Interview with Chef Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill – New York, NY
Jocelyn Morse: When you were thinking of becoming a chef, did you envision it would involve the media?
Bobby Flay: When I first started cooking 18 years ago, there was no such thing·Cooking was really a blue-collar profession. It wasn't very hip to be a chef. About a year and a half into my career, Wolfgang started getting attention. He was the first celebrity chef. There was Julia [Child], but she was 'the woman on television who cooked.' It was a totally different thing. She wasn't a professional chef·
So, the answer to your question is no. But, I got really lucky and slowly but surely, food in the media became more and more important.
JM: Once you began to see that food and TV was growing, did you seek it out?
BF: It kind of just came together, but it came together slowly. I didn't go seek it out. Now, wherever I travel, anywhere across the country, I meet chefs and the first thing they want to know is how they can get their own television show.
JM: What was your first TV experience?
BF: My first television experience was on Regis and Kathy Lee when I was 22 years old or so. I made Southwestern potato salad for a cooking segment on 'the perfect potato salad.'
JM: Chefs were first brought onto TV shows to perform, as entertainment. Now what do people want to hear from the chefs?
BF: At first when they had chefs on TV talk shows, they were just filling airtime. They didn't seek us out because they wanted to have us on. It was because somebody cancelled. It was always at the last second, 'Bobby, can you come on?'
Then I wrote my first cookbook and you go on the tour and you do The Today Show, you're on the radio and in print and it just grows. People really want to know about chefs, write about them and have them on television·now a chef can be considered a celebrity along with everybody else·a rock star, a baseball player, an actress, a chef.
JM: Because of this, has the definition of 'chef' changed?
BF: I think the definition of a chef has changed completely. I find that some of the media doesn't want to accept that, either a) because they don't want to or b) just because they don't get it. AndrŽ Soltner is a perfect example. He stood at the stove at Lutce for 35 years and cooked every meal and when he had a day off the restaurant closed. There is no one like that any more; I don't care who it is.
Chefs now have two, three· ten restaurants, they write books, they're on television, they do appearances, charity events, there is no way a chef can be a person who stands at a stove and cooks every single meal. Yeah, for a 40-seat restaurant where nobody knows the chef, that's one thing. You have to be completely passionate about the food you serve, be a great manager and trainer, have a really upbeat personality, know how to talk to people of all different walks of life, rich, poor, sophisticated, whatever it is, convey your message on radio, television, and give a good interview·but it all comes back to the food. You have to put out consistently great food otherwise the star falls.
JM: How do you remain secure that you're consistent? Do you put a lot of trust in your team?
BF: Yes, I have a lot of trust in my staff. I take my time hiring and (once hired) I help them evolve within the system so that they get better and are able to cook the way I want. At the same time I give them a lot of leeway to create and I help critique it and tweak it so that there's a really happy medium.
I always know when I'm not in the restaurant enough. I just know. It's a gut feeling. If I'm out of the restaurant for more than a day and a half, I know I have to get back. It all stems from the food and it's really what I want to do. However, it doesn't mean I want to spend my entire life manning the stove. I do other things to enhance both my life and the restaurant's that occur outside of the restaurant.
JM: One of a restaurateur's greatest challenges is hiring: What's your hiring philosophy?
BF: What I tell people is to come in and check us out while at the same time we'll check you out. It's a two-way street. I hire people for two reasons and for two reasons only: Ambition and good disposition, they have to be nice people. And everything else I don't care. If they have those two things, I can work with them. If they don't, I can't. Whether they can cook or not·We have cooks at every different level, from the very experienced to those with no experience. I welcome both because there's a place for both in my kitchens.
JM: Do you prefer to take cooking school students?
BF: I've hired customers out of the dining room. I'm not kidding. They'll say, 'I'm an accountant, I hate my job. I've made some money over the years and I'd really like to come and work in the kitchen.' I'll say they can hang out for a few weeks and they'll stay for three years. It's happened to me three or four times.
JM: What kind of work schedule do you require of your cooks?
BF: People work five days a week unless they really want to work six. Every once in a while someone works six because they need the money. If people need days off, I give it to them. I send my sous chefs out of the restaurants for two weeks at a time because I feel like they're over worked, burnt out. But I don't burn them out, my sous chefs work five days too. If I feel like it's been a rough two months, or they haven't gotten what they needed from me, or they're short staffed, I send them out to just get away from the restaurant. I like to preserve the staff so they don't get burnt out and they're barely walking into the restaurant. I have a very friendly kitchen. No one yells. If anybody yells, they're out. I don't berate people. It's a good place to work.
JM: Because it's hard to be 'upbeat' if you're there 7-days a week·What do you think of the Ducasses of today versus the AndrŽ Soltners of yesterday? Some chefs today are tempted by the old school stance·like Thomas Keller.
BF: I think Thomas is probably one the greatest chefs in the country, maybe in the world at this point. He's really grown by leaps and bounds. When he was the chef at Raquel's here across the street, (from Mesa Grill), the restaurant failed. He's got The French Laundry now and it's a great restaurant, it gets great acclaim. But, I know for a fact that Thomas had a lease for Rockefeller Center to open a restaurant here in New York, and then he decided that he didn't want to do it. Believe me, the itch is there·He just wrote a cookbook. That takes time out of the kitchen. I'm not begrudging him for that, I think he's fantastic. He should do whatever he wants for himself personally which will ultimately help him professionally. Maybe he decided not to do the restaurant because in his heart of hearts he felt he wasn't ready to leave the kitchen at The French Laundry. But, he won't be standing there only in The French Laundry ten years from now. He'll have something else going on.
JM: Can someone be a success with only one restaurant?
BF: Yes. You can be successful with one restaurant. You're not going to be rich, you can just make a living and even that's hard to do. The competition is fierce, everything's expensive, the rents are higher and higher, labor costs more and more, insurance, food, everything. So, it's very difficult. Even if you're incredibly busy, the margins are tight.
JM: Do you read your restaurants balance sheets and learn what improvements need to be made?
BF: We have lots of checks and balances at the restaurants. I don't micromanage the restaurants, but I run them on a day-to-day basis. Together, Laurence and I, run the restaurants. We get all of the reports and we look at everything·it could be as simple as changing two desserts or figuring out where to lower the food costs. It runs the gamut; we talk about that stuff every day of our lives, seven days a week.
JM: Your adoring fans probably don't imagine you handling the business side of things.
BF: The public is surprised when they come into the restaurant and I'm here. I understand the perception now, but I always used to say, 'Where do you expect me to be?' They expect me to be on television or they expect me to be in The Bahamas. I don't get it.
JM: Most people associate you with grilling. Is this what you're most passionate about?
BF: Grilling is not really the most passionate thing for me. The reason why I got stuck with the grilling thing is that I did a show called Grillin' and Chillin', so now I'm a grilling expert. I wrote the book From My Kitchen to Your Table because people kept asking me about grilling recipes and I figured there was a need for it. The show Hot off the Grill is indoors in a loft setting and I don't even have a grill. It's just called Hot off the Grill even though I use stoves, ovens, etc.
JM: And, your third book, Boy Meets Grill. What was the inspiration?
BF: It came out last year and that was my answer to, 'Bobby, which one of these cookbooks has more grilling recipes?' So, now there's a third book. I do get asked a lot of questions about grilling so there's no reason I shouldn't be able to answer their questions.
JM: Mesa's been open 9 years now. Do you ever feel like you're sick of it?
BF: Never sick of it. I love it. It's very comfortable for me here. This is the restaurant I always wanted to open. I come to the office at Mesa, I get my bills here. This is my home.
JM: When you go out to dinner, where do you like to go?
BF: I eat at a lot of places, it's so hard because there're a lot of great places. When I want a steak I go to Peter Luger, when I want to eat late at night, Balthazar. If I want a great luxurious meal, there's nobody better than Daniel. Chinese food, Chin Chin. Italian food varies for me, Mario's food is good at Babbo, Felidia·
JM: Any food-related travels you'd like to make?
BF: Lots of places. I want to go to Buenos Aires. I haven't been there. I could go to Italy anytime. I've been there three times, but I could always go back. I'd like to go to Japan. It's hard to go to places like Australia, because they're so far away. Maybe I'll go later in life, for now there're places where I'd rather go that are seven hours away.
JM: Any food you don't like, don't eat·
BF: I like just about everything. The other day I had something I'd never had before which is Lamb Fries. Do you know what that is? It's a Lexington, Kentucky·uh· delicacy. It's lamb's testicles. I had it at a place called Emits? In Lexington.
JM: What were you doing in Kentucky?
BF: I'm shooting a new show for the Food Network called Food Nation where I go to different parts of the country and report magazine-style. My first two shows are Lexington, KY and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the Amish country. I chose to go to places that aren't so predictable. (The show aired June 26, 2000). And I just shot a hundred Hot off the Grill shows in less than five weeks.
JM: How's the Bobby Flay Product line coming along?
BF: We have eight new products coming out so that'll give us 25 products all in the sauce/condiment line. I was told yesterday that it was the most popular chef-related sauce in the country right now. We're getting huge orders and lots of reorders and it just came out the end of January. We've already done over ¹ million dollars in sales. We're also working on dinnerware.
JM: Are you still planning to open a steak-house type restaurant?
BF: Yes, I want to open a contemporary steakhouse. I love that kind of food and I like the clunkiness of it when you go to an American-style steakhouse, but I want to open one that has more of a European feel to it. One that's a little more tapered around the edges, so it's not so big and in your face Americana. I'll separate myself from places like Smith & Wollensky's and Peter Luger. I do love those places, but this is going to be something different.