Celebrity chef Bobby Flay gets fired up for a Throwdown in Boca

Bobby Flay is king of the grill thanks, in part, to the reach of television’s Food Network. The celebrity chef has gained grill-master acclaim from starring in such shows as “Grill It! with Bobby Flay,” “BBQ with Bobby Flay,” and “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” the latter of which has made the term “throwdown” synonymous with competitions.

One such competition will bring Flay to Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton on Feb. 18 for the annual Downtown BBQ Throwdown.

Flay will be the guest judge as contestants vie for the title of grand champion and a chance to compete in the 38th annual American Royal World Series of Barbecue, held each October in Kansas City. (His February in Florida schedule also includes a stop at the Feb. 22-26 South Beach Wine & Food Festival, which is sponsored by the Food Network and Cooking Channel.)

While women enjoy the glory of outdoor cooking as much as men, Flay says “the stereotype has always been the guy with the grilling tool belt who burns the chicken and undercooks the steak.
“For some reason, men feel like the grill is their domain. I say there are two kinds of guys in the world—those who can grill and those who think they can grill.”

The native New Yorker says he follows the same fundamentals when judging a barbecue competition as when teaching people how to cook—including chefs at his restaurants throughout the country. “I’m looking for flavor, contrast in textures, and as close to perfect execution as possible in how the food is cooked,” he says. “All of those things are hard to do, but grouped together, it is really difficult.”

Whether it’s grilling or creating a simple dinner, Flay says the one thing that trips up cooks, from amateurs to professionals, is overcomplicating what has to be done instead of relying on the fundamentals. When it comes to a fundamental of grilling, Flay says to let the grill do its job.

“The No. 1 mistake people make at the grill is touching the food too much,” Flay says. “Most of the time you’ll see me at the grill doing absolutely nothing. Add a light touch of canola oil—it has a mild flavor and high smoke point. Turn the food only once and let the fire be your guide.”
His go-to choices for grilling are any kind of beef steaks—rib-eye, hanger and strip. “These are the most mouth-watering,” he says. “Whether you’re using spice rubs or marinades, it’s simple to impart flavor and texture.”

Photo courtesy of Food Network

Flay has enjoyed a 20-plus year relationship with the Food Network.

In the Beginning

Flay didn’t start out dreaming about a career in the kitchen. “There was nothing to aspire to when I was a kid in terms of food,” he recalls. “You didn’t think of being a chef; it just wasn’t on the list. I remember cooking with my mom and making deviled eggs and chocolate pudding, and I was interested in how food came together, yet not knowing why. I watched Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet, and they were great, but I never thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be cooking on television one day.’”

It was a business interest of his father, Bill, a Wall Street lawyer, that introduced him to the idea of running a restaurant. Flay’s father, now 85, had partnered with the noted restaurateur Joe Allen, whose namesake 46th Street restaurant is a New York theater district landmark.

“At the time, Joe was trying to make his business bigger; he needed someone who understood business, and that was my father,” Flay says. “But he didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, so my father worked every station in the restaurant—from bartender to waiter to the door. He even worked in the kitchen. He did everything to understand how things worked, and he was Joe’s partner for a bunch of years.

“When I finally dropped out of high school for about the third time, my father made me take a busboy job for two weeks. And then I started to work in the kitchen.”

The rest is a history that has largely played out on Food Network, which cemented Flay’s place as television’s celebrity grill chef. His first show was “Grillin’ & Chillin’ ” in 1996, just two years after the channel officially launched.

“When the Food Network announced that [it was] going to have a 24-hour network about food, I thought, ‘That’s going to last about two weeks,’” he says. “They had some awful shows early on.”
At the time, his flagship New York restaurant, Mesa Grill, had been open for almost three years. “Mesa was getting tons of ink at the time, and I was the known entity,” Flay says. “I lived in New York and the Food Network was in New York. They had no money then, so they did everything on a shoestring. They couldn’t afford to bring in chefs from outside of New York City, so if you could get there by taxi, you could be on [the shows].”

Photo courtesy of Food Network

The chef in action on “Beat Bobby Flay”

Star in the Making

It was the start of a more than 20-year relationship that brought a series of shows hosted by Flay. “Grillin’ & Chillin’ ” was followed by “Hot Off the Grill” in 1998, “Boy Meets Grill” in 2003, and “BBQ with Bobby Flay” in 2004. He currently stars on “Iron Chef America,” which premiered in 2005, “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” which debuted in 2006, “Grill It! with Bobby Flay” and “Food Network Star” (both of which premiered in 2008), and “Beat Bobby Flay,” which debuted in 2014.

Becoming a major part of one TV channel has been nothing short of wonderful, he says. Yet, with all of the celebrity he’s achieved, Flay says he’s a cook first. It’s still the thing that makes him “happier more than anything.”

That said, being on television has allowed him to travel the world and open doors that he never could have imagined. “I went to the White House Christmas party,” he says. “I am not sure, if I weren’t on television, that I would have been invited to that.”

Flay worked with Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama several times during the former president’s eight years in office. “I cooked special dinners throughout the years and that administration was very favorable to having chefs be part of what they were doing,” he says. “You want to think it’s because they really like your food, but the bottom line is that they might not have thought about me if I didn’t have a media presence.” With a new administration in the White House, Flay is uncertain if he’ll be invited once again to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “I don’t know [President] Trump or anyone in his administration—as of yet,” he says.

There’s a secret to Flay’s longevity in two worlds that have the reputation for fleeting fame. The chef believes it’s his willingness to take chances that has served him well. “You have to get out of your box and take a risk and try to accomplish something in the next five years, but it can’t be what you did five years prior,” he says. “Tastes change and people change. You have to know that it’s OK to have some failures, whether it’s a failed restaurant or a failed recipe. Big or small, you have to take the risk, otherwise you can’t be in the game.”

His next adventure, he reveals, might be the opening of a restaurant in New York in 2017, “but I can’t talk about it yet.” Flay has restaurants from coast to coast, including spots in Las Vegas (Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace) and Atlantic City (Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa), as well as Bar Americain and Gato in New York. He says he is going to keep expanding Bobby’s Burger Palace, of which there are 17 across the United States, including one inside Dadeland Mall in Miami.

Speaking of which, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival has Flay cooking dinner with Alex Guarnaschelli and Katie Lee at Soho Beach House. The $300-a-ticket dinner inside Cecconi’s on Feb. 24 is already sold out.

“I always have a great time in Miami; the food has evolved from where it was 12 or 15 years,” he says. “There’s still that Florida Caribbean mix, and I really love that kind of food. But now there is a Mediterranean influence, along with the Latin influence. That’s the food I gravitate to. Miami has a lot to offer.”

2017 Downtown BBQ Throwdown

When: Saturday, Feb. 18, noon to 5 p.m.
Where: Mizner Park Amphitheater,
590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
What: Expect food tastings, entertainment and an old-fashioned barbecue contest—judged by Bobby Flay—at an event benefitting nine local charities.
Tickets: Adults, $35-$75, $10 for children 9-12. Limited number of VIP tickets, which provides upfront seating and access to the hospitality tent.
Other events: Friday, Feb. 17—VIP kickoff event at Saks Fifth Avenue at Town Center mall to benefit the renovation of the Toppel Family Place at Boca Raton Regional Hospital ($100 per person). Sunday, Feb. 19—Special sponsor brunch with menu created by celebrity chef Anne Burrell.
Contact: downtownbbqthrowdown.com; call 561.221.0473 about the Saks event