I spoke recently with Chef Bobby Flay (Mesa Grill) about the new season of the Next Food Network Star. Bobby Flay is an award-winning restaurateur, cookbook author and one of the Food Network’s biggest stars (Iron Chef America, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and Grill it! with Bobby Flay).
Season 5 of the Next Food Network Star starts Sunday night, June 7th.
The Next Food Network Star is about to begin Season 5, can we expect to see anything different this time around?
BOBBY FLAY: Yes, absolutely. First of all, very good cooking chops. I think the contestants are the best group of cooks we’ve had so far in the five seasons. Also, we get a look into Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. She’s sort of elusive. She doesn’t do a lot of public appearances. She stays out in the Hamptons and does her own thing. So I got a chance to work with her and all of the contestants loved meeting her.
And we go to Miami at some point in the series which is, obviously, a beautiful setting…crazy grilling challenges…I think it’s a really exciting season.
What is the ultimate quality that you look for in a contestant?
BOBBY: Because I’m the chef on the panel, I’m always protecting the food. There’s three things: Obviously, they need to cook with authority, they need to be a good teacher, they need to inspire. All three of those things are the recipe for success.
Are you involved with the creation of the challenges and, if not, do you think they are sometimes unfair or too difficult?
BOBBY: Sometimes I consult on some of the challenges but basically it’s done by Food Network and the production company. I do think sometimes they are hard but that’s what this is about. If everybody was perfect in every challenge, there would be nothing to watch. Basically the idea is that you want to take people out of their element and see how they do under pressure. It’s not just about acing the challenge. It’s more about when there’s an issue, like there is in TV everyday, how do you handle the pressure? So, yes, I do think the challenges are sometimes difficult but they’re difficult for a reason.
How do you think the role of the chef has changed in the past few years in the era of the celebrity chef and the star-making power of the Food Network?
BOBBY: I think the chef on television has a lot of roles. They need to be a good teacher; they need to be able to inspire people; they need to be entertaining. In a lot of ways chefs on television are becoming role models for adults and children. From an adult standpoint, getting people to eat better and more nutritiously. And there are tons of kids that watch Food Network. It’s amazing. It’s one more profession for kids to look up to. I think that we do have a responsibility to be role models for people.
What is the best cooking challenge to look out for this season on the Next Food Network Star?
BOBBY: The first thing that comes to mind is a challenge that happens in Miami…outdoors…near the water. It’s a grilling challenge and it’s all kinds of different fish and shellfish. Basically, they had to come up with a dish that would go on the menu of a restaurant. I thought they were incredibly creative.
It was great to see that people have finesse with something like fish that can be difficult to use.
What is the range of backgrounds for these contestants?
BOBBY: Everybody has pretty good food chops. They’re pretty experienced when it comes to cooking but it’s anywhere from someone being a home cook cooking for their family like Melissa from Texas or there’s a guy like Michael from New York that worked in some top New York restaurants.
Do you think it makes a difference if a contestant is self-taught versus classically trained?
BOBBY: It all depends on how far you want to go. I have been cooking for…a long time. I started cooking professionally when I was 17. I’m 44 now, so 26, 27 years. My practical, everyday experience in the kitchen helps me navigate where I’m going with food. And to speak easily about it. I’m never really reaching for a story because it’s where I live. What I’m looking for, as one of the judges, is someone that’s going to have a good repertoire of things. Even if they
win the six shows…I’m looking way past that. I want them to have 600 shows. I want them to become part of the roster of the Food Network. So I think if you’re not classically trained, as in going to culinary school, it puts you at a disadvantage. The more knowledge, more experience you have gives you a better shot at longevity.
You are a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. How did training there translate into your focus on Southwestern cooking?
BOBBY: First of all, French technique is the basis for most cooking. I use a lot of French technique everyday…sauces, how things are cut, how things are put together. I started cooking with Southwest ingredients because I worked for a guy named Jonathan Waxman who, in the mid-80’s, was the first person to bring California- and Southwestern-style ingredients to the East Coast. I fell in love with the ingredients working for him. Then I traveled to the Southwest and honed my skills.
What advice do you have for someone that wants to follow a culinary career?
BOBBY: Food television, to me, is still a new idea. It’s been around awhile, the Food Network has been around for 15 years but it’s still a new idea considering how long food has been around and chefs have been cooking. I always tell people if you want to be on television, go to acting school; if you want to be a chef, go to culinary school. There’s no magic to it. First of all you need to decide whether you want to do this as a profession. A lot of time you will hear people say “I love to cook at home, I want to be a chef.” Well, they’re very different. Go beg any restaurant to let you do whatever you can in their kitchen. Don’t even get paid. Just see if you like the environment. And then, if you want to make the investment in culinary school, I think it’s a great idea.
Culinary school is not going to make you a chef but it’s going to give you the basic techniques to get an entry level position in a restaurant. I think that is important for people to understand. You don’t become a chef the day you graduate culinary school. It just gives you the opportunity to work in a restaurant at entry level. Then, like any other profession, you learn your skills in school and hone them in the field. You go work for chefs you think are terrific and spend a bunch of years doing that. To me, there’s no magic to it. It’s got to be a slow, steady process and it takes a long time.