Iron Stomach

The Food Network's Bobby Flay doesn't pick at his food when he's on the road

he eats with gusto while bantering with fans.

May 16, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

It's no picnic being Bobby Flay.

Well, actually, it's a lot like being in a picnic, a big, traveling, calorie-stuffed picnic, that lasts about 12 hours or so, covers four Baltimore neighborhoods, and is videotaped by a Food Network TV crew.

As one of television's chefs of the moment, the 36-year-old Flay is semi-young, semi-sexy and semi-hip, but is likely best remembered as the semi-rude American challenger who lost to Iron Chef Morimoto Masaharu in a New York showdown last year. His recent appearance in Baltimore was for a coming episode of "FoodNation With Bobby Flay," one of three cable network shows for which he is host.

And while he may be no iron chef, Flay did prove to possess an iron stomach. Beginning with oysters and a beer at 7:30 a.m. at Cross Street Market, he noshed his way through crab cakes, a cannoli, a pignolia cookie, a double veal chop, a crab-stuffed portobello mushroom, fresh mozzarella and a plate of appetizers including freshly made Italian sausage.

That was followed by another beer to wash down three kinds of mussels at Bertha's in Fells Point, not to mention a bowl of cream of crab soup and broiled rockfish - and no tiny portions or chew-and-spit action, either.

"I just keep eating. I can't be one of those guys at wine tastings who spits out his drink," says Flay, his eyes looking a bit glazed by midafternoon. "You have no idea what it's like. Let me tell you, it's not that easy."

In person, Flay is just as good-natured and regular-guyish as he appears to be on his television shows. He is tall and svelte - thanks only, he says, to a regular gym routine - and attracts no shortage of female admirers.

Shortly before his appearance at Bertha's, part-time barmaid Diana Khachadourian says she's excited to meet the man she's watched on cable for years. "If he doesn't have achiote powder on him, I'll just lose all respect," she says.

But when Flay does show up, she doesn't ask any questions - aside from which color souvenir T-shirt he'd like. "I'm a big fan," she tells the chef when she finally gets a chance to shake his hand.

Lois Hika, a customer at Bertha's bar, is not so shy. Before he can leave the restaurant, she gets Flay to autograph her right arm. She promises to leave it unwashed.

"He does things you can do at home," says Hika. "Plus, he's cute. That's what gets people to watch his shows."

When the celebrity chef shows up at Kali's Court, just a few blocks away, some female office workers celebrating Secretary's Day can barely contain their delight. After he's taped dining alfresco with chef Brian Martin and Ed Kane, the Baltimore Water Taxi owner, Tina Orwig of Kingsville steps forward to have her photograph taken with him.

"It was orgasmic," Orwig says after the picture is snapped.

Flay has been a regular on Food Network since 1996, when he started a summer grilling show, "Grillin' and Chillin,' " with Jack McDavid. Two years later, he added "Hot off the Grill With Bobby Flay," with co-star Jacqui Malouf. Both followed the tried-and-true formula of the studio-bound cooking show with this twist: Each gave Flay a sidekick with whom to banter, and he's demonstrated an affinity for it.

Last year, he launched "FoodNation," his first show on the road, usually visiting a city or region to explore local specialties. In "FoodNation," Flay is as much reporter as cooking expert - and for a guy who graduated from the French Culinary Institute and not journalism school, he's pretty comfortable asking questions and leaving the cooking to others.

When Mary Ann Cricchio, wife of Da Mimmo chef-owner Mimmo Cricchio, gives Flay a tour of Little Italy, she mentions that longtime neighbor Dolores Keh makes some of the best red sauce in the neighborhood. Flay promptly shows up on her doorstep asking for her secrets.

"I can't give you my recipe," Keh says.

Flay eventually wins, and she recites the long list of ingredients, down to the spare ribs she uses to add meat to the tomato-based concoction. Flay promises to give her a three-hour notice next time he's in town so she'll be ready with a batch.

"I'm looking for that," a satisfied Flay says after the encounter in front of Keh's rowhouse. "It's good and real."

Flay also gives his stamp of approval to the fresh mozzarella made at Apicella's Osteria - a delicate cheese he considers a litmus test for an aspiring chef. "It's like at my restaurants; I ask new cooks to make an omelet," he tells the owners, "to see how they can handle the basics."

At Da Mimmo, he chides the chef for naming a red-pepper sauce after tenor Pavarotti ("You got some dishes named after average guys?"), but then falls in love with the restaurant's trademark veal chop and eats several forkfuls.

"Garlic's like your favorite thing, right?" he asks Cricchio.

"You know we put garlic in our espresso, too," the Baltimore chef replies without missing a beat.

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