by Billy Nilles | Thu., Apr. 11, 2019 3:00 AM
Bobby Flay doesn't love being on TV.
That might come as a surprise, as the celebrity chef has been a mainstay on the Food Network and beyond for over two decades, ensuring that he's one of the most recognizable faces in the culinary world. But believe it or not, it always has and always come in a distant second place to his true love: being in the kitchen.
"You could call it an obsession, but, to me, it's my job, it's my work. It's the thing I love to do," he admitted in a 2014 interview on CBS Sunday Morning. "Way more than television." After all, he says, "It's really easy for people to discount you because you're on television. I'm not sure why that takes your skills away, but I understand it and I stopped fighting that fight a long time ago."
But despite all that, Flay has maintained a presence on the medium, aware that it's one of the crucial things that's allowed him to build his restaurant empire. And now he's getting his daughter Sophie Flay in on the act.
As part of a new exclusive three-year pact signed by Flay and the network in late 2018, which will see the chef develop and produce series through his Rock Shrimp production company as well as continue to face down competitors on Beat Bobby Flay, he and Sophie will star in The Flay List. Premiering on Thursday, April 11, the show will follow the father-daughter combo as they hit the streets of his beloved hometown of New York City as they introduce each other to their favorite restaurants.
It's the latest evolution of a flavorful career that has, at times, been perhaps more spicy than Flay ever bargained for.
Flay's interest in the culinary world started young. As the chef told Good Housekeeping in 2012, he was just eight years old when he asked his parents for an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. Dad Bill didn't exactly approve of the toy, as it was marketed at the time to girls, and Flay also received a G.I. Joe to "balance things out." As a result, in 2012, Flay joined a growing chorus of chefs across the country who petitioned for Hasbro to begin producing the toy oven in gender-neutral colors.
Though he told the New York Daily News in 2008 that he wanted to be "either a basketball or baseball player" growing up "until I got to high school and realized it was never going to happen," his first jobs were delivering pizzas and scooping ice cream. And while he was learning the ropes of the food world, he was avoiding academics altogether. He flunked out of multiple Catholic schools in his home borough of Manhattan and eventually dropped out of high school completely at 17. "I really had no interest in doing any school work whatsoever," he told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. As a result, his father, described as Flay as "very much a scholarly guy," forced him to fill in as a bus boy at a restaurant the elder Flay was a part owner of, Joe Allen in Times Square. When the bus boy returned, he moved to the kitchen. "I was literally walking out of the restaurant and the chef said, 'Do you want to work in the kitchen?'" Flay recalled. "And I said, 'Sure.' It was because I had nothing else to do that day. If I had plans with friends, I probably would have said no. I wasn't desperate to work in the kitchen."
While at Joe Allen, he quickly found his calling. "I remember waking up in the morning, laying in my bed, staring at the ceiling and saying to myself, 'I can't wait to go to work today,'" he told CBS Sunday Morning in 2014. "It hit me...I was working with my hands. I was creating things, and I could actually do it. I didn't have to open a book. I was learning at a practical manner." And at 18, with financial assistance from the restaurant's namesake, he begrudgingly joined the inaugural class at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. "It was not my favorite thing," he told WSJ. "But I knew this was my last chance without my father killing me." Acknowledging how the training gave him "a foundation forever," he established the Bobby Flay Scholarship at his alma mater in 2003. The full scholarship is awarded annually to a student in the Long Island City Culinary Arts Program, and Flay personally helps select the recipient each year.
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After walking away from an executive chef position at the Brighton Grill on Third Avenue that he felt came too early in his career, he quit the restaurant business altogether to work on Wall Street as a clerk at the American Stock Exchange. He lasted all of six months. "There was no creativity to it," he told Inc in 2015. "It was all about the dollar. I went back to the kitchen."
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After working as a chef under the legendary Jonathan Waxman at a handful of his restaurants, Flay built up his confidence and became chef as Miracle Grill in the East Village. His cooking caught the eye of New York state assemblyman and Gotham bar and Grill owner Jerry Kretchmer who offered him the opportunity to open a restaurant in partnership. "He said, 'All right, here's the way it's gonna work: You and I are gonna look for spaces together. I'll handle the money, you'll do the menu, and I'll get you the ink,'" Flay told Inc. "This was Mesa Grill. All of a sudden, it was like I was playing at Yankee Stadium." The restaurant opened on January 15, 1991. And while Mesa Grills remain in Las Vegas and Nassau, that original outpost closed in 2013 after a rent hike. In the years since opening that first restaurant, Flay has launched Bar Americain in two locations, Bobby Flay Steak in Atlantic City, Gato in NYC, and Bobby's Burger Palace in 19 locations across 11 states.
Two years after Flay opened Mesa Grill, a little TV channel called Food Network launched and needed talent. "When The Food Network came along, I was like, 'A 24-hour food channel? They're going to run out of stuff in a week,'" he told Inc. "They had no money to fly people in, so if you could get there by subway, you could get on a show." Flay wasn't entirely convinced. "It wasn't like TV was something I really wanted to do—but I knew it would be great publicity for my restaurants," he told WSJ. Since then, he's hosted fourteen cooking shows and specials on FN and its sister network, Cooking Channel, served as judge on The Next Food Network Star, and competed on Iron Chef America.
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One of his more recognizable shows, Throwdown! With Bobby Flay, which involved Flay going head-to-head with another chef as each make a variation on the challenging chef's signature dish, allegedly began under some untrue auspices. According to competitor Ben Sargent in an interview with SlashFood, the up-and-comer was duped by Flay and the network into thinking he was taping his own 2006 half-hour all about him and chowder, his specialty. After being told the final day of filming would just be a big party wherein he cooked his chowder for a crowd, Flay popped out of the audience to challenge him to a cook-off, right then and there. "He's got all his soux chefs," Sargent said. "Two women working under him in their black chef's coats with the little Food Network logo on them. They looked so intimidating. His stocks were prepared in containers. He comes with 100 brand new glistening Japanese prep knives. He had his automatic chowder mixer. I'm sitting there, mixing raw potatoes, dealing with our lack of high flame." Despite calling Flay "a sweetheart" off-camera, when asked if the competition was fair, he said, "It was fair in that we...no, it wasn't fair."
In 2009, hourly employees at Flay's Bar Americain, Mesa Grill and Bolo filed a lawsuit against the celebrity chef and his company Bold Food LLC, alleging that "they had been cheated out of wages and tips and seeking to recover minimum wages, overtime compensation and allegedly misappropriated gratuities." According to the suit, the restaurants weren't paying minimum wage or overtime, weren't reimbursing the expense of mandatory uniforms, and were redistributing portions of the tip pool to employees not entitled to earn gratuities, including managers. In March 2010, Flay and his company agreed to pay an $800,000 settlement, though he continued to deny any wrongdoing, saying in court documents he would rather just settle than go to trial.
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When Flay competed against Chef Masaharu Morimoto in a special battle when the original Iron Chef traveled to New York, he jumped onto the counter and stood on his cutting board, raising his arms in a premature victory. The move rubbed Morimoto the wrong way. "He's no chef...He stood on the cutting board. In Japan the cutting board is sacred," the Iron Chef said in Allen Salkin's 2013 book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network. Morimoto was ultimately declared the victor. During their 2001 rematch, which Flay ultimately won, he made sure to throw his cutting board on the floor before leaping onto the counter to gloat. Years later, after hundreds of competitions on Iron Chef Showdown, Flay surprised everyone—network execs included—when he revealed a shirt that read "THIS IS MY LAST IRON CHEF BATTLE EVER." By his own admission, the network was not thrilled, but he remained true to his word and walked away from the show after that 2017 taping.
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Despite maintaining a close relationship with his co-host on The Next Food Network Star, prompting some to wonder if there's something more than friendship going on there throughout the years, Flay and Giada De Laurentiis spent eight months not speaking to one another back in 2006. And it all started after a team-up on Iron Chef America left De Laurentiis feeling bruised by their loss to Rachael Ray and Mario Batali. "We lost and he thought it was funny. He didn't think it was any big deal that we lost. I did not talk to him for eight months‚ eight months! I did not. Nothing. Silence, she said on the Beyond the Plate podcast. "It was just TV [to him]. I took it very seriously. I think Rachael took it very seriously, and I was really disappointed." And as for those romance rumors? De Laurentiis put them to rest in 2015, telling Gossip Cop, "My long-time friendships with my co-workers...are exactly that — long-time friendships. There has never been a romantic relationship..."
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Flay has been married three times—first to chef Debra Ponzek from 1991-93, then to Food Network host Kate Connelly from 1995-98, and finally to actress Stephanie March (much, much more on her in a second) from 2005-15—but only one has yielded him a child. His union to Connelly brought daughter Sophie Flay into the world in 1996. And aside from welcoming her into the culinary TV world on his latest show, The Flay List, the celeb chef is pleased that his daughter didn't exactly follow in his academic footsteps. "I got the greatest thing ever," he told CBS Sunday Morning. "I got Sophie, who's happily surpassed me in the educational world." The broadcast journalism major graduated from USC in 2018. She currently works as a reporter for ABC 7 in Los Angeles.
While Flay's celeb status has brought several stars into his life as friends—he met third wife March through her Law & Order: SVU co-star Mariska Hargitay—no relationship is more enjoyable than his with Drake. The chef regularly hangs with (and cooks for) the rapper up in his native Toronto, and even tagged along as his pal hosted Saturday Night Live back in 2016, helping provide a surprise dinner for the cast. "When he was doing Saturday Night Live, and he's such a gracious guy, he felt so close to the SNL staff and crew, because they were taking such good care of him, he called me on a Tuesday and said, 'Is there any chance you'll come and cook for the cast and crew as a favor to me to show my gratitude?'" Flay said on The Chew shortly afterwards. "So I showed up there and he could not have been nicer; I mean, it's amazing."
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While cooking remains his greatest passion, Flay also has a serious love for Thoroughbred horse racing. He owns several horses and serves on the Breeders' Cup board of directors. In 2014, he was even a candidate for chairman, though he ultimately was not elected.
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When Flay and March began divorce proceedings in 2015, things got ugly—fast. First up, reports began circulating that the chef had been cheating on his wife with Bar Americain hostess-turned-assistant Elyse Tirrell for many years. In response, Flay and his team issued a statement that didn't exactly deny the claim. "We will continue to refrain from responding to the continued efforts by certain parties to spread rumors and innuendo," the statement read. "This specific allegation was in a letter sent from one attorney in this case to the other. It was written and then leaked specifically to try to insert this story into the press, and that's unfortunate. Even more unfortunate is that all of this is being done in order to renegotiate a prenuptial agreement that was agreed to over a decade ago and never amended during the marriage."
As the war over the settlement raged on, so much dirty laundry was aired in the press. March alleged that Flay didn't rush to her side when her appendix burst earlier that year, while further claiming that he chose to spend their 10th wedding anniversary attending a food and wine festival down in Florida. She further accused Flay of "bullying through economic warfare" by canceling the credit card she used for "household expenses." He retaliated to her claims of medical hardship, which she was using to try and invalidate their prenup, but claiming her infections were the result of a breast enhancement surgery gone wrong.
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Back in 2012, Mad Men actress January Jones was involved in a small fender-bender and called Flay for help. He obliged and no one could figure out why. At the time, Flay said he had only met Jones once before that night, but had spent the evening watching a basketball game at The London Hotel in West Hollywood with a group of people, including the actress. According to Flay, she asked him for his number that evening because she was planning to redo her kitchen and wanted to give her number to his designer. He further said he didn't know why she called him after the crash, but went to help her nevertheless. Cut to the 2015 divorce, and March was claiming that her estranged husband and Jones "had sex many times and in different places, including the London Hotel in Los Angeles." Yikes.
In the midst of all the messy divorce drama, Flay was also feted with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June 2015, making him the first celebrity chef to ever receive such an honor. But...
While Flay was being celebrated on Hollywood Blvd., someone took it upon themselves to hire a pilot to take to the skies and fly overhead pulling a banner that read "Cheater." March's attorney Deborah Lans asserted in a statement that, despite her client seeming the obvious culprit, she was "absolutely not behind" the stunt.
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Flay and March's divorce was finally settled in July of that year, but not without making one final headline. As part of the settlement, March was forced to vacate the former couple's Manhattan home—where she'd been caring for her ailing mother. "She has been staying there with her mother, who has been in poor health," a source told Page Six at the time. "It has been a very difficult time for her. It is unclear what her future living arrangement will be as she continues to care for her mother."
About a year after the divorce, Flay publicly rebounded with Masters of Sex star (who currently leads Comedy Central's fabulous The Other Two) Helene Yorke. The two seemed especially loved up, with Yorke even creating a special Instagram account to document her foodie adventures with her new boo. But it appears that the romance may have fizzled out. Neither seem to follow one another on IG any longer, the aforementioned food account has been made private, and they haven't been spotted in public in over a year. Despite that, Flay shared a snapshot of a magazine profile of Yorke on February 7, 2019, celebrating her. So maybe they're still together? Or maybe they're just friendly exes. Yorke didn't comment on or like the post.
The Flay List premieres Thursday, April 11 at 10:30 p.m. on Food Network.
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