By any standard, chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay is having a very good year. He premiered a new show, “Grill It!” on the Food Network, where he’s already seen on “Boy Meets Grill,” (for which he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy), “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay,” and “Iron Chef America.” He opened a new restaurant, Bobby’s Burger Palace; added judging duties on “The Next Food Network Star” to his already crowded TV schedule; and saw the book version of “Grill It!” become a New York Times best-seller.
Add to this his marriage to the beautiful former “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” cast member Stephanie March, and it’s clear that Iron Chef Flay is living the dream. So it’s all the more surprising to learn that the master chef was kicked out of high school, and at one point in his life seemed barely headed for employment, much less superstardom.
We spoke with Flay about his shows, his success and the surprising direction his life took.
Bankrate: You were permanently suspended from your high school. Were you a troublemaker?
Bobby Flay: I wouldn’t say I was a troublemaker. I probably hung out with not the greatest crowd in the world, but basically, from a school standpoint, I just didn’t have any interest in going home and studying for three hours a night and doing my homework. I wasn’t a good high school student.
Bankrate: Do you think people who knew you back then are shocked to see what a success you’ve become?
Bobby Flay: I don’t know. I’m sure some people are. I was always interested in doing something. I just didn’t know what it was gonna be.
Bankrate: How did your love of food and cooking develop?
Bobby Flay: I was always interested in food. I just didn’t really know it. When I was growing up, there was very little food culture in this country, and it’s really changed a lot. When I started cooking professionally, when I was 17, I realized then that it was something I always wanted to be involved in.
Bankrate: What was the pivotal moment for you?
Bobby Flay: Laying in my bed one morning before I went to work, thinking to myself, this is something I’m really looking forward to doing today, which hadn’t happened prior. I had been working for about four or five months when I realized that this was something I actually liked doing, rather than something I had to do.
Bankrate: Was there a specific aspect of the job at the time that especially excited you?
Bobby Flay: Yeah, the gratification of actually putting things together. Taking some ingredients, employing some techniques, and then creating a dish that somebody would actually want to eat. Now it might sound sort of trivial, but at that point it was a big accomplishment for me.
Bankrate: What are the inherent skills required to be a great chef?
Bobby Flay: First of all, they have to want to do it, and have to want to do it for the right reasons, meaning that they have to want to always learn and discover about food. There’s no one in the world who knows everything about food, and that’s one of the things I just love about it. You’re constantly going to school to learn about other things and other cultures about food, which is what I like to do. So I think you need patience, and you need to want to taste and constantly make things better.
Bankrate: Considering how much cooking you do at work, do you still enjoy cooking at home?
Bobby Flay: I do. I love cooking, period, so whether it’s at home or the restaurant, I always look forward to it.
Bankrate: How do you juggle the business end of your empire with the creative end?
Bobby Flay: I have lots of great people that work with me, and I try not to take on too much. I feel like when I’m working on one particular thing, that’s the thing I’m focused on. There’s only one way to do things, which is to show people as opposed to tell them. So I always show people what I want in the kitchens. I’ve been training the same people for many, many years to move up the ladder and take the next step in the kitchens, and that’s the way I’m able to inspire people to stay so they’re part of my company for a long time. This way I’m able to expand with basically the same people.
Bankrate: Do you enjoy the business end of what you do?
Bobby Flay: Yes, I absolutely do.
Bankrate: Did you picture yourself, when you were younger, running a business one day?
Bobby Flay: Yes. I like looking at the big picture. I like creating environments where other people can do well. That’s why I like creating new opportunities, so that those who really put in lots of hard work and time can flourish.
Bankrate: It would seem that the skills required to be a great creative chef and those required to run a high end business would be very different. Are they, or is there overlap there?
Bobby Flay: I think there’s definitely some overlap. Obviously, as a chef, you need to be able to cook, but you also need to be able to manage. So I think as a chef you need to be able to do lots of things that make up the full picture.
Bankrate: Does having to think too much about the business ever get in the way of just being free and creative in your thinking?
Bobby Flay: Yeah, of course, but that’s the balance. You have to be able to do both. If you’re just a good cook, you’re not gonna have a successful business, and if you’re just a successful business person, then you’re gonna need to find somebody else who’s gonna take the culinary reigns or you’re gonna have a tough time of it.
Bankrate: With all you do — running restaurants, writing cookbooks, doing TV shows — what’s your favorite?
Bobby Flay: Restaurants, period. Cooking in the kitchen with my staff.
Bankrate: With all this juggling, what’s the hardest part of keeping your empire going?
Bobby Flay: Keeping people that work for me inspired to keep doing what they’re doing. To me, that’s so much a key of it. We pride ourselves on hiring really nice people who are ambitious, and we wanna keep their ambitions alive. So as long as I can keep inspiring them, then I think we’ll have a chance for success.
Bankrate: You once left the restaurant business for a short time to work on the floor of the American Stock Exchange.
Bobby Flay: Yeah. I was cooking in restaurants, but I hadn’t opened my own restaurants at that point. I was still 21 or something like that.
Bankrate: Did your time there teach you anything valuable about how to run a business?
Bobby Flay: No, not really. It just taught me that I didn’t want to be in that business, because it didn’t have any creativity. It was just about making money, which is fine, but to me it just wasn’t gratifying. It wasn’t for me.