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Chef's Kitchen Is His Playground

New York's Bobby Flay talks about his bold cuisine and `serious fun' philosophy

GROWING up in Manhattan, Bobby Flay was a rough-and-tumble type of kid. So it is no wonder that his style of food has been described as fearless.

``There is a direct relationship,'' says Mr. Flay, during an interview over lunch in Boston. ``I was a very rebellious kind of kid. I hung around with tough kids. It made me streetwise. I'm glad I went through it, but I wouldn't go back.

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``That's the way I cook, brash and bold, it's not about subtleties.'' Southwestern food, in which he specializes, is about powerful colors, flavors, and textures, he says.

Flay opened the popular Mesa Grill in Manhattan in 1991 while still somewhat of a kid (in his 20s). He and his cuisine soon began to sizzle: The restaurant soared in popularity, attracting a hip crowd and enjoying favorable reviews in the press.

Flay became a frequent guest chef on TV shows, most notably David Letterman's, and last year, he earned the Perrier-Jouet ``Rising Star/Chef of the Year'' award from the James Beard Foundation.

In November he opened a second restaurant, Bolo, which concentrates on Spanish-Mediterranean food.

Flay was in Boston recently to talk about his first cookbook, ``Bobby Flay's Bold American Food.'' The graphics and photographs in this exuberant cookbook feature more than 200 recipes that pay homage to the Southwest: quesadillas, tamales, salsas and relishes, chiles, polentas, and more.

If Flay had to name a signature dish, it would probably be the Shrimp Tamale with Roasted Garlic Sauce, which is so popular at Mesa Grill.

``That was one dish that was just right the first time I made it,'' Flay says. ``If I took it off the menu, I'd get mugged.''

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The Corn and Zucchini Quesadilla with Smoked-Tomato and Salsa and Avocado Relish (see recipe, right) is also popular and indicative of his cuisine.

Flavorful and spicy don't necessary mean burn-your-mouth hot, Flay stresses. Powerful ingredients are meant for accent, not injury, he says. Often if an ingredient is hot, it must be counter-balanced by another ingredient: ``Playing with fire in chiles is like playing with fire in life - just don't get caught,'' he says with an impish grin.

How does he view his work, especially now that he has two restaurants?

``It's serious fun. Restaurants are glorified playgrounds,'' Flay says over dessert, picking up an edible flower and flinging it off his plate, as if to say, this pansy stuff is not for me.

``One of the reasons I opened Bolo was to create opportunities for people. It keeps people content. I try to make [my restaurants] more than just restaurants. I hire people if they're nice and ambitious. I don't need any hot-shots.''

``And nobody screams in my kitchen,'' he adds.

No hot-shot attitudes maybe, but there are some young chefs in his kitchen who are ``on fire,'' Flay exclaims, with a disbelieving shake of his head.

``I see a lot of what I was at their age. One kid - 21 years old - he cannot be stopped. He's going to be amazing.''

As for the future, Flay says he has a new project in the works. ``I can't tell you what it is,'' he says, ``but I will say that it's not another restaurant.''

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