Bobby Flay, 42, is a chef and business owner with restaurants in Manhattan (Bolo, Mesa Grill and Bar Americain); Atlantic City, N.J. (Bobby Flay Steak); the Bahamas (Mesa Grill); and Las Vegas (Mesa Grill). Flay began his career at theater-district standby Joe Allen's, where his father was a partner, and he was part of the very first class to matriculate at the French Culinary Institute in New York, in 1984. By the age of 25, Flay was executive chef at Mesa Grill, a Southwest concept that continues to thrive. In 1996, Flay made his debut on the Food Network, and he's still teaching and entertaining audiences today. He is also the author of seven cookbooks. Flay recently spoke with WineSpectator.com about the challenges of pairing wine with his Southwest cuisine, the wines of Texas, and his feelings on tannins.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Bobby Flay: I started my professional career very early, when I was 17, and so I was always around wine. 18, 19 years old, that's when I started paying attention to wine. When I was in my early 20s, I was the chef at a restaurant called Miracle Grill [in New York], and I went to Kevin Zraly's class [at Windows on the World], and it just clarified so much for me. If I had the time, I'd go back today and do it again. One of the thing that he teaches you is that no one knows everything about wine, and the only thing that matters is what you like [laughing], which is the greatest attitude. If everybody had that attitude, I think we'd be drinking a lot more wine in this country.
WS: Did attending the class lead you to make some changes within Miracle Grill's wine program?
BF: Yes, definitely. It got me to understand that my food is sometimes difficult to pair with wine. My food is very boldly flavored, and for the most part it doesn't go with the most popular varietals. Chardonnay is difficult to pair with my food, as is Cabernet Sauvignon. So [the class] helped me maneuver through the pairing process.
WS: Which varietals tend to go well with your food?
BF: With the spices and the combinations of flavors that I like to use, Zinfandels work really well, or Syrahs. I like the inkiness of them, and they often have bit of spice to them as well. Something with lots of tannins is hard to pair with my food. On the white side, I'd say Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings, things that are crisp and clean.
WS: Before Mesa Grill, you worked for Jonathan Waxman at Buds and Jams restaurants. Was there an element of wine education for you there?
BF: Absolutely. It opened my eyes to American wine, which were really starting to come into their own, from the standpoint of quality, and from a marketing standpoint. We cooked with a lot of American wines. I remember making Chardonnay cream sauces. One of the great things about Jonathan is that he wants his cooks to have a full experience, not just, "Put your head down and work the stove." Toward the end of the night, he'd bring in a bottle of wine and he'd tell us what it was and we'd all drink it and talk. Mostly it was some big oaky Chardonnay. At the time, I thought, "Cool, we're drinking wine in the kitchen." I didn't realize it then, but it was basically an early education.
WS: What are some of your favorite wines to drink?
BF: Priorat is my favorite region for red wine. It's just my kind of wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, to me, unless you're drinking a great Bordeaux that's been aged correctly for years, it's so tannic—some people like drinking wines with lots of tannins in them, but I don't find a lot of pleasure in that. In the warm months, my wife and I drink a lot of rosé—Provençal, American, Spanish. To me there's nothing better than a late-afternoon lunch on a summer day with a nice, chilled rosé. As for whites, with food, I go for Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, or maybe Muscadet with oysters.
WS: Tell us about the wine programs at your various restaurants.
BF: At Bolo, we have only Spanish and American wine. … We've been open for 14 years and, over that time, I think that Spanish wines have become more and more popular. People are starting to understand what a great value Spanish wines are. Mesa Grill in New York has an all-American wine list. We want to send home the idea that it's a regional American restaurant. There are obviously a lot of wines from California and Oregon, and from time to time we'll have wines from Texas. When we first opened, we had a bunch of wines from Texas—Fall Creek, Llano Estacado—but recently it's been harder to get them because of distribution. I don't know if they still make it, but Fall Creek had something called an Emerald Riesling. It was the least expensive wine on our list, but it went perfectly with the food, and if you wanted to have a true Mesa Grill experience, drinking a Texas Riesling and eating our Southwestern food was the way to go. In Las Vegas, Atlantic City and the Bahamas, we went with a much more international wine list, because of the clientele. At Bar Americain, the list has lots of French wine, lots of American wine, and a smattering of selections from other winemaking countries. When you do something as focused as what we do at Mesa Grill in New York, or Bolo, it limits you, because there are people who just want to drink big French and Italian wines, no matter what. It's not always the best business idea to not have these things available, but when we were coming into the market as unknowns, we needed to take a stance, let people know what we were trying to do.
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