It's Hard Being A Hands-On Guy In A Growing Empire
Entrepreneur|October 2017

That’s Why Bobby Flay Is Embracing Two Visions At Once: He’s At His Restaurants Cooking And Tasting And Giving Directions, And He’s About To Fling Open The Gates With An IPO That Will Let Virtually Anyone Invest. 

Jason Adams

It’s 1 pm on a Thursday, and Bobby Flay is sitting in his favorite spot to conduct daily business: the corner banquette in the front window at Gato, the Lower Manhattan outpost of his fine-dining empire. He is dressed casually in a dark-blue henley and jeans, wrapping up a call as his team gets situated around him for the first agenda item of the day: testing 10 new cocktails.

Marlene is the new bar manager, and this is her first time pitching the boss her own concoctions. She’s a bit nervous, but she’s done her homework. And Flay is impressed, on the whole, with her creations. But he zeroes in on one drink in particular. “You know what the surprising flavor in here is,” he tells her with genuine admiration, “and not everyone’s going to pick up on this—it’s the pink peppercorn.” But after a further moment’s reflection, the garnish in Marlene’s drink gives him pause.

“So you’re just going to slice a habanero in there?” 

Marlene says yes. 

“The only thing I will tell you,” he says, “is if people pick that up and eat it, they’re going to fucking ruin their night. When you have a garnish, people tend to use it.”

After 30-plus years running a kitchen, opening dozens of successful upscale and fast-casual restaurants employing, at present, more than 1,000 people, and managing a widening universe of side projects, TV shows, and product lines, the 52-year-old Flay is cocksure and precise in his knowledge of what will and will not go over with the customer, and he shares that knowledge freely with his staffers. Whether it be properly seasoning with salt and pepper (forgetting either is practically a fireable offense) or knowing when a garnish will go off in a customer’s mouth like a grenade, these “chef’s adjustments,” as Flay calls them, often stress nailing the fundamentals of food.

“Running a Fortune 500 company or running a basketball team or running a restaurant business, or whatever the fuck your business is, to me is all the same,” Flay says. “I’m rooted in the fundamentals. I was an athlete when I was a kid, and I now know why my basketball coach on day one, two, three, and four never let us shoot the basketball. ‘Dribble with both hands until it becomes part of your body. Let’s practice passing. Let’s practice dribbling. Let’s run up and down the court.’ I was like, ‘What the fuck? I want to shoot,’ right? Well, before you shoot, you have to be good at everything else.”

Being good at everything else, staying hands-on, minding the details—this is the core of Bobby Flay’s whole enterprise. He’s always learning and experimenting, never letting success or fame muddy his understanding of the simple, elemental pleasures of good food. Everything he does emanates from that core, from those fundamentals, from passing before you can shoot.

But perhaps more than ever before, Flay is about to test how far those fundamentals stretch.

His fine-dining restaurants allow him to reach only so many people, and a guy like Flay, whose Food Network celebrity made him a household name, has an everburning desire to give everyone a taste. At first, he seemed to satisfy that by launching Bobby’s Burger Palace in 2008; it’s a growing chain designed to bring the flavors and attitude of Bobby Flay to the masses. But that’s the easy stuff. Food he knows. Now he’s plotting an ambitious franchising plan and an IPO—one designed to let everybody from Wall Street to Main Street own a piece of his empire.

Bobby Flay is a man of precision, of details, of calling his own shots. But in effect, he’s about to find out what happens when he lets everyone else into the kitchen.

IT WASN’T ALWAYS about discipline for Flay. In fact, even he will admit that his relentless work ethic and emphasis on nailing fundamentals is “kind of ironic” when you take into account the fact that he dropped out of school at 17. “I didn’t do any fucking work,” Flay says. “I failed every subject. I couldn’t find it in myself to actually be excited about doing any of it, so I didn’t do it.”

We meet at the Food Network studios— his home away from home away from home—and then go downstairs to eat at Morimoto, the extravagant sushi restaurant owned by his Iron Chef nemesis Masaharu Morimoto. Most people today know Bobby Flay as a Food Network star and a regular guest on the Today show and countless other programs. But unlike other “celebrity chefs” who have traded their tongs for days spent chasing any licensing deal that might bring in some coin, Flay has always identified first and foremost as a chef, a seasoned pro who still likes to work in his kitchens five days a week when his hectic schedule allows it.

That goes back to his youth, to his decision to drop out. “I hated school so much and didn’t know why I hated it,” Flay says. “I now know why: Because I wasn’t working with my hands.”

He left high school and began working at famed New York theater-district haunt Joe Allen, where his father, Bill, was a partner. A busboy called in sick one day, and Bill ordered his son to fill in. Bobby enjoyed the energy and the tactile work, and soon he was in the kitchen manning the salad station. The namesake owner was so impressed with the teenager’s skills, he offered to pay his tuition to cooking school. In 1984, Flay was in the first graduating class of the new French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). He found in the teachings of Escoffier what he never did in Moby Dick.

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