Flay speaks with the type of haters-gonna-hate confidence that comes with more than two decades on television. He rose to prominence at at time when food stars—especially bad-boy types like Flay and Todd English—became tabloid targets, and an influx of stand-and-stir charlatans caused diners to turn a suspicious eye toward chefs who spent more time in a green room than a kitchen. But rather than turning him into a cash-checking nihilist, the bumps and bruises seem to have made him as aware as ever of his legacy. And so he has rules: He’ll only take TV gigs where he’s actually cooking (besides Next Food Network Star, where he’s mentoring cooks). He’ll never open “restaurants in other major cities [except for New York] unless it’s in a hotel or casino” for fear that he can’t be present enough (besides Bobby’s Burger Palace, a chain built purposefully outside of the gaze of NYC media).
“I feel like I know how to feed New Yorkers,” says Flay. “I understand the city, and I love the city.”
Based on the first two years at Gato, the city—and even many of its infamously Food Network–averse critics—seems to love him back. Still, after painting himself into a corner with the Jay-Z-as-Emeril comparison, he looks to the West Coast for his rap-game alter ego: “I guess I’m Snoop Dogg”—another O.G. who’s stayed relevant among the young bucks.
Whether you want to compare him to Hov or the Doggfather, Flay pins his longevity to a simple truth: “Cooking to me is like a recording of my life,” and he’s “happiest when I’m in my apron, making paella.” Here, the Food Network icon traces the road from My-T-Fine pudding to Gato through his most memorable meals, with a couple of classic NYC stops along the way.