Welcome to The Tastemakers, a series in which we ask top culinary talents a few questions about the world of food and drink.
If you've flipped on virtually any cooking show in the last 15 years, you've probably heard of chef and TV personality Bobby Flay. And if you've had the opportunity to dine in one of Flay's many restaurants across the U.S., you also know that he's got some serious culinary chops—just ask the 40+ chefs he's defeated on Iron Chef America.
Starting his career when he was 18, Flay has been a fixture in the culinary community for almost three decades. After lending his skills to scores of Throwdown battles and years of reality cooking competitions, Flay has now returned to his hometown of New York City to open Gato, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in Noho. Calling it one of his most fulfilling and gratifying projects, Flay spends most nights there, managing the kitchen and creating dishes he loves to cook.
We chatted with Flay about some of the best meals he's had, the people he admires in the industry and the advice he'd give to all young chefs.
How did you get started in the industry? Did you always know that you wanted to work in food, or was there a specific moment that influenced you?
"I dropped out of high school when I was 17 and started working at a restaurant in the Broadway Theater District as a busboy for about two weeks. I went to the kitchen from there, not because I was looking for a way to be a cook, but because it was the job that was available. It took me a couple of months to understand that I really liked what I was doing. At first, it was just a job, but then all of a sudden, I started to really like going to work. About a year into that, I decided to go to culinary school and was in the very first class of the French Culinary Institute in 1984. The person who owned the restaurant I was working in told me about it, and on the first day of school, he handed me a check for the admission. I was 18. It was the first time I had found something that really interested me. While a lot of my friends were starting college, I was already starting my career. So in that way, it was kind of an advantage for me, being able to get a jump start at such a young age."
What's the most exciting thing you've worked on in the last year?
"Can we say the last 18 months? Because Gato has been such an important and fulfilling project for me. I've basically been cooking there nonstop since the day we opened, and it's been so gratifying in so many ways. First of all, just having a place like that where you just love walking into work every day is so satisfying. And it was the first restaurant that I'd opened in New York in a long time, so it was great to see it find success in this city."
Which dish that is currently on one of your menus are you most proud of?
"The kale and wild mushroom paella at Gato. I grew up in the restaurant business where meat was king and always at the center of the plate, and obviously over the last 20 years or so, people's tastes have changed. I think that chefs have become charged with making dishes that are very healthful or vegetarian or vegan that are just as creative as anything else they've done in the past, without being able to use an amazing piece of meat or some fish. The kale and wild mushroom paella was such a work in progress, and I can't tell you how many times I made it. I just kept thinking, I hate this dish; I can't get it right; I can't make it interesting enough; I'm just going to take it off the menu. One of my colleagues, who has worked with me for many years, basically said, 'Bobby, you're insane. This dish is one or two steps away from being great.' And finally we figured it out, and it was like the underdog dish of the year. It's the number-one dish in popularity every single night at Gato. The fact that I could get a vegetarian entrée to be the top dish every night was really an accomplishment."
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Which ingredient or dish are you tired of seeing on menus?
"I'm pretty much a fan of everything, but I am tired of seeing Asian dishes in restaurants that aren't serving Asian food."
What is your go-to food city?
"New York. It's hard to beat. Although there are some very good things happening in Los Angeles for sure. And I just came back from Rome with my daughter, and I had some of my best meals of the year there as well."
What's something that new cooks often do wrong in the kitchen?
"They take shortcuts. Every chef has a different style of managing and teaching, and I'm very hands on. I'm never going to tell you how to do something—I'm going to show you. And it's night and day in terms of a chef's growth.
I have a cook now who has a lot of skill and enthusiasm in the kitchen, and he previously worked at a restaurant that's very popular and busy. In the summertime, they have outdoor seating, so their capacity goes from, say, 120 seats to 300 seats. So I asked him how they would always keep up with the demand. And he said, 'We just got it out.' So the next couple of nights, I kept watching him and noticing that he was just trying to take so many shortcuts at Gato to get the food out. And I said, 'I need you to slow down; that's not what we do here.' I'm a stickler for the fundamentals. A lot of times I will strip new cooks of their 'tricks' for getting food to the plate to make sure every step is taken to get it right."
Who is the person you most admire in the food industry right now?
"So many people. I think that Torrisi and the guys behind Major Food Group, who own Carbone and Parm and a lot of others, are doing really good work. I like their New York City approach to things, because I'm a New Yorker, and I think that they're able to do a really great job across the board. And I think that the new Four Seasons restaurant will really define them.
I also love Drew Nieporent. He's been doing this for a long time and always strives to create great restaurants.
And Jonathan Waxman is my mentor and one of the best chefs out there.
And finally, Keith McNally. He owns the restaurants I spend the most time in on my days off: Morandi, Minetta Tavern and Balthazar. I always have a great time when I visit them."
What was the best meal you had in the past year?
"The best I've had was at Via Carota. In fact, I've been back five times so far this year. Order every vegetable dish, a few pastas and a crostino or two, and you'll be in trattoria heaven.
I also had an amazing meal recently in L.A. at a new place called Spartina. The best dish was definitely the raviolo with burrata and sea urchin."
What's one recipe that every cook should have in one's arsenal?
"I think that you should be able to make a great risotto or a great pasta dish. A chef should be able to go into his walk-in box, take a look at any of the ingredients he has there and create something spectacular by glueing it together with either a fresh pasta or a risotto. Pasta is something people really gravitate to, and it's something you can utilize in a pinch."
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