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My Throwdown with Bobby Flay

The Episode has finally aired, the viewing parties are over, and now,
here’s the behind-the-scenes, play by play with Chef Hal.

People might be interested to learn that I actually ate at Bobby Flay’s first restaurant on a trip I made to New York while in my late teens. When they learned that I was interested in being a chef, they allowed me to see the kitchen that night. I told Bobby this story while we were on the set. We did actually have some moments to hang out and chat that day, and they were enjoyable exchanges.

It is amazing how many people it takes to make a TV show. There must have been 75-100 staff that day. The fans you saw in the balcony above us while we were taping the show are actually extras and are paid $75 a day—and that comes with a meager catered lunch.

The extras had invited me to join them for their lunch buffet that day, but during that break, I ordered out and chose a nice pastrami sandwich. I was in New York, after all, and that is always on my list of things to eat while in The City. After I ate, I laid on the floor of my green room and took a nap for about 20 minutes.

The day we taped, they actually filmed two different episodes. That means we had four chefs there. These made for very long days.

Round 1
When the taping began, the big moment was to announce both of the chefs and then what the secret ingredient would be that day. When I heard “merguez sausage,” (lamb) I have to admit, I had no experience with that meat and was a bit panicky. After that announcement, we had about a four-minute break. People were swarming everywhere and were all over me for mic checks, wires, and more. With my arms outstretched I had my phone out in mid air trying to “google” Bolognese. I was so nervous I couldn’t spell it. I have made Bolognese and marinaras hundreds of times before, but here I was now making a traditional Italian dish for an Italian woman who would be judging me. I finally pulled it up and was glad I did. Had I not, I would have forgotten to add the nutmeg to the recipe. I made sure the lady judges saw me add it during that part of the competition.

The fennel that I added was an impulsive decision, as it goes well with the lamb. As was the decision for the mint as well. The mozzarella was my idea, too. In regards to preparing the tomatoes, I have never put them into a food processor before, but the mathematics in my head told me I would have to break them down that way in order to keep within the clock.

During the taping of the show, I was very focused and never felt for a moment that I was being flirted with. They only made it appear that way in the post-production/editing process. Regardless, I nailed my pasta. That’s different, too; we use fresh pasta at LT, and it cooks in about 3-4 minutes—which is much different than dry which takes about 10. But they had dried pasta on the set, and I needed to think and adjust.

At the last minute, I realized I needed texture to complete this dish, so I grabbed some pine nuts and lightly toasted them. Alex, one of the judges, suggested to me that I fry them to make them crispy. I explained that pine nuts are never in my kitchen, and I was not familiar with frying nuts.

Fortunately, I was comfortable with this dish and connected with the food which is very important. The ability to calm yourself and control your emotions is key.

You only see about 10% of what really went on at the judge’s table. The comments they had for my opponent in that first round were pretty critical, but they were rather kind to me. Perhaps for television, they feel as if they need to be nicer to the loser.

They had prepared us on what to do once the winner was announced. In other words, where to walk and turn and how to exit. Ironically, as the loser was exiting, I inadvertently began to follow him out. Bobby grabbed my arm and said, “You’re not going anywhere.”

After winning, I relaxed quite a bit. I was excited to get on to Round 2. There was a bit of a break. The culinary team then came in to clean up, taking away things we would not need for Round 2 when I would go up against Bobby.

Fried Oysters?
I don’t remember that whole stretching thing with Bobby, but apparently, that was a nervous thing on my end.

The first thing Bobby said to me when I released my signature dish was, “That has something to do with spinach, doesn’t it?” To which I coyly replied, “It’s a debated subject.” And it truly is a recipe with many variations.

Choosing the signature recipe was a challenge for me. There had been quite a bit of back and forth with New York about what my signature dish would be. I would suggest one thing, and they would counter with another idea. We were in our weekly marketing meeting with Epiphany and Stephanie went over to the bookshelf, opened our book up to the page that held the Oysters Rockefeller and slid it across the table to me. That’s when I knew, “That’s the dish.” It was a recipe I could make happen in that 45-minute window, and I could execute. And, too, it was an honest choice. I had made plenty of oysters during my tenure at Nick and Rudy’s. Even before that, I had worked in New Orleans where I became familiar with the family that birthed the recipe. Not sure if it is a joke or the truth, but I’ve heard that the story behind the name is they are named Rockefeller because they are so rich. And, too, when we first opened Lockeland Table Oysters Rockefeller was on the menu.

I now had to produce plates for three judges, plus a show plate. I had to make 24 oysters altogether. And they had to be executed perfectly.

Bobby started frying oysters while I was in the process of creating the original dish. I was in the zone, and when the girls started coming over, all I could think of was, “Get out of my way.” I had practiced my recipe and timeline here at Lockeland Table and knew I could do it in 42 minutes. A culinary team there also had prepared my recipe prior to our arrival confirming it would work. When the buzzer went off, I was ready. And it was time for the judge’s table.

Filleted by Bobby
It was like the fish that got away. I thought I had it, but the judges sided with Bobby.

Claudia Fleming, oddly enough, the female judge for Round 2, had worked at Gramercy Tavern as Pastry Chef during the time I was working there. Afterwards, I went up and introduced myself to her and reminded her that we had worked together. Though during the judging, it appears she was my biggest nemesis.

The end of the show was actually at about 11am. That was when we went into post-production. All of the times that you see a person not in the kitchen happen in a small room with a green screen behind us once the recording is over. They ask you questions, and you have to answer in present tense. That took about three hours. I had arrived at 5 am, and I didn’t get out of there until at 6:30 pm.

Solid Presentation
When it was all said and done, regardless of the outcome, I was proud of myself in how I represented my city, my restaurant, my food, and my family. I was true to the recipe and true to myself and my craft. In my opinion, the entire experience could not have been better. But I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit, I am ready for a rematch. So, Bobby, maybe we’ll meet again one day!

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  1. Marti Fouce says:

    Bobby did NOT make Oysters Rockefeller! Those judges blew it.

  2. Sheila Gray Campbell says:

    Loved the show and really felt that you beat Bobby. Can’t wait to get to Nashville (on my bucket list). Graduated high school with your mom!

  3. Aaron Bernstein says:

    Chef, thanks for sharing this experience with your patrons and friends. Following the experience from pre- to post-production with you made it so much more exciting!

  4. Bob says:

    I was in your Resturant a few weeks ago and had the bolognese dish. I want to try to reproduce that recipe but can’t find merguez anywhere here in East Tenn. What can be substituted for a close rendition of your fantastic dish I had there?

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