First, Bobby Flay burst onto the culinary scene with his big, bold Southwestern flavor.
Then, the Food Network was founded. True story.
Twenty years later, Flay isn't worried about setting himself apart in consumers' minds. The man who competed on the original "Iron Chef" - the Japanese cooking competition that first made celebrities of chefs - before becoming a fixture on the American version and starring in several of his own shows, doesn't worry about staying relevant either.
"I think you have to continue to evolve, but stay focused on the food. When you try to force it, it doesn't work," Flay says of his long career entertaining from behind a stove. "I think, if people are paying attention at all, they know what to expect when they come to Bobby Flay."
That would be lots of flavor and diverse textures: from zesty limes and creamy avocados, fresh and dry chillies, vibrantly colored beans and blue corn. It's the stuff that caught his attention when he was a young up-and-comer working for California chef Jonathan Waxman.
A couple decades, 12 cookbooks, sundry cooking appliances and several shows later, Flay says he sees himself first as a chef, then a restaurateur and showman. He says he cooks for his wife, actress Stephanie March, as much as possible when they're at their Hamptons home. But for fellow New York apartment dwellers, he recommends his cast-iron grill pan, available at Kohl's, for "grilling legally."
Flay didn't get where he is now as an author by confining himself to doing just one thing, he tries everyone's ideas and picks what works for him. At home, he prefers hardwood charcoal for the taste and likes to make his own spice rubs. A rub will penetrate the meat faster and deeper than a marinade, and if you make your own - start with the basics like salt and pepper, add some heat from red pepper flakes or paprika, then some cumin, coriander or what have you, and play around with it - you also can save a bundle on cost.
"I use kosher salt," he says. "I always say use salt, you'll die of something else."
For something less common on the grill, Flay recommends a "meaty" fish that won't break apart, such as tuna or swordfish. But his book has tips and recipes for grilling everything from peaches to whole sardines.
"There are two kinds of guys: guys who can grill and guys who think they can grill, and that covers everybody," he jokes. "The guys who can grill, they put the meat on there and leave it while they make a cocktail."
"Food is my life," he says. "Food saved my life, I dropped out of high school and started cooking … it's the most important thing to me except my family."
When he's in Atlantic City, chances are Bobby Flay is behind the grill in his local restaurant kitchen at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. During a recent visit to the resort, Flay talked of fitting in time behind the grill at Bobby Flay Steak - his only steakhouse worldwide - in between a cooking demonstration at the Music Box and taking his wife to see Sting in concert.
"Probably just a few hours, because, you know, my wife is here with her friends…"
Flay was giving the grilling demonstration on a sunny weekend afternoon that seemed fit for a barbecue to promote his 12th cookbook, "Bobby Flay's Barbecue Addiction." That's also the name of his Sunday morning show offering tips on everything from how to season your hardwood chips for smoking, to how to make a great spice rub.
Flay uses the word "some" a lot when he's cooking. As in, "some ginger" (a whole root) and "some pepper" (a sprinkling) needed for a wet ginger rub for chicken. He doesn't like to bake much, because that involves a lot more measuring.
Instead, he focuses on the important techniques of cooking, such as constant taste-testing.
"If you're not chewing, you're not cooking," he says of his kitchen style, adding he runs "a lot" to keep off extra pounds.
Flay admits to a little healthy competition with the other celebrity chefs represented at Borgata, including Water Club's executive chef Geoffrey Zakarian, who also is on Food Network. But he insists it's all in good fun.
"Geoffrey and I have been friends for 20 years," he says. "Whenever he gets a little uppity, I like to remind Geoffrey that I was judging when he won ("Iron Chef"), so I joke I put him over the top."
The star of the hit barbecue contest "Throwdown! with Bobby Flay" almost sounds like he's bragging when he estimates he's lost about 80 percent of the face-offs with contestants. But that's OK, because he learned enough new tips to fill a book - "Bobby Flay's Throwdown!" - from people "who are really good at one particular thing, they've been perfecting it their whole life." Along the trail, he made friends with some of the contestants, such as a San Antonio woman who fried masa tacos so they came out puffy and crispy.
"You learn to lose pretty well," he says. "As long as I know I cooked the best I could that day, I'm OK with it."
He's not too proud to give credit where it's due: "I like to say my mom's food inspired me (to specialize in Southwestern food)," he jokes. "I mean, I'm Irish; you take some corned beef and put it in water, then you take some cabbage and put that in water, then you serve it with some brown mustard."
But he says he's honored to brush shoulders with Wolfgang Puck, whose American Grille style he credits with changing "how people see American food … it took an Austrian to do that."
"In a way, I owe my career to Wolgang," he says. "He really revolutionized what we're doing here."
Contact Felicia Compian:
Grilled Red Chile-Buttermilk Brined Chicken
•1 quart buttermilk
•2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
•1 tablespoon New Mexican chile powder
•1 tablespoon cascabel chile powder
•1/2 teaspoon chile de arbol powder or cayenne
•1 teaspoon smoked mild paprika
•1 teaspoon ground coriander
•1 teaspoon granulated garlic
•1 teaspoon onion powder
•1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
•4 8-ounce bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves
•4 chicken drumsticks
•1/2 cup canola oil
•Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
•Mango-honey glaze (see recipe)
Whisk together the buttermilk and dry spices in a large baking dish. Add chicken and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate 4 to 24 hours, turning a few times.
Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels. put chicken on a baking rack set over a baking sheet. Return to fridge and let sit, uncovered 1 to 4 hours.
Heat grill to medium for indirect grilling. Remove chicken 30 minutes before cooking.
Brush chicken on both sides with oil and season with salt and pepper. Place chicken skin-side-down on hot side of grill until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn over and continue grilling until bottom is golden brown, another 4 to 5 minutes. Move to cooler side of grill, cover and continue cooking until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the breast reads 165 degrees, about 10 more minutes.
Brush mango-honey glaze on during last few minutes. Remove chicken to a platter and drizzle with more glaze. Tent loosely with aluminum foil and let rest 10 minutes before serving.
•2 tablespoons canola oil
•1 small Spanish onion, chopped
•1 garlic clove, chopped
•3 large very ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted and chopped
•1/2 cup dry white wine
•1/4 cup pineapple juice
•1/4 fresh orange juice
•1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chile de arbol powder, to taste
•3 tablespoons clover honey
•Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large high-sided saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. add mangoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until broken down and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
Carefully transfer mixture to a blender, add the pineapple and orange juices and chile de arbol and blend until smooth, about 2 minutes. Strain into a bowl and season with honey, salt and pepper. The mixture should be a thick puree. If it's too thick, thin it with water.
Let cool to room temperature before serving.
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Grilled Corn with Piquillo Pepper Butter
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
4 jarred piquillo peppers, patted dry and chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon mild Spanish paprika
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ears corn
Large bowl of water
Combine butter and seasonings in a food processor and process until smooth. Scrape butter into a bowl, cover and refrigerate 1 to 24 hours. Let soften slightly before using.
Heat grill to high. Pull outer husks down the ear of corn to the base, without removing them completely. Strip the silk from each ear and fold husks back into place. Tie the ends together with kitchen string and place in a large bowl of water with 1 tablespoon salt for 10 minutes.
Shake off water and place on grill. Cover and grill, turning every five minutes, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until kernels are tender when pierced with a paring knife.
Peel back husks and slather butter on. Serve hot.
Servings: 4 to 6
Brown Sugar-Rum Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Lime Zest and Parsley
4 sweet potatoes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Grated zest and juice of one lime
1/4 cup canola oil
Put the sweet potatoes in a large pot, cover by 2 inches with cold water and add 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil and cook until skewer inserted into center meets with slight resistance, about 25 minutes. Drain and let cool. Cut into quarters.
Heat grill to medium. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, add sugar and cook until smooth. Increase heat and add the rum. Cook until reduced by half. Add parsley, lime zest and juice and season with salt and pepper.
Brush the sweet potatoes with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes. Brush with rum glaze and grill another minute. Remove to a platter and brush with glaze again.
Servings: 4 to 6