When it comes to television, we live in blurry times. Who's got real talent, and who is famous just for being famous? The popularity of many reality stars far eclipses that of real actors, and congruently, even in the food world, things are heading that direction. It used to be that if you loved cooking, you became a chef, and spent the rest of your working days slaving away in a kitchen, largely unseen. Not necessarily, anymore. With the advent of the Food Network, many people don't just want to be cooks, they want to be famous cooks. Now, the food industry is home to some of reality TV's greatest rock stars, not the least of which is Food Network veteran Bobby Flay. As a reigning Iron Chef and star of over a half dozen cooking shows, he's more than qualified to serve as host and judge on Food Network Star, which premieres its new season on June 5th. But as he mentioned when we spoke to him recently, he'll be disappointed if any of the show's contestants are Paris Hilton-type cooks.
But before we get to that, turn the page to see the first part of our interview with Bobby Flay, in which we discuss the impression L.A. food has made on him in recent years. Check back later for part two, as well as for a recipe from the chef.
Squid Ink: How did an Irish guy from New York get so interested in Southwestern cuisine?
Bobby Flay: What do you mean? All the chile peppers are grown in Dublin! [Laughs]. As a native New Yorker, I've always been exposed to what I think of as the best food in the world. When I was just starting out cooking professionally, I was working for a guy named Jonathan Waxman who had a restaurant called Bud's, which was a contemporary Southwestern restaurant at the time. I worked there for a couple of years, and that's where I fell in love with all the Southwestern ingredients; all the fresh and dried chili peppers, the blue corn, all the different dried and fresh beans. I just fell in love with it, and I just decided to hone in on those ingredients.
SI: We'd imagine with all the TV that you do, you spend a fair amount of time in L.A.
BF: I've actually spent more time in L.A. in the last year or so than I have ever before.
SI: What's your impression of how L.A. fits into the world stage of food?
BF: I think Los Angeles is very important in terms of what's going on in this country in general. Lots of exciting restaurants. More than ever, restaurants in L.A. have become more important. Years ago, people would always say of Los Angeles, 'if you don't have Madonna coming in you can't be busy.' I think that's not so true anymore. I think it adds to the panache because it's L.A., and there's all kinds of stars there and it's kind of fun. But when you see some of the restaurants that are going up and setting some food trends, I think the food is really becoming the star.
SI: Since Food Network Star is shot in L.A., in what ways does the show incorporate the city?
BF: By utilizing different locations for the challenges. So for instance, one of the very first challenges is at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. There's a food truck challenge in L.A. of course, obviously. By utilizing different restaurants and chefs from L.A. like Wolfgang Puck and Scott Conant. We actually shot at Culver Studios and we were lucky enough to have a challenge with the show Cougar Town with Courteney Cox. We were shooting right next door and they're a huge fan of the Food Network, so we had a Cougar Town challenge, which was awesome.
SI: Could you have imagined there would be as much food on TV as there is today, and what do you think the advent of the “cheflebrity” has done to the industry?
BF: What was that word? “Cheflebrity?”
SI: Yes. We didn't coin that term; we're just using it.
BF: Well, for the first part of the question, no I could've never imagined it would be possible. The Food Network didn't exist. Chefs were behind the kitchen doors until somebody like Wolfgang Puck became popular in California. He was a Hollywood story. It made perfect sense that somebody who's a great chef who finally said, by the way, great food doesn't have to be in such a 'whisper-like' environment. Food can be whimsical and creative at the same time. So Wolfgang, in my opinion, gave someone like me a real chance to have a career like that. We thank him for that.
SI: So do you think TV has changed the food industry?
BF: Without a doubt. What I think the Food Network has been able to do is expose everybody in America to what is available–to eat, to cook–it just enhances their eating experiences every day of their lives. What's good is it makes chefs better because the consumer now demands things at a greater level, at every level. I think that's really important, and that's why we have the best food in the world now.
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife.