Bobby Flay – Embracing Celebrity Cooking’s Biggest Heel

There was a time I really didn’t like Bobby Flay.

I was an Iron Chef fan – the original series, with the dubbed voiceovers and the subtitles and the fortune teller judges and the endless supply of bonito flakes and daikon radish. It was fascinating to me (and lots of others, hence Food Network still being a channel and Iron Chef America has been running for 11 seasons and 205 episodes) and it became an 11PM ritual. It was interesting to see non-Asian chefs on the show, especially with the occasional American. Flay was one of those Americans, challenging Chef Morimoto in a battle in New York City at Webster Hall. The two had a hard, evenly fought battle, then, well, this…

It wasn’t so much the cutting board thing – I mean, who’d know that? – as much as it was the whole “playing to the crowd” thing and then later on (referenced in this episode and more in the follow up “rematch”) the complaining about getting inferior equipment and the burn and the shocks that he got as having to compete with a handicap. It all came across very… well, the title of the referenced YouTube video is decently accurate.

Anyway, Flay would have a “rematch” with Morimoto in Kitchen Stadium in Japan where he’d stand on the counter again (after having knocked off his cutting board so he didn’t step on it this time), defeat Morimoto, get his vindication, and never be heard from again in Japanese Kitchen Stadium. However, the over-the-top persona that Flay showed in the Iron Chef battle seemed to be what Food Network was looking for. Flay was already a Food Network fixture, but he (like the others) blended into the group. As the network had learned from Emeril Lagasse and Emeril Live!, laid back wasn’t cutting it. Essence of Emeril, Lagasse’s other show, blended into the rest of the programming, with Lagasse taking a quieter, more subtle approach. With Emeril Live!, viewers saw an outgoing personality and flocked to it – Live! was Food Network’s top show for many years, playing during the prime, 7PM hour. This Flay that the network saw on Iron Chef – he was brash and over the top like Emeril was. He could be another star.

But despite this, Flay never really took off the way Food Network expected him to. Hot Off The Grill with Bobby Flay (which began before Flay’s appearance on Iron Chef) still kind of blended into the mix, while FoodNation with Bobby Flay was just a travelogue with Bobby showing up in cities to showcase local cuisine. FoodNation would eventually get overshadowed by Rachael Ray’s $40 a Day, where Ray’s charm and accessibility (already showcased by the success of her earlier show, 30 Minute Meals) worked better in that format. Flay seemed to be all over Food Network, but at the same time, you never really knew why. You could tell the network wanted to do something with him, but there never seemed to be the right fit.

Enter Iron Chef America. Flay’s cockiness/brashness/whatever that came out due to competition. When he cooked alone, he was just another guy. When he cooked against someone, he was different. His “character” came out. But unlike Emeril or Rachael Ray or countless other personalities on the channel who were trying to win the viewer over with charm, a smile, and a catchphrase, Bobby Flay filled an important role in any narrative – something that couldn’t be conveyed in traditional cooking shows. Bobby Flay was an excellent cooking villain.

In pro wrestling, you have storylines. In order to advance those storylines and get people watching the television show, buying tickets, ordering the pay-per-views, etc., you need two parts – the characters that you want to see win, and the characters that you want to see lose. It’s easy to misunderstand the difference between a character you want to see lose and a character you don’t like. The former gets you to watch; the latter makes you change the channel. Bobby Flay is the former. In the original Iron Chef, American viewers embraced the Iron Chefs because those where the characters they knew. The challengers didn’t matter – the guys that came out of the wall were the cool ones and we wanted to see them win. However, with Iron Chef America, you didn’t necessarily have that. You could build a background story with a challenger. The challenging chefs might work for places you’ve been to (or could go to), or maybe a viewer could see a little bit of themselves in the challenger. Regardless of why you were pulling for them, it became a whole lot easier if they were facing off against Bobby Flay (BOOOOOOOOOOOOO).

Food Network would roll with that theme. Soon after the launch (and success) of Iron Chef America, the network introduced Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, a show that put Flay in the competitive role again, this time competing against local cooks & chefs. The rules of the competition, which weigh heavily against Flay, require the two competitors to create the local chef’s signature dish. Through the show’s run, Flay lost on average two out of three “throwdowns”. More recently, Beat Bobby Flay has debuted on Food Network and its sister station, the Cooking Channel, where two chefs compete against each other, with the winner taking on Flay as sort of a “boss battle”.

What I’ve seen with Flay though, in the 14 years since “the incident” and 10 years since Iron Chef America is that the persona that he gave off originally – this cocky, arrogant, heel – seems more of a character than anything else. To watch Flay on Throwdown! was to watch a personality who, while seeming to enjoy coming in as a challenger, didn’t mind – hell, probably even enjoyed at times – taking the loss against an opponent who put forth a better dish. There’s a humbleness to being in Flay’s role on a show like Throwdown!, where essentially no one wants you to win, from your competitor to the people watching the show to the judges. Ego has to be left at the door, and during that show’s run, it was evident that it had, with Flay showing perhaps the polar opposite of what actually brought him a good deal of his exposure and success (on television at least) against those local, hometown opponents.

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Is Bobby Flay a jerk? I don’t know – I haven’t met the guy. But I think it’s time to let go of the memory of Flay on a cutting board 14 years ago. I think he’s earned that much.

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