Last week we published an installment of Michael Leaverton's darkly funny Food on TV column criticizing Bobby Flay for not behaving badly enough in his new restaurant fix-it show, 3 Days to Open:
Also, Bobby Flay's mild and tempered personality forgets to scream and rage at the owner of the chicken wing place for needing Bobby Flay's help. It should have. The owner needed to be screamed at, with all his over-talking and over-thinking and not-listening-to-Bobby-Flay. Chef Ramsay would have observed the odd, hyperactive fellow, measured him up, realized that he was about to make some of the best television of his career, and then fileted him raw on the sidewalk, cutting him psychologically back to the womb and reducing him, as if he were a balsamic, into a sticky blob of tears and sweat.
We never expected to discuss the review with Bobby Flay himself. But this week the blogging gods must have been in a benevolent mood, because Bobby Flay wanted to discuss it with us.
It all started three days ago, when this e-mail arrived via the feedback form on our website:
Sorry to hear you didn't like the show. I did it as a 6-show limited series. The last thing I wanted to do was scream and yell like GR or Robert Irvine. It's not my teaching or mentoring style in my restaurants so I didn't want to represent myself in any other way than how I really am.
The list of shows, books, etc. was hysterical. Thanks for taking the time to watch and write.
212 807 7400
After our initial amazement and glee faded, Bobby Flay's note started to make us a little uncomfortable. Not about publishing the piece, because the belligerence and bullying of Ramsay and Irvine really does make better television (the episodes where they can't find enough to scream about always put us to sleep), but because his note made us admit how much we're entertained by the drama and heartbreak of the worst type of reality TV: the mean shows. We love seeing people shamed and bullied on television. We just prefer not to think about it, so we can continue watching them.
Plus, we've got nothing against Bobby Flay. What's not to like? He's one of the Food Network's old guard who worked his way up through restaurant kitchens, so he knows his stuff. By all accounts he's a nice guy, and we've enjoyed his gently self-mocking guest spots on Portlandia and Entourage.
Mostly we don't think about him much at all, since his approach to reality TV has always been so laid-back. Bobby Flay's the unofficial dad of the Food Network -- encouraging but straight-shooting, administering authority through quiet anger and disappointment. From someone you respect, and we do respect Bobby Flay, disappointment is so much worse than yelling. If this e-mail was actually from him (and we had a hunch it was), we felt obliged to hear his side of things.
The phone number on the e-mail, as those of you who immediately called it already know, turned out to be the main line at Mesa Grill, Bobby Flay's flagship restaurant in New York. The hostess transferred us to management, who referred us to Bobby Flay's publicist, who did not seem pleased to hear that Bobby Flay was e-mailing media on his own initiative. But she promised to "feel him out" about the possibility of a follow-up interview, and lo and behold the next morning she called with news that, against all odds, Bobby Flay was eager to speak with us. So we left a message on Bobby Flay's voicemail, and a few hours later Bobby Flay himself called us back.
Talking to Bobby Flay on the phone is exactly like you'd imagine it. He was nice, articulate, kind of funny, and very intent on getting his message across, which seemed to be that television Bobby Flay is the same as real-life Bobby Flay, and neither is the screaming type.
"I didn't want to do a show with yelling and screaming and drama. Everyone mentors and teaches in their own way, and I've never found yelling and screaming to be effective in my business life. I always say, 'don't tell, show,' which is why my sleeves are always rolled up ... You get a lot more out of it that way, and people respect you -- which doesn't happen overnight and doesn't happen with fear. That's my style and I'm not changing it for television."
On if the Food Network ever pushes him to be more dramatic:
"Listen, I've had a long relationship with the Food Network. [17 years!] I've grown up on the Food Network. I've always been the exact person I have been and they've come to accept that that's who I'm going to be. I'm not a pushover -- the phrase "tough love" comes up a lot -- I just try to get people to think about things in a common-sense way ... On Food Network Star, I always found myself mentoring from the judging table, and they tell me they like that part of me where you can see the real-life experience going through my head."
On his approach to mentorship in the new show, which he also produced:
"On 3 Days to Open it's really simple.... [These are] people who have never opened a restaurant before, they've put up their money or their family's money or their friend's money and there's a lot on the line besides how good their chicken fingers will be. My feeling was, look, I've done this for a long time, and made plenty of mistakes in my career to get to the success I've had in the restaurant business, so why not help people get there before they make 400 mistakes in the wrong direction. It's really a tough and perplexing business. People have no idea what they're getting into.
"I only did six [episodes] and won't do any more because they're exhausting for me. When I open a restaurant I have a team of people to open it with me. In this case it's just me dealing with the front of house, back of house, health inspectors ... 400 things to deal with, and I end up doing a lot of it myself or getting [the restaurant owners] to do it with me. It's very difficult."
On how he found the review, why he wrote in, and if he often he sends e-mails like this:
"Never. I think I was doing a search for 3 Days to Open to see what people were saying about the show -- with a few exceptions it's gotten a lot of good buzz. Up to a few years ago I used to get upset about things like this, because it would feel personal to me. I'm just myself on these shows, and I'd feel like, wow, that guy really doesn't like me -- and that hurts anyone's feelings. I don't get upset about it anymore.
"That part where [Leaverton] copied my Wikipedia page was hysterical, it took a lot of effort just to type it all. I don't take this review incredibly seriously ... I just wanted to write to him because a) I think it's funny, and b) I just want him to know what I was thinking. Here's what I was thinking when I came up with the show, just so you know."
[Michael Leaverton responds: Thanks, Bobby! I don't take these reviews all that seriously, either. A few weeks ago I spent the entire time writing about how the judges on Master Chef use their utensils when they eat, for example.]
Of course, Bobby Flay is a public figure with an image to protect. What we found so odd and refreshing about the whole encounter was that Bobby Flay is doing the image-protecting himself. Maybe because it's not an image? Maybe he's just a regular guy who's trying to be understood? We don't know Bobby Flay well enough to say. But we'll think on it. Right after we finish this episode of Toddlers & Tiaras on Netflix.
Read the whole Food on TV archive here.