“Jay Z is the Emeril Lagasse of the rap world,” says Bobby Flay when asked to compare hip-hop’s mainstream takeover to the ascent of Food Network over the past quarter century. “I really want to be Jay Z, but I don’t want to say it myself.”
Despite Flay’s reluctance to crown himself the culinary Hov, the parallel is not so far-fetched: Both emerged in the ’90s with game-changing projects that catapulted their careers—Flay with Mesa Grill (1991), and Jay Z with Reasonable Doubt (1996). Both have maintained top billing in their fields through decades when food television and hip-hop spawned legions of copycats and pretenders to the throne (“with any success there’s excess,” is Flay’s diplomatic prognosis of the current cooking-show glut). And, perhaps most tellingly, both stars have a distinctively New York obsession with staying relevant on their home turf.
That last part may surprise some fans, who associate Flay more with Southwestern cooking and the backyard barbecues of Grillin’ & Chillin’ than his Upper East Side upbringing. But while he may not keep a Yankees fitted attached to his head, Flay has the city’s classics—JG Melon, Peter Luger, Grand Central Oyster Bar—coursing through his veins, and he cares about being at the center of the “everyday conversation of where to eat in New York.”
This month, Flay celebrated the two-year anniversary of Gato, his Mediterranean-inspired NoHo hot spot, and he doesn’t hesitate in calling it the greatest triumph of his career—above the James Beard Awards, the Emmys, the star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, and even the cameo on Entourage.
“At Gato, a lot of people were rooting against me,” he explains. “It was almost like a prize fight: I was like, ‘I’m going to stand here and if you want to knock me down, great, and if not, I hope you really enjoy the food.'”