Bobby Flay will be the first chef to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. No other food-focused television personality or Hollywood restaurateur has landed the honor, not Julia Child or the Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr, Dave Chasen or the Brown Derby’s Robert Cobb and Herbert Somborn.
When Flay’s star is unveiled at a ceremony on June 2, it will also be the first one for the Scripps Networks’ Food Network in its 22-year history.
“Bobby was one of the first personalities to see the benefit of the unproven entity that was Food TV back at the very beginning of Food Network,” says Brooke Johnson, president, Food Category, Scripps Networks, where she oversees the Food Network and the Cooking Channel and associated websites. “Additionally, Bobby’s ability to also wear a producer hat, be it his own shows or when working with other talent, sets him apart. I would say Bobby Flay has become a go-to resource for a generation of television watchers as well as TV personalities.”
Flay, 50, started making guest appearances within a year of the channel going on the air in 1993. In 1996, he landed his first show on the cabler, “Grillin’ & Chillin’”; it would last two seasons and establish him as the network’s master of the barbecue grill. With Southwestern cuisine as his calling card, Flay’s shows reflected the food served at his two New York restaurants at the time, Bolo and Mesa Grill.
“They weren’t flying in chefs from Los Angeles or Italy,” Flay says of the network’s early days. “If you could get there on the subway, you could be on. At the time, a lot of chefs were averse to it, but I saw it as a way to broaden my base in terms of customers. It was a simple idea. If a family from Minneapolis is coming to New York for the weekend and they’ve seen me on TV, maybe they’ll consider eating at my restaurant.”
The strategy, two decades later, continues to pay dividends.
A four-time Daytime Emmy Award winner, Flay has starred in a dozen series for the network — three are currently on-air — and multiple specials; he owns two restaurants in New York, a hamburger chain, several restaurants at resorts, several in Las Vegas and a production company, Rock Shrimp Prods., that makes most of his shows.
His most recent restaurant venture is Gato, opened a year ago in New York’s NoHo neighborhood with an emphasis on bold Mediterranean flavors and ingredients that the New York Times characterized as “go-for-broke intensity that’s 100% American.” Reviewer Pete Wells wrote, “If Mr. Flay sometimes lights up the tilt sign on his pinball machine, there is still a lot to love on the menu.”
Gato is Flay’s first New York restaurant in nearly a decade. Like Mesa Grill and Bolo, the food from Gato is already finding a place on TV.
“The restaurants are the inspirations for everything but they’re very separate to me,” Flay says of restaurants and TV shows. “I’ll have brainstorming meetings to come up with a concept for a show, but it’s things that happen in my restaurants that usually spark the ideas that wind up on television.
“At the moment I’m spending most of my time at Gato. At the moment it’s the way I like to eat — lots of healthy, salty, citrusy, very big-flavored food. The ingredients, flavors and techniques come from Italy, the South of France, North Africa, Greece. And if I’m filming ‘Beat Bobby Flay,’ I’ll reach for a lot of Mediterranean ingredients.”
He used fried chicken as an example. A competing chef might make a classic fried chicken dish, while Flay would reach for the rosemary, Calabrian chiles and lemon juice. “I’m always inspired by the moment I’m in,” he says.
Of the stars from the years when Food Network was just getting its pan warm, Flay is the only one who has remained with the cabler and his popularity has not waned. In the first quarter of 2015, 46.7 million viewers watched programs featuring Flay on the Food Network, according to Nielsen; 21 million of those viewers are in the channel’s core demo of 25-54. When “Beat Bobby Flay” was renewed a year ago for a second season, it was one of the leaders in a year-to-year ratings resurgence for the network.
Soon after Johnson took over at the network in 2004, Flay’s presence expanded with new series such as “FoodNation,” “Food Network Star” and “Throwdown With Bobby Flay.” He also played a key role in specials “Chef Mentor,” “All-Star Holiday Dishes” and “All-Star Grillfest” and became one of the few chefs to segue from cooking demos to unscripted competition series, such as “Iron Chef America.”
Johnson says the slate of new Flay programs grew out of research that audiences wanted more from the network than instructional shows.
Taking inspiration from Ashton Kutcher’s “Punk’d,” Flay says he created “Throwdown,” wherein he visits unsuspecting professionals and challenges them to a cooking contest centered on their specialty. The show ran for 92 episodes between 2006 and 2010 and continues to air.
“His passion and skills as a chef are undeniable and if that weren’t enough, his ability to entertain and inform on camera have helped shape how food and food television have evolved,” Johnson says. “Audiences tend to react best to authenticity and honesty and our audience has come to know, and love, Bobby for exactly who he is.”
Flay talks about his favorite TV moments:
“Iron Chef,” 2000
Flay put his “brash New York attitude” on display with a victory dance on a cutting board that created a war of words with chef Masaharu Morimoto and led to a U.S. version of the Japanese cooking competition.
“I think that changed the Food Network forever,” says Flay. “It brought it into pop culture. It went from Food Network being a bunch of hosts showing you to how to cook to a show that had a tremendous amount of energy, surprise and food. That brought an entirely new interest from the media and viewership.”
“Grillin’ and Chillin,’” 1996, two seasons
“I like to say it was so bad it was good,” Flay says. “We shot 42 shows in six days. Putting that show on was an important moment for Food Network in its infancy.”
“Food Nation,” 2000, six seasons
“It was the first of the travel-food shows. I picked a place in the country, and I discovered the food culture there,” Flay says. “It inspired my restaurant Bar Americain.”
“Throwdown With Bobby Flay,” 2006, four seasons
“The thing I wanted to do most was showcase regular people who are known in their communities for one dish,” Flay says. “I think ‘Throwdown’ accomplished that.”
“Beat Bobby Flay,” 2013, on air
“This is where my career is at this point,” he says. “I’m proud to say we can create a title like ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ and some of the great chefs in the country want to come and win the title. They want to take me down. It’s another stage I’m setting for other people in the industry.”