“Jay Z is the Emeril Lagasse of the rap world,” says Bobby Flay when asked to compare hip-hop’s mainstream takeover to the ascent of Food Network over the past quarter century. “I really want to be Jay Z, but I don’t want to say it myself.”
Despite Flay’s reluctance to crown himself the culinary Hov, the parallel is not so far-fetched: Both emerged in the ’90s with game-changing projects that catapulted their careers—Flay with Mesa Grill (1991), and Jay Z with Reasonable Doubt (1996). Both have maintained top billing in their fields through decades when food television and hip-hop spawned legions of copycats and pretenders to the throne (“with any success there’s excess,” is Flay’s diplomatic prognosis of the current cooking-show glut). And, perhaps most tellingly, both stars have a distinctively New York obsession with staying relevant on their home turf.
That last part may surprise some fans, who associate Flay more with Southwestern cooking and the backyard barbecues of Grillin’ & Chillin’ than his Upper East Side upbringing. But while he may not keep a Yankees fitted attached to his head, Flay has the city’s classics—JG Melon, Peter Luger, Grand Central Oyster Bar—coursing through his veins, and he cares about being at the center of the “everyday conversation of where to eat in New York.”
This month, Flay celebrated the two-year anniversary of Gato, his Mediterranean-inspired NoHo hot spot, and he doesn’t hesitate in calling it the greatest triumph of his career—above the James Beard Awards, the Emmys, the star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, and even the cameo on Entourage.
“At Gato, a lot of people were rooting against me,” he explains. “It was almost like a prize fight: I was like, ‘I’m going to stand here and if you want to knock me down, great, and if not, I hope you really enjoy the food.'”
“At Gato, a lot of people were rooting against me.”
Flay speaks with the type of haters-gonna-hate confidence that comes with more than two decades on television. He rose to prominence at at time when food stars—especially bad-boy types like Flay and Todd English—became tabloid targets, and an influx of stand-and-stir charlatans caused diners to turn a suspicious eye toward chefs who spent more time in a green room than a kitchen. But rather than turning him into a cash-checking nihilist, the bumps and bruises seem to have made him as aware as ever of his legacy. And so he has rules: He’ll only take TV gigs where he’s actually cooking (besides Next Food Network Star, where he’s mentoring cooks). He’ll never open “restaurants in other major cities [except for New York] unless it’s in a hotel or casino” for fear that he can’t be present enough (besides Bobby’s Burger Palace, a chain built purposefully outside of the gaze of NYC media).
“I feel like I know how to feed New Yorkers,” says Flay. “I understand the city, and I love the city.”
Based on the first two years at Gato, the city—and even many of its infamously Food Network–averse critics—seems to love him back. Still, after painting himself into a corner with the Jay-Z-as-Emeril comparison, he looks to the West Coast for his rap-game alter ego: “I guess I’m Snoop Dogg”—another O.G. who’s stayed relevant among the young bucks.
Whether you want to compare him to Hov or the Doggfather, Flay pins his longevity to a simple truth: “Cooking to me is like a recording of my life,” and he’s “happiest when I’m in my apron, making paella.” Here, the Food Network icon traces the road from My-T-Fine pudding to Gato through his most memorable meals, with a couple of classic NYC stops along the way.
My-T-Fine chocolate pudding
My-T-Fine Chocolate Pudding was the first thing I remember cooking, standing on a stool with my mother near the stove. It’s basically chocolate powder with scalded milk, and you have a wooden spoon and you’re just stirring it and stirring it until it starts to get thick. And I just remember that moment of thinking to myself like, oh my goodness, if you stir something, the texture will change. It was my first foray into food texture, and so I remember it was like yesterday. [I ate] tons of it. It used to drive me crazy, because I would put it in the refrigerator and then it would get this skin on it. I used to hate the chocolate-pudding skin, so I’d have to pull it back and eat the pudding itself. To this day, I love the texture of puddings. If there’s one on the dessert menu, I always order it.
Shrimp with tarragon and mustard sauce (Wolfgang Puck)
This was from Wolfgang Puck’s first book, when he was the chef at Ma Maison in L.A.; it was really one the first dishes I made out of a good cookbook. I was probably 17 or 18—I dropped out of high school, so I started cooking early. It was a shrimp dish with mustard and cream and fresh tarragon, and I made it over and over. It was sort of my gourmet dish when I was a teenager, before I started working in restaurants. And to this day, tarragon and shellfish is something I do all the time. It’s really inspired by that dish. (Photo: Amanda Marsalis)
Pork chops with applesauce and cinnamon
My mother was that ’70s cook [who made] pork chops with applesauce. She would open the jar of Mott’s applesauce and sprinkle some cinnamon and sugar in it, and she’d be like, “This is gourmet.” And she wasn’t kidding. She wasn’t a gourmet cook at all, but she thought if she added cinnamon and sugar to jarred applesauce that she was upscaling it. One of my original dishes at Mesa Grill was a spiced pork chop with red chilies and citrus, and I made spicy apple chutney to go with it—obviously, pork chops and applesauce go hand and hand, like peanut butter and jelly. It’s totally one of those things that was inspired by my childhood. [My mom’s] pork chops would cook for four hours; there was no pink in the pork chops, that’s for sure.
Lamb chops with mint jelly
Flatbread with lamb sausage and mint at Gato
Kind of like the pork chops and apple sauce, my mom would serve lamb chops with mint jelly on the side. Lamb and mint is another classic combination. I would almost never make a lamb dish in any of my restaurants that doesn’t have a hint of mint running through it somewhere—whether it’s in a salsa, a relish, a marinade, or a sauce, or if it’s in a side dish like couscous. I always have mint present, and it’s based on the fact that those are the flavors I grew up eating.
I know that [some of these classic combinations, like chocolate and raspberry] are dated. But if you present the chocolate and raspberry in a 2016 way, let’s face facts: Those ingredients work together. There’s a reason why things are classic. It’s like, am I going to stop eating fresh mozzarella with tomato and basil? Definitely not; I can eat that all summer long. Is it pedestrian when you see it on a restaurant menu? Of course. But sometimes what we expect is what we really want. (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
Oyster pan roast at Grand Central Oyster Bar
I’m a native New Yorker, so I would go to the Oyster Bar and order a pan roast—either an oyster pan roast or a lobster pan roast. Their thing is milk and paprika, which I think could be improved upon [laughs], but I love the idea of it. At Bar Americain, we do a lot of oyster dishes and pan roasts; it’s the American fabric of the Northeast, and something that reminds me of growing up in New York. I know they put a piece of toast at the bottom of the pan roast [at Grand Central Oyster bar]. It’s something I do in the cioppino at Bar Americain, where I grill a piece of sourdough bread and I slather it with anchovy butter, and then the broth and all the fish kind of spill out on top of it. That’s clearly inspired by eating the pan roast at Oyster Bar.
André Soltner had this restaurant Lutèce [in Manhattan], and the food was always so simple but so well-executed. He taught me how to roast a chicken, and it’s the only way I roast a chicken now. I take the [bird] and I sear it on top of the stove, on every single outside surface until everything turns crispy-brown, before I put it in the oven. A lot of time people will say, how come my chicken doesn’t get golden-brown like in cookbooks or magazines? It’s because the direct-heat method before you roast the chicken is the key; there’s nothing like it. I think there are lots of ways to roast a chicken, and the fact that André Soltner was the one who taught me—that’s something I’ll never forget. (Photo: bobbyflay.com)
Cheeseburger at JG Melon
I don’t think there is anyone in the world who has eaten more JG Melon cheeseburgers than me. The place has been open since 1972, when I was eight-years-old. My father’s best friend owns the restaurant; I literally grew up in the place. The cheeseburgers are so incredibly simple, but they also inspired the way I cook burgers at Bobby’s Burger Palace. They cook theirs on a griddle; I cook mine on a griddle. They use a soft bun; I use a soft bun. They melt the cheese completely—it’s part of my technique package when I’m teaching my cooks at Bobby’s Burger Palace, I tell them, “You have to melt the cheese completely, because if you don’t then it won’t taste as good.” American cheese is the key. When I was a kid, they used to put the cottage fries on a plate with cheese melted onto them. That’s sort of how I came up with the idea of crunchify-ing burgers by putting potato chips them. I wanted the potatoes and the cheese to be together, so now at Bobby’s Burger Palace we do that for you instead of letting it happen by accident. All of those experiences at JG Melon helped define what I love about a burger. Thinking about it makes me want to eat one right now. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Stone Crabs from Joe’s Stone Crab
Stone crabs aren’t like any other crabs. They rip of the claws and they throw [the crabs] back and [the claws] regenerate. It’s a very green way to harvest food, since you’re not actually killing it. I think a restaurant like Joe’s, that does so much business and is loved by so many, is amazing. The thing they do is basically steam the claws then serve them to you cold with a mustard sauce next to it—that’s the beauty of the entire restaurant. They do serve other things, but it’s all about the stone crabs. I think the thing that Joe’s Stone Crab has taught me is that if you have an amazing ingredient, leave it alone.
Eggs and mushrooms in Barcelona
Kale and wild mushroom paella at Gato
My business partner Laurence [Kretchmer] and I went to Rome, Barcelona, and Paris two weeks before Gato was openeing—one day in each, one after the other. We had dinner in Barcelona at this place called Paco Meralgo. It’s really casual but has amazing Spanish food. We ordered this dish that just said “eggs and mushrooms” on the the menu. This guy comes around the bar with this piping-hot cazuela and he cracks two eggs with one hand into some cooked mushrooms. He takes a fork and just scrambles the egg in, like, ten seconds or less. He mixes it in with the mushrooms then he puts it right in front of us. That was fucking ridiculous.
I came back wanting to do that. Except, instead of giving the chore to the waitstaff, which would’ve been very difficult, I created our scrambled-egg dish. It’s not the same flavors—it has romesco and bûcheron cheese in it—but it’s become an absolute cult favorite. I never thought I could sell scrambled eggs for dinner, but literally they’re on every table. [That meal in Barcelona] was my inspiration. I basically said, I’m fucking stealing this idea, but it’s not the exact dish. That’s the great thing about food—you get inspired in so many different ways. (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
Espresso bread pudding in Rome
Espresso-soaked bread pudding at Gato
On that same trip, we went to Rome and had lunch at this little trattoria called L’Asino d’Oro that Mario [Batali] told me to go to. Someone recognized me and told the owner, and the chef [Lucio Sfroza] came out. He was embarrassed because he didn’t think the menu was big enough for lunch, and he wanted me to come back for dinner. He was the sweetest guy, and I said, “Can I see your kitchen?” So he took me to the back and he told me he had a very hard time making money for his business, and so one of the things he did was use day-old bread to make tiramisu, instead of the classic ladyfingers. He’d basically make an espresso bread pudding for the tiramisu so that he was utilizing things he already had, to save money.
I love when more peasant-like ideas are created and it’s delicious. I think it’s so incredibly clever. It was such a simple idea, but I was inspired. Now, we have this espresso bread pudding made with bread from the night before on the menu at Gato—it’s been on the menu since day one, and it’s incredibly popular. Again, it was amazing nugget of inspiration [from the trip]. (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
Porterhouse at Peter Luger
My grandfather would take us to Brooklyn back in the day when you did not mess around in Williamsburg. He was one of these old New Yorkers who drove everywhere in the city. He would pick us up on Sunday night, and we’d drive over the bridge, and there would be a guy outside who you would give 20 bucks to to watch your car so it didn’t get ripped off. That’s where I fell in love with the porterhouse steak.
Lugers is the only restaurant that does it right. It’s the way I make steak now, and the technique almost doesn’t make any sense—if you went to cooking school and you taught this technique, they would fire you, because it’s backwards.
Here’s the deal: The porterhouse steak is connected by a bone, so if you cook it whole it doesn’t get to relax because it’s attached. But if you sear it really well and then take it off the bone and put it back together, and then finish cooking, it just relaxes all the muscles on the steak. I mean, it’s fucking brilliant; I didn’t invent it, I saw it happen in the kitchen one night at Peter Luger. They don’t talk about it; I just went in there and I was talking to the broiler cook, and when I saw it it I was like, what is this fucking guy doing, I can’t believe this. From that moment I said, I have to try this. And that’s the way I cook steak now.