I opened Mesa Grill, my first restaurant, near Union Square in Manhattan, when I was 26. That made it hard to hit the gym with any regularity, but I didn’t think much of it. This was back in 1991, when chefs weren’t celebrities—we were just blue-collar employees. I would work until 11:30 p.m. and then get dinner with Tom Valenti of Le Cirque, along with a bunch of other cooks. Our routine was to go to Blue Ribbon Brasserie and eat four courses and drink a few bottles of wine. That’s, like, a really bad idea to do for a long time.
RETURN TO FORM
Everything changed for me in 1999. I was in Madrid for New Year’s Eve and getting ready to go out to dinner. As I put on my suit, I was surprised by what I saw in the mirror. I just didn’t look the way I thought I did. My habits had started to wear on me as I was getting older, and my metabolism had changed. “This can’t stand,” I thought. In high school, I had run long-distance and cross-country, and the day after that dinner in Madrid, I dedicated myself to finding the young athlete I’d once been. I began going to the gym again and started pushing myself harder and harder on my morning runs. I made taking care of myself sacred.
Of course, being a chef, I knew that one of the first big steps would be to change my diet. When I cooked at home, I started with small steps, like cutting down my portions by 25 percent. I still prepare a lot of my own meals, even for when I travel, and I always measure them out carefully. I also cut down on carbs and added salads into the equation. Even today, on the rare occasion I prepare a party snack like nachos, I make sure there’s a green in there, like brussels sprouts. Ice cream is my danger zone, but I’ll never cut it out of my life. I’d be an unhappy man if I did. That said, I don’t sit down and eat a quart of it while watching a football game like I used to. And I don’t eat four-course meals with a few bottles of wine three or four times a week, either. I won’t say meals like that never happen anymore. But I can count on one hand the number of times a year that they do.
I now oversee five high-end restaurants as well as the Bobby’s Burger Palace franchise. So setting aside time to exercise is difficult, but it’s important for my mental well-being. I run at least five times a week, rain or shine. I wake up around 6 a.m., then sleepwalk out of the apartment. I trick myself into running, so that before I know it, I’m out the door and headed down the street. I’ll usually do three to seven miles, depending on how I’m feeling. I live in Manhattan, by the West Side Highway jogging path, so I run along the Hudson River. I like listening to music, because it lets you be in your own little world, which is rare in the city. My new favorite Pandora station is called, appropriately, Hip Hop BBQ. It was meant to be.
I ran my first marathon in 2002 and have completed four so far. They’re a great motivation for pushing my limits on daily runs. During my most recent marathon, though, last April in London, I injured my foot and had to limp the last 19 miles of the race. Not finishing wasn’t an option, so I toughed it out. It was a rough experience, and doctors later diagnosed me with chronic foot pain. So as much as I love running, I now swim, bike ride, or hit a spin class like SoulCycle when I need to give my legs a break. But regardless of what I do for my morning workout, I feel great by the time I get back to my apartment. I always eat a toasted baguette, which I bake in the oven like a pizza, and I use an old-school percolator to make Café Bustelo coffee.
Four or five nights a week I cook at Gato, my Mediterranean restaurant in NoHo. We’re lucky that customers keep us busy, so I’m on my feet a lot. I have to taste the food while it’s being prepared, so I drink a crazy amount of water to keep from overindulging during the hours I work dinner service. Being on the line helps me burn calories. You’re standing over a cutting board for 12 hours or more a day. The work is hard and the hours are long, but I love it and find it incredibly gratifying. Sometimes people are surprised when they come into the kitchen and see me there, given how busy I am with the shows and appearances. But being in the kitchen matters the most to me. I’m a cook at heart.
By far my biggest reason for getting and staying in shape was becoming a father. I wanted to lead by example and make sure that my daughter looked at food as a friend, not an enemy. She’s 21 now and has asked me for a few cooking lessons. I taught her how to make a great-tasting and healthy salsa verde to put on chicken or fish.
I also realized that, through my shows, I’ve made myself a lifestyle authority, which means I have a responsibility to live well. That’s why I wrote Bobby Flay Fit, my book of healthy recipes and fitness tips. I wanted people to know that, even though I eat a lot of burgers on TV, most of my meals are healthy, like grilled-salmon gyros with lettuce wrappers instead of pita. And when I do eat a burger, I earn it with a run beforehand. When I’m on the road with Food Network, I make sure that every hotel I stay in has a good gym, and I research trails in the area. If I don’t run the morning before a shoot, I won’t feel good for the whole day.
Every once in a while, I’ll come across an episode of a show I filmed in my early days. At the time, I thought I was fine. But I was headed down the wrong path and didn’t even know it. I look and feel healthier now. No question. I have to say, that feels good.
—As told to Charles Thorp