We're Dishing Out the Best Secrets About Beat Bobby Flay

A James Beard award is nice, but for some chefs nothing is quite as satisfying as beating Bobby Flay. Read up on how the long-running series is made.

By Sarah Grossbart Dec 10, 2020 8:00 AMTags
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A Michelin star is nice. A James Beard, pretty great as well. But for some chefs nothing feels quite as sweet as besting Bobby Flay

Since 2013, the Iron Chef, a three-time James Beard honoree himself, has been taking on challengers with his Food Network series, Beating Bobby Flay, a natural extension of the head-to-head face-offs he engaged in on Iron Chef and Throwdown With Bobby Flay. The show's recipe is fairly easy. Each half-hour episode starts with two cooks battling it out to create a meal using a featured ingredient (think: fresh squid, pumpkin puree, sardines).

Once a winner has been determined by the guest judges—everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Sophia Bush to Flay's pals Katie Lee has turned up with the intention of finding someone capable of taking him down—that victor gets a swing at The French Culinary Institute grad and they get to decide what's on the menu, generally a signature dish that they've spent years perfecting.

Secrets of the Food Network

Even with that upper hand, Flay's competitors don't serve up humble pie all that often. In 314 episodes, across 26 seasons, the 13-time cookbook author has only lost a respectable 116 times—and more than a few of those were to his fellow Food Network personalities. (Judges named Alex Guarnaschelli the victor in the blind taste test twice; Amanda Freitag has notched another win and, recently, pastry whiz Buddy Valastro topped Flay in a cake-themed competition.)  

"Competing and beating someone of his stature, and knowing how good of a chef he is, it was definitely validation to show my skill exceeded his that day," Michael Merida told New Jersey's Pascack Press of winning with his smoked cod croquettes in February's season 25 premiere. "I wanted to see who the better chef was when it came to flavors—and I out flavored him."  

With no end in sight, there are plenty more opportunities to watch Flay, marking his 56th birthday Dec. 10, fry up his competition. 

In the meantime, we're dishing out some secrets about his long-running hit. Eat up!

1. Not the most auspicious beginning: While his track record since is impressive, Flay lost his inaugural episode back in 2013. Fresh off a second-place finish on Top Chef, Spiaggia executive chef Sarah Grueneberg won the first episode with her chicken parm. She would go on to open her own Italian place, Chicago's Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio, and win a James Beard for Best Chef Great Lakes.

2. Thankfully, Flay has proven to be a good sport. When New York chef Palak Patel emerged the victor in a city-themed 2014 episode, "He was as charismatic and engaging in person as he is on screen," she wrote on her blog. "It was inspiring to see an Iron Chef take the time to learn about my culinary point of view and even crack a few jokes along the way, which definitely helped calm my nerves in the heat of the competition." After her family's chicken curry recipe beat out Flay's (she credits the toasted spices), "Bobby couldn't have been more sportsmanlike," she shared. "I was so grateful for the opportunity to cook alongside an industry legend."

3. The New York City kitchen set is as stocked as you'd imagine. To ensure that the challengers will be able to make whatever they like, "We have at least 200 items in our pantry daily for both contestants and Bobby to have access to," culinary producer Danielle LaRosa told FN Dish ahead of the 2013 premiere. "Some of these 200 items include 30 kinds of spices (plus more as the season has gone on), 80 items in the dry pantry (including breads, vinegars, dried fruit, etc.), [and] 45 different kinds of fruits and vegetables." 
4. The fridge is imminently raid-able as well said LaRosa, with "20 different kinds of cheeses and dairy items," (on the list: smoked mozzarella, goat cheese, aged provolone), plus "12 different types of herbs [and] 12 different types of meats and seafood." 

5. And yet the same items tend to get cooked up time and again. "The most-used food products from our pantry this season are pomegranates, Brussels sprouts [and] guanciale," shared the producer.

6. Should chefs need to slice, dice, core, fry or mince, they've got a tool for that. "On set we would have about 100 pieces of equipment," noted LaRosa, "including food processors, blenders, knife blocks, cutting boards, pots and pans of all sizes, etc."

7. Interested in trying to best him? Just add eggs. "Anything with butter, flour, sugar and eggs," puts him on edge the dad to 24-year-old Sophie Flay confessed to Delish in 2016. "I'm the most impatient pastry chef ever." Particularly when it comes to a dessert—German chocolate cake—that has all of his favorite flavors, but a lot of detail work. "I always have a hard time getting the layers right, like what they look like. You can always tell my cake is homemade. It's very rustic."

8. Pal and fellow Food Network personality Giada DeLaurentiis would argue he has another Achilles heel. "There are a couple of things that are not his strong points," the Giada at Home star told the network. "One would be pasta. Number two: desserts. Those are the things he feels the most uncomfortable with, that he has not mastered."

9. And you better come with your go-to dish perfected. To truly best Flay, says Alex Guarnaschelli, who's come out on top in both of their head-to-head competitions, you need "a real sense of self, a real sense of culinary identity—the courage to kind of put aside the 700 ingredients in the pantry and just make something that's really true to who [they] are."

10. Staying away from all 20 cheeses may be wise as well. "People go on the show thinking that they have to cook fancy," chef Geoffrey Zakarian told Food Network. "My advice is, cook a fried egg. Use just a few ingredients, because if you try to use all of the ingredients he will kill you."

11. As you might expect, the roughly 23-minute episode requires a lot of extra taping, some four-and-a-half hours, according to one audience member who shared their experience on Reddit in 2019. Seating is standing-room only, as well.

12. Conspiracy theories abound thanks to Flay's dominant record. (Despite the fact that not a single one of his adversaries has publicly complained of unfair treatment.) But the experience is much like it appears on your television, the Reddit user shared. "The show itself is definitely completely real in the fact that all the times and dishes you see cooked are exactly how it appears on TV," said the spectator. "The ONLY weird part is that during regular conversational segments, there would be long pauses and stuff just to help the editing process. But overall, I was very happy/relieved to see that the time clock was completely legit, as well as the battle itself."

13. Flay himself insists he doesn't get a cheat sheet. "People always ask if I know what the dish is beforehand, but I don't want to know," he told Delish. "To me, that's the whole fun of this."

(Originally published May 15, 2020, at 12 a.m. PT)