"April's a weird month. But by next week, I'll have fava beans and some ramps, some peas."
Some people are surprised at how hands-on Flay is when it comes to running his restaurants. They wouldn't expect him to be making week-to-week menu plans, or working five nights a week at both of his current New York City restaurants, Gato and Bar Americain. Maybe, because he's on TV so much, there's an assumption that he's only acting like a chef. It's a point that obviously irks Flay, despite his insistence that he's past caring. But the man was once named the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year." Of course it bothers him.
It isn't menu choices that are distracting Flay, however. A few hours earlier, news of his impending divorce was made public, and the tabloid media is champing at the proverbial bit to get the salacious details, factual or not.
"You know when the pilot gets on the overhead and says, ‘Things are about to get bumpy'?" he later sighs. "Well, things are about to get bumpy."
Despite this, it doesn't occur to Flay to not take the subway from his office several stops up to Bar Americain. "Oh yeah, all the time," he says when asked if he rides the subway often, making a face to indicate that it might be a stupid question. Standing on the platform, waiting for an uptown Q, Flay is recognized several times. He's friendly and courteous to those who stop to shake his hand, but doesn't act like he's doing anyone a favor.
At Bar Americain, the staff rush around the kitchen in preparation for the night's service. Most barely raise an eyebrow when Flay enters the kitchen. Why would they? He's here all the time.
Flay's work ethic reflects his Irish-American upbringing. He's up each day at six. He reads the New York Times and watches CNN or MSNBC like the news junkie he is, and then works out for an hour—a run along the West Side Highway promenade, or a popular new spinning class called Soul Cycle. Then it's off to work. If he's taping, he'll generally do two shows, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Regardless, Flay almost always concludes his days at his restaurants. He starts at Bar Americain on W52nd, then hops in a cab to Gato on Lafayette.
"It totally shocks people that I still cook every day," he says. "First of all, I love it. I want to be there cooking. What am I going to do? Sit in someone else's restaurant. But it's also really important for consistency. I'm generally the last person to touch the food."
Despite the workload, Flay has still found time to be heavily active in the Thoroughbred industry. He sits on the 14-member Breeders' Cup board, and was pivotal in designing the popular "Taste of the World" event now held each year at the Breeders' Cup.
"Bobby's incredibly generous with his time," says Breeders' Cup CEO Craig Fravel. "Whenever we ask him to help out—and unfortunately for him we do that more that we should—he does if his schedule allows. On the hospitality and entertainment side of things, Bobby is incredibly talented and brings that creative side to things that those of us who have been in the business for a long time sometimes forget about."
Two years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed him to the NYRA board, and Flay is a prominent member of the Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA). People who imagine him to be inactive in these endeavors, like those who imagine he doesn't cook at his restaurants, are mistaken. Flay is vocal and opinionated about racing's issues, and feels he has a right to be. "I have the experience from a marketing and media standpoint, which is important," he says. "I also know racing, and I put my money up."
Flay says that at the end of the day, all issues eventually come back to one thing—horse welfare. Flay's been an active supporter and fundraiser for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation for over a decade, and has hosted the TRF's annual dinner at Bar Americain. (Flay actually met his primary trainer, Todd Pletcher, after donating an "experience" package to the TRF that included dinner at Flay's home. Owner James Scatuorchio was the winning bidder, and brought Pletcher as a guest.)
"The very first time I met Bobby, he told me how passionate he was about the health and welfare of the horse," says The Jockey Club's Jim Gagliano. "That was the most important issue to him. It impressed me that he made it his business to advocate for the horse."
For his efforts, Flay was recognized with the Earle I. Mack Thoroughbred Champion Award for his dedication to racehorse welfare, safety, and retirement in 2013.
"It's something I feel very strongly about," he says. "I follow the horses I've bred closely, and try to make sure every horse I've bred has a good, safe home upon retirement. It's a difficult issue, but the industry needs to take care of its horses when they are done racing."
The use of raceday Lasix is another issue Flay feels especially passionate about. "I was excited a few years ago when the Breeders' Cup decided not to have Lasix with their 2-year-old races, and I was upset when they reneged on it," he said. "I'm just so tired of the ‘We can't get rid of Lasix' thing. If people keep on saying, ‘We can't,' that's going to become our reality. And that's what is wrong. It's frustrating. I don't understand what you gain by using raceday medication. Sure, some owners are going to get upset that their horses can't run because they're bleeders. To me, that's just one more risk you take. If I buy a yearling, and in his first workout he fractures an ankle…that's racing. If they're not healthy enough to run, they shouldn't be running."
Flay spends a lot of time traveling abroad, and said he's seen the effect of America's medication policies.
"From a global perspective, the American Thoroughbred is tainted," Flay said. "When I go to Europe and I'm around people in the horse business, they don't want to buy our bloodstock. I'm a breeder. I spend a lot of money breeding horses. I want everybody to want my bloodstock. Once you start narrowing down your market by region, it makes your bloodstock less valuable immediately. People say, ‘Why do we have to be like the rest of the world?' That's like saying that we have the dollar, so who cares about the euro. You have to care—it affects the dollar."
Closer to home, Flay is also a proponent of less, better racing. "There's no need to have racing for the sake of racing," he says. "I don't see why we need to be racing in 10 different places on a Wednesday in February. It dilutes the game."
To that end, and as a member of the NYRA board, Flay has publicly favored an end to winter racing in New York. "Every sport takes a break," he says. "We don't have baseball 12 months a year. Let the racing go to Florida, which it does, and they can make money on the simulcast. Stop running bad horses for a lot of money. And they're dying, and the New York Times writes a bad article, and it just snowballs. Aqueduct is a disgusting place. Can you imagine introducing to someone to racing at Aqueduct?"
Flay would like to move away from racing at Aqueduct, and focus on Belmont Park. But that, too, requires a change from the status quo, he says. "Belmont Park was built in the 1960s, and it was built for racing in the ‘60s, when we had huge crowds and no competition for gambling dollars," he says. "We need to make it smaller and more modern, and have a more modern product. It can’t just be a betting window and a hot dog stand. We need lively bars, really good restaurants, retail spaces, music—things that bring in people who aren't there just because they're big John Velazquez fans."
If Flay has used his prominence to promote change within the industry, he's also used it to promote the sport to outsiders. In addition to his work as a Breeders' Cup ambassador, he brings exposure to racing whenever he can. When Food and Wine magazine told Flay they wanted to do an eight-page spread on him, he suggested Ashford Stud as a location.
"The Coolmore partners gave me Giant's Causeway for the whole day," said Flay. "It was amazing."
Bobby and longtime business partner Lawrence Kretchmer at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling sale.
Friends and business associates have also been invited to take part in a loose partnership Flay put together called Flavor Racing. Flay purchased the 3-year-old Quality Rocks for himself and Flavor Racing, which includes his friend and partner Laurence Kretchmer, and the Rock Hard Ten filly has been terrifically consistent. She won the GIII Florida Oaks in March and was second in both the GIII Edgewood S. and Pennsylvania Oaks. Zloty, a similar purchase, is also a stakes performer.
"Unquestionably, Bobby is a great ambassador for the sport," says Kretchmer. " I have enjoyed racing since I was a kid, so for me personally it was more like getting pulled further in a deeper way. But for others I have seen how he has been able to seize on the range of appealing aspects of the sport and industry, whether taking someone to see the beauty of a farm for the first time, or just out for a day at the races to enjoy the spectacle, beauty, tradition and the excitement that exists there."