Here are some common-knowledge tidbits about Bobby Flay. The New York-based celebrity chef, restaurateur and reality TV personality loves a variety of peppers and Italian cuisine. More than two decades on television have made him the foodie wizard to know and occasionally dislike (enter Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay). Without a scratch, he survived a particularly brutal time in televised haute cookery that saw many greats fired or investigated for harassment, and in one case, take his own life… though Flay is no stranger to gossip columns that seem to take keen interest in his personal life.
But it’s the little-known facts about this horse race-loving, Roman enthusiast that make Flay a compelling subject of investigation. “I was raised by cats,” Flay revealed during our first interview, when his beloved Maine coon cat (though judging by the creature’s size, it can pass for a small cheetah), aptly named Nacho, jumped up on the dining table covered in plates of crudos and pastas, only to quickly disappear into a dark corner of the apartment. Apparently, growing up as the only child, Flay was kept company by cats until he found skipping school a lot more entertaining.
Last year, Nacho escorted Flay to Rome, where the chef and his four-legged companion lived out an Eat Pray Love fantasy during a five-week stay in the Eternal City. The conclusion of that out-of-character experience led to some life-altering affirmations that turned Flay’s gaze inward. It also propelled his already brewing appreciation of the arts, a spirit he brought back home and continues to nurture.
Are you tired of people asking you questions about food all day long?
BOBBY FLAY: No. Food is such an important part of my life, and I’m lucky to have it as an important part of my life. In many ways, it saved my life.
BF: Well, food was the place where I found direction when I was a young person because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I was failing high school and I needed a job, so I started working in a restaurant.
What kind of failures are we talking about, exactly?
BF: I didn’t do any schoolwork. So it was self-inflicted failures. [laughs] I couldn’t have cared less about going to class. I cut out of school all the time. My friends and I would go to breakfast, and if we couldn’t get on the first subway, we’d go to lunch.
Ironically, I like to teach, which is sort of an interesting departure from somebody who wasn’t interested in being a student. I like to teach my craft to people who really want to know it, whether it’s somebody at home through a television screen or at a demonstration in front of 500 people at South Beach Wine & Food Festival, or my cooks who are standing next to me on the line cooking with me. At every level, I’m always trying to impart some knowledge, some sensibility of what it means to me to be a good cook and how to accomplish what you’re trying to at the stove.
How have you changed as a chef over the years?
BF: I would say I’m more thoughtful. The simpler things are more impressive to me than food with bells and whistles on it. When you’re a young cook and you’re trying to make a name for yourself, you do more than you probably need to do. You try to create all these different things that are going to gather attention. But the bottom line is that, today, I like food so much because of the simplicity of it all.
Can we talk a little bit about your TV career?
BF: Yeah. I’ve got a lot of TV. I mean, I get it. It was the time to put a little light on gastronomy, I guess, but it feels like there’s so much stuff on television now. Everybody has a show. Everybody’s doing something.
Do you get a lot of food groupies at your restaurants because of the TV footprint?
BF: Yeah. I mean, people come to my restaurants because they’ve seen me on TV and they want a picture. I get it. I welcome that because it’s very flattering when you think about it. And I always give everybody that moment for sure. Ultimately, somebody travels to come to my restaurant. I don’t take that for granted for whatever reason. My favorite thing they say is, ‘The food was great.’ That’s my favorite thing. And a lot of times, people say to me, ‘Well, I’m sure you hear this all the time, but the food was great.’ And my answer to them is, ‘But I haven’t heard it from you.’
In Oprah’s parlance, you seem to be living your best life. Has success given you the liberty to be authentically you?
BF: No, it’s challenged me to create new goals for myself. When I turned 50, it was almost like, ‘Am I going to try to create these long-term goals again like I did when I was in my 20s and then start life over again?’ And I think that’s where I struggled at first. Then I realized that’s not what I needed or wanted to do. But the goals were simpler, more thoughtful, and they were just different; they weren’t about creating more accomplishments for the world to see. They were about creating accomplishments for me to feel. Like going to live in Italy by myself for a few weeks. I was definitely nervous about it. I was concerned I might be lonely. I mean, I took Nacho with me, so I had him. I was there for five weeks and I cooked at some restaurants, sort of behind the scenes. I had a really fun social life there as well with people I knew coming through Rome, or people I met in my language class.
Bobby Flay actually went back to school?
BF: I went back to school. I went there to experience Rome as a local, so to speak… to get a sense of what it feels like to really live there. And I had my local laundromat. I had my local coffee shop and pizzeria. People actually started knowing who I was, and not as the chef from New York, but as this American who happens to be living here, and I loved that. I realized I did not need to be working every day to be happy.
You dabble in the arts. How did that start?
BF: When I moved into my apartment in Tribeca, I knew I wanted to buy a piece of art. The very first thing I talked about getting was a Keith Haring because I used to watch him tag up on the 77th Street subway station. And so the first thing I wanted to see was Haring. It got me going. And so I didn’t really know anything else about it. I knew about Banksy because he has so much press… another street artist. And so I gravitate toward people who are like that. But now, there are other things I’m really interested in as well.
BF: Anselm Kiefer. He’s a German artist. I first bought his art and then I bought his books. It was the texture of the painting. I just liked it. To me, the two most important things in food are flavor and texture, and they’re equally important. My food has both, and contrast of texture is incredibly important. And this painting had so much incredible texture to it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I bought it.
What are you thinking about these days?
BF: The thing I care most about is my daughter, Sophie. And the cat. In that order. Well, I lied about Nacho, yes... it’s close.