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Talking with Bobby Flay

Unlike most of the audience, Bobby Flay isn't impressed with the fact that he's considered a celebrity chef. “You get up in the morning and go to work, there's no magic to it,” he says.

And as far as comparing celebrity chefs to rock stars, they're worlds apart, especially when it comes to compensation, he says, twisting his mouth into an ironic grin.

Flay, cookbook author, Food Channel host and owner of several celebrated restaurants, including Mesa Grill in New York and Las Vegas, was a panel member, along with restaurateurs Phil Roberts of Parasole and Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group, at the 17th annual Restaurant Finance & Development Conference in November in Las Vegas.

On the day Flay spoke at our conference, he was in the midst of changing out at least 18 items on his menu. Plating will be simpler and the sides will be portioned for sharing. Flay refers to side dishes as “accessories” and they, along with the sauces, can make or break a meal.

Flay will never be mistaken for a warm-and-fuzzy guy, but he's not aloof. In fact, when audience members approached him after his panel concluded, he listened intently and answered thoughtfully. He has an intensity about him that's palpable. He describes it as being focused.

There are only so many hours in a day and he needs to milk as much as he can out of every one of them. Being successful, after all, isn't a resting place. “Now I'm afraid of not having that success,” he says. “People come into the restaurant and are surprised I'm there.”

Fortunately, he says, his cooking shows are on cable, where they “shoot a little and show it a lot.”

Key to his success, he points out, is that he's stayed true to his vision. For instance, at Mesa Grill, “We're not trying to feed the world, we're trying to feed the people who want to eat Southwestern that night,” he says. If they want Asian fusion, they won't be getting it at Mesa Grill. If they want Spanish, however, he'll feed them tapas at Bolo and American fare at Bar Americain, both located in NYC.

His philosophy in the kitchen: “People want you to push them to do something different; people want to be inspired.” To that end, he cooks along side the chefs in his kitchens and some time during the 16- to 18-hour day he spends in the kitchen, he'll try to have a conversation or instruct all of them.

When he opened Mesa Grill in Vegas, he hand-selected seven of his New York chefs to work in the kitchen there. It turned out to be an unprecedented perk for the chefs and their families. They went from a tiny, overpriced apartment in the city to a three-bedroom house with a pool, he says.

Akin to changing his menus seasonally, Flay avoids getting stale from a business standpoint, also. He's in the process of developing a new concept, Bobby's Burger Palace, a chain that will start in South Jersey and expand along the East Coast.

How he's able to accomplish all this is due to his “incredible, natural work ethic,” according to his culinary director, Christine Sanchez, who adds, “I don't know where he gets his energy.”

In addition to his kitchen marathons, he just finished the New York City marathon. “He has a sportsmanlike mentality,” Sanchez says. He's in the moment, “he's present.”

And, about that “bad-boy thing”:  “People need a label,” Sanchez replies, dismissively. “I don't know how that got started. People are surprised he's so warm and approachable.”

Just don't introduce him to a crowd via an outtake of him dancing on his show after grilling chicken. “You work hard your whole life and your career is reduced to three seconds of dancing the calypso,” he said, glaring at his accountant, who he mistakenly believed provided the clip.

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