Flay's cooking plays with fire but won't let you get burned

August 03, 1994|By Kirsten A. Conover | Kirsten A. Conover,The Christian Science Monitor

Growing up in Manhattan, Bobby Flay was a rough-and-tumble type of kid. So it is no wonder that his style of food has been described as fearless.

"There is a direct relationship," says Mr. Flay. "I was a very rebellious kind of kid. I hung around with tough kids. It made me streetwise. I'm glad I went through it, but I wouldn't go back.

"That's the way I cook, brash and bold, it's not about subtleties." Southwestern food, in which he specializes, is about powerful colors, flavors, and textures, he says.

Mr. Flay opened the popular Mesa Grill in Manhattan in 199while still somewhat of a kid (in his 20s). He and his cuisine soon began to sizzle: The restaurant soared in popularity, attracting a hip crowd and enjoying favorable reviews in the press.

Mr. Flay became a frequent guest chef on TV shows, most notably David Letterman's, and last year, he earned the Perrier-Jouet "Rising Star/Chef of the Year" award from the James Beard Foundation.

In November he opened a second restaurant, Bolo, which concentrates on Spanish-Mediterranean food.

Mr. Flay recently had published his first cookbook, "Bobby Flay's Bold American Food." The graphics and photographs in this exuberant cookbook feature more than 200 recipes that pay homage to the Southwest: quesadillas, tamales, salsas and relishes, chilies, polentas, and more.

If Mr. Flay had to name a signature dish, it would probably be the Shrimp Tamale with Roasted Garlic Sauce, which is so popular at Mesa Grill.

"That was one dish that was just right the first time I made it," he says. "If I took it off the menu, I'd get mugged."

The Corn and Zucchini Quesadilla with Smoked-Tomato and Salsa and Avocado Relish is also popular and indicative of his cuisine.

Flavorful and spicy don't necessarily mean burn-your-mouth hot, Flay stresses. Powerful ingredients are meant for accent, not injury, he says. Often, if an ingredient is hot, it must be counter-balanced by another ingredient: "Playing with fire in chilies is like playing with fire in life -- just don't get caught," he says with an impish grin.

How does he view his work, especially now that he has two restaurants?

"It's serious fun. Restaurants are glorified playgrounds," Mr. Flay says over dessert, picking up an edible flower and flinging it off his plate.

"One of the reasons I opened Bolo was to create opportunities for people. It keeps people content. I try to make [my restaurants] more than just restaurants. I hire people if they're nice and ambitious. I don't need any hot-shots.

"And nobody screams in my kitchen," he adds.

No hot-shot attitudes maybe, but there are some young chefs in his kitchen who are "on fire," Mr. Flay exclaims, with a shake of his head.

"I see a lot of what I was at their age. One kid -- 21 years old -- cannot be stopped. He's going to be amazing."

for the future, Mr. Flay says he has a new project in the works. "I can't tell you what it is," he says, "but I will say that it's not another restaurant."

Here are some recipes adapted from "Bobby Flay's Bold American Food."

Corn and Zucchini Quesadilla

Makes 4 first-course servings

3 6-inch flour tortillas, or 8-inch tortillas cut to size

1/4 cup grated Monterey Jack

1/4 cup grated white Cheddar

2 tablespoons chopped red onion

1 jalapeno, minced

1/4 cup julienne zucchini

1/4 cup fresh corn kernels

salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup Smoked-Tomato Salsa, or to taste

1/2 cup Avocado Relish, or to taste)

Heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place 2 tortillas on ungreased baking sheet. Spread half the cheeses, onion, jalapeno, zucchini, and corn on each. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stack the 2 layers and cover with the remaining tortilla. (May be layered ahead up to this point and refrigerated.)

Bake 8 to 12 minutes, or until the tortillas are slightly crisp and the cheese has melted. Cut into quarters and serve hot, garnished with the salsa and relish.

Smoked-Tomato Salsa Makes about 2 1/2 cups

2 medium tomatoes, cold-smoked if possible (see below), seeded, and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons finely diced red onion

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon ancho chili powder or good-quality prepared chili powder

Combine all ingredients, cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving. Serve extra salsa in a bowl in the center of the table.

Prepare a charcoal or wood fire in a domed grill and let it burn down to the embers. Lay chips of soaked aromatic wood over the ashes -- you just want to get the smoke going, not a very hot fire. (Food won't be cooked, but will be infused with a smoky flavor.) Rub tomatoes with olive oil and arrange on grill rack. Open the top vent slightly and cover the grill so the smoke stays inside. Smoke for about 10 minutes.

Avocado Relish Makes about 1 cup

1 ripe Haas avocado, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon finely diced red onion

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped cilantro

salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine the avocado, onion, jalapeno, lime juice, and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature before serving. Place any extra in a bowl in the center of the table.

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