Bobby Flay's next course
ON THE day after he turned 49, Bobby Flay could be found where most of his fans expect him to be: racing around with a knife in a big room bathed in spotlights.
The setting was a soundstage in Brooklyn, where he was taping a new Food Network show called Beat Bobby Flay last month.
As with other programmes that have involved the effortlessly charming, perpetually multitasking, maddeningly slim chef who can come across as the George Clooney of American gastronomy, the show was predicated on the simple idea that it's fun to try to make Flay lose.
In reality, he doesn't lose very often. Of all the chefs of the last two decades who have tried juggling the roles of hands-on cook, TV star, face of an expanding entrepreneurial empire and human being with some dignity left intact, Flay may be the least prone to slip.
But one important achievement has eluded him. For several years, Flay has not had a restaurant that is considered part of New York's pantheon, and he clearly craves the extra splash of respect that that once brought him.
Next month, he and his longtime business partner, Laurence Kretchmer, plan to open Gato, the chef's first new Manhattan dining establishment in nearly a decade.
Gato represents an obsessive midlife quest for Flay, and a test case for whether any celebrity chef can command both the mass-market spotlight and credibility as a culinary auteur.
Can a guy who hosts Worst Cooks In America and oversees an expanding network of mall-ready burger joints return to his roots and win hosannas for a serious restaurant in his hometown? New York will soon find out.
"I'm putting myself on the line," he said.
At this point, if anything has a chance of beating Bobby Flay, it's fame itself - the widespread impression that he is drawn more by the glare of the soundstage than the glow of the stove.
"People think that I don't cook," he said. "And it's just the furthest thing from the truth. But that's OK, I can't fight that battle anymore."
Not so long ago, Flay stood at the helm of three New York restaurants that helped catapult him into the comfortable perch that the chef now occupies: Mesa Grill, Bolo and Bar Americain, all places where the cooking was unpretentiously winning.
After more than 22 years in business, Mesa Grill closed last year when the rent was set to triple or even quadruple. That hurt.
"I was looking back at the restaurant, and my daughter could see that I was getting very emotional," he recalled of leaving his last supper there, in August.
"She was, like: 'Dad, you can cry, it's OK,' and I just bawled."
Gato is Flay's chance to remind New Yorkers about the thing that made him famous in the first place: his cooking. He called the restaurant "the most important thing I've done in a decade - period".
"I have to do it for me," he said. "I would feel empty if I didn't do it. I feel, like, unfinished business."
Jonathan Waxman, who became his mentor after Flay dropped out of high school and trained at spots like Jams, Bud's and Hulot's, said decades of experience had only sharpened his protege's focus.
"Listen, he can cook," said Waxman, who is now at Barbuto. "Jazz musicians just get better and better as the years go by. I think chefs (improve) the same way. You know who you are."
From the standpoint of media buzz, though, the stretch from 1993 to this year may as well represent the chasm between Miles Davis and Miley Cyrus.
"I am a target," he said. "There's no question about it. But the only thing I can do is just try my best to open a really good restaurant."