from just seasoning in good restaurants. So, I do think that they're just throwing a bunch of figures at everybody and scaring them to death and saying, “If you keep putting salt on your food, you're just going to die of a heart attack. Period.” To me, that means we should stop using alcohol in the entire country – you know, we should just stop doing everything that we like to do. Obviously, I don't believe that. I think that we need to moderate what we do. I don't think they really know the true effect of salt when it's being administered to real food, so to speak. And I just think it's one of those political moves in New York that's getting a lot of attention. Like I was just saying to someone this morning, what's gonna happen? So, like, there's gonna be some guy from the City of New York whose uncle got him a job five years ago at the Board of Elections and now they're moving him to a different city job, so he's gonna stand in my kitchen and measure my salt? It's impossible. Right now, it's voluntary and they're just trying to make some noise about it to get the awareness out.
RJ: Well, awareness is one thing, but then actually legislating it and requiring it are something totally different.
BF: You're right.
RJ: Think it'll go that far?
BF: No, I don't think it can. I think it's unconstitutional.
RJ: Bobby, I know you've got to run and get prepped for a couple of shows. Thanks for your time.
BF: My pleasure.
With that, I took my leave of the “part-time” TV personality chef, who had two hour-long cooking demos for which to prepare. I found out later that Bobby and wife, actress Stephanie March, had been up until the wee hours at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, DC the previous night/morning. They'd thrown him on a plane in DC at 4:30 am and dragged him off in Atlanta a couple of hours later, and here he was, all ready and raring to face a freelancer and about ten thousand fans. Wow! And here I am barely functioning after a nice long night in a cozy Hilton bed.
Guess that's why I forgot to ask him that question about his cooking style. But I'll remember next time. Stay tuned!