Food and Drink: Southern Exposure
The Lowcountry’s own Matt Lee & Ted Lee dish with Bobby Flay about Charleston—why he loves our city, believes shrimp and grits is an iconic American dish, and can’t wait for the 2009 Charleston Food + Wine Festival
In his black pinstripe suit and pale blue oxford, Flay looks less the kitchen-bound Iron Chef and more the jet-setting businessman
"Drives me crazy when people think American food is only hamburgers, meat loaf, macaroni and cheese,” says Bobby Flay, sounding genuinely wounded as he sips a cactus pear margarita at his Manhattan restaurant Mesa Grill, overlooking Fifth Avenue. “Shrimp and grits, on the other hand, is a purely American dish: it’s what grows in the Lowcountry; therefore, it’s part of our nation’s table.”
In his black pinstripe suit and pale blue oxford, Flay looks less the kitchen-bound Iron Chef and more the jet-setting businessman he’s become since 1991, when he opened Mesa Grill and established his reputation as the go-to guy for boldly flavored, modern Southwestern cuisine. In the ensuing years, Flay, a native New Yorker, opened six more restaurants from Atlantic City to Las Vegas to the Bahamas. He’s published eight cookbooks and become a television star, with six Food Network shows and a position as food correspondent on CBS’s The Early Show and Sunday Morning. But as his empire has diversified, he’s emerged as one of the nation’s more focused and passionate voices for American regional cooking—hence his love of shrimp and grits, a dish he cites as one of the 10 iconic American foods and one of many reasons he’s amped to headline the fourth annual Charleston Food + Wine Festival this March.
Flay’s no stranger to Charleston. His first visit to the city in 2003—filming for Food Nation, the half-hour television travelogue that ran for six seasons on the Food Network—left an indelible impression. For that episode, Flay cooked on camera with Peninsula Grill executive chef Robert Carter and made Frogmore stew with cookbook author and Southern food aficionado John Martin Taylor in Taylor’s backyard in Avondale. He also visited Middleton Place, Crosby’s Seafood on Folly Road, and the Charleston Cake Lady. “I fell in love with the city,” says Flay, “and I really felt the pride of the people there.” During downtime in the taping, he got to know Carter. “I like Bob enormously,” says Flay. “Not only is he really talented, he’s one of the truly good guys in this profession and a great ambassador for Charleston’s food.”
About three years later, a college friend of Flay’s wife, actress Stephanie March (Law and Order: SVU and Conviction), sent the couple one of Carter’s famous coconut cakes, a gift that would set in motion Flay’s next trip to the Holy City. “It was the greatest cake I’d ever eaten,” he says. “My father was visiting, and over the course of the week, it began to disappear. I had to hide it in my closet!”
The cake gave Flay an idea, too, for Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, his Food Network show that combines prankster spirit with a reality-TV cook-off. Flay’s production team finds chefs around the nation who are famous for having mastered a single dish: meat loaf, doughnuts, or eggplant parmesan, for example. The producers approach the chef and ask if they can film a show about him and the making of his signature dish. The master chef thinks he’s the subject of a filmed profile, and then, just as he’s about to prepare his dish on camera, Flay shows up on the scene to challenge him to a cook-off.
Carter admitted to being apprehensive when the Food Network approached him under the guise of profiling him for a show called Crème de la Crème about the 12 best desserts in America. No stranger to television—he had baked his coconut cake on The Martha Stewart Show—Carter knew how much work goes into these appearances and wondered if it would be worth it. But he consulted with Peninsula Grill owner Hank Holliday and publicist Lou Hammond and decided to go ahead with the taping.
Although the thought crossed Carter’s mind that it might be an episode of Throwdown!, Flay’s producers did such a thorough job creating the impression of the fictional Crème de la Crème that when Flay showed up at Lowndes Grove Plantation, where Carter appeared to be hosting a party, and challenged him to a duel, Carter was completely surprised. “It was the most exhilarating experience,” he says. “They caught me totally off guard.” And while the judges of the coconut cake episode—Charleston food maven Nathalie Dupree and Kennedy’s Market owner Kevin Jordan—gave Flay’s cake the win in a blind tasting, Flay himself was dumbfounded by the outcome. “I still think Carter’s is the best cake in America,” Flay says. “We got more mail about the Charleston show than any other, and I think it’s because people felt like they learned a lot about the city and how beautiful it is.”
For Carter, it was a winning event, too. “It was phenomenal for us,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many people come into the dining room and say, ‘I saw the show, and decided to come to Charleston.’ We’ve been on Martha Stewart and in Town & Country, Vogue, and The New York Times. Nothing has been like the exposure Throwdown! brought. It made me feel like a king.”
And Flay had such a good time during the taping, he decided then and there to contact Charleston Food + Wine Festival director Angel Postell, who’d approached him about headlining the festival at an informal meeting during the Aspen Food and Wine Classic in 2006. “I always had the Charleston Food + Wine Festival in the back of my mind,” Flay says. “I really wanted to do it. I love the people, and I find the city incredibly inviting.”
Unlike some festival headliners (we won’t name names) who seemed to drop in and out of the festival in a nanosecond, Flay made a multiple-day stay a stipulation of his contract. “I said I’d do the festival if I could bring the executive chefs from my restaurants. I try to bring my team to one food festival a year, so we can all be together. We’ll have meetings in the morning and then work the festival, but we’ll have fun, too. I want my chefs to learn about Charleston, its people, and its food.”
So Flay and his team will cook for “Flay Down South,” a benefit luncheon for the MUSC Children’s Hospital, featuring Southwestern dishes with a contemporary Southern spin, such as yellow pepper hominy grits and cactus pear margaritas (whether he’ll be sourcing the cactus pears from Sullivan’s or Folly is not yet confirmed). Flay will also demonstrate his burger technique on Saturday in the main tent, assisted by the festival’s raffle winner.
“I love talking to people at festivals,” Flay tells us. “In a weird way, it’s an intimate gathering because I know the audience is into the same things I’m into, and I get to listen to what they have to say. It’s like an informal focus group for me.”
Aside from planning for the festival, these days Flay has his plate full. New projects include Bobby’s Burger Palace, his first foray into the “fast-casual” segment of the restaurant market, and a cookbook devoted to the foods served there: french fries, milk shakes, and his regional take on burgers. There’s a Dallas Burger (coleslaw, Monterey jack, and barbecue sauce), an L.A. Burger (avocado relish, watercress, and cheddar), and a Santa Fe (queso sauce and pickled jalapeños). When asked what a “Charleston Burger” would be, Flay doesn’t hesitate: “Maybe a smoked shrimp cake or a pimiento cheeseburger.”
And he’s constantly fine-tuning the menu of Bar Americain, the Manhattan restaurant that most keenly showcases his interest in American regional cooking. (“Think I should put pimiento cheese on the bar menu?” Flay asks. Our answer: “Yes, with celery sticks!”). Flay’s shrimp and grits, which appears on Bar Americain’s menu, is staying. He admits the dish was a tough sell at first—“When you say ‘shrimp and grits,’ New Yorkers don’t know what you’re talking about”—but it has become one of the most popular appetizers on the menu. He sautés his shrimp with garlic, chives, and bacon and enriches his grits with plenty of extra-sharp cheddar.
But, of course, there are the diners who know the Lowcountry dish only too well. “I’ve had debates with customers who say, ‘That’s not the shrimp and grits my grandmother made!’” Flay admits. “So I say to them, ‘You’re right, it’s not. This is a New York City restaurant, and I’m just celebrating something that you’ve made a part of American cuisine.’”
Flay takes another sip of his margarita and says, “That’s what’s great about food: There’s 500 different ways to make shrimp and grits.” Makes us wonder if he’ll be back again soon for a Throwdown! of the signature Lowcountry dish.
Gulf Shrimp and Grits
For the grits:
4-5 cups water, chicken stock, or shrimp stock
2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1 cup yellow stone-ground grits
1 cup grated white cheddar cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring four cups of the water or stock and two teaspoons of salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Slowly whisk in the grits and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until the grits are soft and have lost their gritty texture, whisking every few minutes for 15 to 20 minutes. If the mixture becomes too thick, add remaining liquid and continue cooking until absorbed. Add the cheese and heavy cream and whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
For the sautéed shrimp:
1/2 lb. thick cut bacon, cut into lardons
2 Tbs. pure olive oil
20 large shrimp, shelled and deveined
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 green onions, thinly sliced, for garnish
Place bacon lardons in a medium pan over medium heat and cook until golden brown and crisp and the fat has rendered. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels.
Remove all but two tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pan and place back on the heat. Add the olive oil and increase the heat to high. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper, add the shrimp and the garlic to the pan, and sauté until golden brown on both sides and just cooked through, one to two minutes per side. Remove shrimp to a plate. Reserve the garlic oil to drizzle over the finished dish.
Divide the grits among four bowls and top each with five shrimp. Drizzle the top with some of the bacon/garlic oil (that the shrimp were sautéed in) and sprinkle with some of the green onion.
"Flay Down South"
Chef Bobby Flay and his team are headlining the Charleston Food + Wine Festival at Marion Square March 5-8, 2009
- “Flay Down South” benefit luncheon, Friday, March 6, noon-2 p.m., $125
- Bobby Flay’s Burger Demo, Saturday, March 7, 10:30-11:30 a.m., $30
- Win a chance to assist Flay during the Burger Demo. Buy a raffle ticket ($25 or five for $100) online.
- Bobby Flay Cookbook Signing, Saturday, March 7, noon-1 p.m.