how peter kelly beat celebrity chef bobby flay at his
Diary of an
how peter kelly beat
celebrity chef bobby ﬂay
at his own game, the grill.
as told to Ted Mann
photographs by Mark Vergari
y now the word is out: Rockland restaurateur Peter Xavier
Kelly not only appeared on Iron Chef America, but, in an episode due to air May 27, he beat the world-famous Bobby Flay.
Just nine months ago, though, Kelly had never seen a full episode
of the show. Sure, he knew the basics: Two chefs go head-to-head in an hourlong cooking battle, each preparing five dishes using one “secret ingredient,”
with the winner determined by a panel of three celebrity judges. But he never
imagined that they’d pick him, a small-market chef, to do battle.
That might seem surprising given Kelly’s reputation. After all, he’s the
mastermind behind Restaurant X in Congers, the brand-new X20 in
Yonkers (opening June 12), and Xaviars and Freelance Café in Piermont,
with the last two regularly earning rare 29s in Zagat. He’s also a self-made
chef who taught himself to cook and opened his first restaurant at age 23.
But as he put it, “Being the top restaurateur in Rockland is like being the
tallest dwarf. It’s up to me to keep raising the bar (and meeting it).” When
Iron Chef phoned, he says, he was in the mood for a personal challenge.
Here, in a series of interviews with Rockland Magazine, Kelly shares what
it took to prepare for and, ultimately, take down Bobby Flay. For those who
know the soft-spoken, easygoing Kelly, you’ll get a rare glimpse of the man
at his most competitive—and creative—in what he would later refer to as
“the hardest cooking test of my entire life.”
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE:
“Surrounding us are the cameras and commentators chatter-
ing,” says Kelly, “but that’s just white noise”; Kelly and Flay pose for the cameras before
the secret ingredient is unveiled; Kelly pours olive oil for into a rosemary-anchovy purée.
The caller ID says California. I don’t recognize the voice. The guy on the other
end comes right out and says, “Will you
accept the challenge of the Iron Chef?” and
I think, This has got to be joke. Howard
Stern or some colleague is pranking me. I
decide to play along. “Sure, I’ll accept.”
He tells me he’s the show’s producer and,
in a week or two, I’ll receive a packet in the
mail briefing me on the battle. The taping
will be in the fall. “Just come and be yourself,” he says. Almost as soon as I hang up
the phone, the reality of the situation sinks
in. That wasn’t Howard Stern. This is really
happening. What did I just get myself into?
The first big hurdle, I soon learn, is picking
which Iron Chef to battle: Mario Batali, Cat
Cora, Bobby Flay, or Masaharu Morimoto.
You need someone who contrasts your style.
I choose Bobby Flay. He’s the most battle
tested of the chefs, the most American, and
in a way, the biggest brand name. Flay has
authored four cookbooks, currently runs five
restaurants, and hosts six television cooking
shows (not including Iron Chef America and
two shows that are now off the air). If you’ve
ever seen him on TV or eaten his food, you
know his Southwestern style is all about big,
bright, explosive flavors. I know that he’ll
go over the top with chilis, chipotle, jalapeño. My style is totally different—subtle,
contemporary American with French and
Italian influences—so we’ll contrast well.
Flay’s also competed in the most episodes
of Iron Chef America—23 battles in all—so
beating him would be a big deal.
There’s only one small problem: Our
episode has the working title “Battle of the
Grill.” That’s right, he’s the country’s foremost grilling expert, and we’re competing on
his home turf. Oh, and did I mention, we don’t
even use grills at any of my restaurants?
September 6, 2006:
It’s six weeks before taping. On a conference
call, the show’s producer briefs me on Kitchen
Stadium. For this battle they’re going to
install special ultrahot infrared grills and
blast freezers (to cool meat quickly). While
I won’t discover the secret ingredient until
the actual battle, the producer narrows it
down to three possibilities: swordfish, pork,
or cowboy steak. So I come up with three
separate ingredient lists—only one of which
they’ll actually purchase for the battle.
My two-person team will be my brother
James, the chef at Restaurant X, and Kathy
Egan, my right hand at Xaviars. James has
been cooking with me for 10 years, Kathy for
three. Both are sure we can take Flay down.
Our strategy is simple: to season every
dish with the flavors of the grill (like char and
smoke), but always go subtle. That’ll contrast
well with Flay, whose Southwestern style is
synonymous with “bold”—nearly everything
coming with a chipotle purée sauce. Plating
will also be hugely important, so I tell the producers I’ll buy special platters for the battle.
Immediately following the conference call,
we set up our restaurant kitchens to mimic
Kitchen Stadium’s layout (which we chart
off the Food Network website). We will have
run-through drills every Monday, mostly at
Xaviars. On the show you need to prepare
five dishes for five people, but because we
need to train for three possible secret ingredients, we’ll be doing three times that. It’s a
huge menu, almost like serving a full house.
CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT:
Kitchen Stadium comes fully stocked; show host Alton
Brown diagrams out which part of the cow “cowboy steak” comes from; even during
a grill flare-up, notice how James Kelly keeps his bandaged finger out of sight.
It’s less than a week before my own battle and
I’m in Kitchen Stadium, watching Flay face
off against a different challenger, Chicago
chef Graham Elliot Bowles. The producers
have invited my team to watch another Iron
Chef taping, and it doesn’t look good for the
challenger. Flay is prepared and incredibly
lucky; when his ice-cream machine breaks,
Bowles shares his own (what’s he thinking?).
Then I see Bowles searing bison and then,
incredibly, turning the meat with his bare
fingers. “That’s ridiculous,” I tell a reporter
from the Chicago Tribune sitting near me.
(Mental note: bring tongs to my taping.) When
the judging is over, Flay wins 49-47.
You’d think we would be spooked, but
when James, Kathy, and I walk out of the
studio, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, everyone feels good. After a month in
our practice bubble, we’re in good shape.
We’ve also witnessed Flay’s strategy. We
now know he’ll always go for the rightside kitchen. Also, if he wins the coin toss,
he’ll choose to present to the judges second.
But in our grill battle, I’m thinking first is
better. Scoring is heavily weighted toward
taste—each judge can award 10 points for
taste, five for plating, and five for originality—so I don’t want to present after Flay
has blown out the judges’ taste buds with
his jalapeños and charred meat.
Today, I decide that I’m going to start with
a trio of appetizers, done in miniature. The
rules say I can’t have more than five dishes,
but if I pull this off—serving all three on one
plate—it’ll feel like I’m creating seven total.
That’ll put ’em on notice that this is a serious display of food. Besides, if anything goes
wrong, any of the miniatures can be expanded
to a full meal. But nothing will go wrong.
The Dress Rehearsal
Disaster. Everything is going wrong. It’s
our last Monday practice session at Xaviars.
Ingredients are missing. We’re all overtired.
Kathy and James are getting careless. If we
perform like this tomorrow, against Flay,
we’ll get smoked.
I’m not a Gordon Ramsey–type screamer,
but they can tell I’m pissed. If I blow my
top, though, I risk alienating the team.
James and Kathy want to try again, but it’s
now 5 p.m. and we’ve been going strong
since 8 a.m. So instead, in my most cheerful
voice, I say, “You’ve got to have a terrible
rehearsal to have a great show.”
We then drive into Manhattan, and after
an amazing meal at Jean Georges’s Spice
Market, we check into Hotel Gansevoort.
But I can’t sleep. My mind is racing. Maybe
presenting first isn’t the smart move. Who
will the judges be? Of all the secret ingredients, would they really pick steak? That
would be completely stacking the deck—like
giving tofu to Morimoto or pasta to Batali.
The Big Day
I’m up at 4:45 a.m., still all nerves. I drink a
cup of coffee at 5:30 and get even more jittery.
We arrive at the studio by 6:30. We’re the
first ones there. As we’re twiddling our
thumbs in the green room, waiting for what
feels like an eternity, we get word that Flay is
already in the Food Network prep kitchen,
looking around. Talk about a head start!
Although the secret ingredient isn’t
officially unveiled until we start taping, it’s
Iron Chef Chairman Mark Dacascos asks Kelly if being part of a family of 12 will give him
a leg up. “Absolutely,” says Kelly. “I’ve been cooking restaurant-style my whole life.”
easy to figure it out about an hour beforehand. The ingredients are laid out behind
the scenes, in the prep kitchen. Once you
see which of your shopping lists has been
purchased, you know everything. At about
7:40, when we’re finally let in, that sinking
feeling returns: The ingredients say it’s
going to be cowboy steak.
Another problem: Instead of the jumbo, live
shellfish langostinos I requested, they’ve given
me blocks of frozen, puny tails. I complain to
the show’s buyer (“This is totally unacceptable!”), and he goes off in search of the right
ones. We press forward. They usher us into
Kitchen Stadium and give us 15 minutes to
get oriented. I put a pot of water on, James
arranges the knives, Kathy tries out the
blender. A lighting technician, echoing what
I’ve already thought, says “They’re throwing
you to the wolves.” I smile pleasantly and continue taking inventory of the fridge. Focus, I
tell myself. Focus. The infrared grills are running extraordinarily hot. I turn them down.
Minutes later, the crowd filters in, and
the producers grab me. It’s time for the
introductions. All of a sudden, it’s like I’m
in a prize fight. I walk toward the show’s
emcee. He’s a martial-arts expert essentially
acting as the Ryan Seacrest of Iron Chef, and
though his name is Mark Dacascos, I’m told
to refer to him only as “The Chairman.”
Red spotlights fan out, the floor floods
with fog, and I half expect Dacascos to
say, “Let’s get ready to rumble.”
Instead, he asks, “Which Iron Chef will
you challenge today?” It’s kind of a gimmick question—they pretend to show the
three other Iron Chefs, even though they’re
actually silhouetted stand-ins. The only
one really onstage is Flay, but I play along:
“There’s only one Iron Chef I could possibly
choose for this battle. I choose Bobby Flay.”
Dacascos then takes his place behind an
enormous table, a metal lid is hoisted up,
and there before us is an imposing haunch
of 109 ribs. “The secret ingredient is ...
cowboy rib eye!” Dacascos bellows, his eyes
bulging out. “Yippee kayay,” I say.
With that, Dacascos shouts, “Allez cuisine,”
and we’re off. The clock’s ticking. I grab a rib
and jog to my kitchen. But as I’m moving I
hear a crash. Flay dropped his rib! It’s hard
not to smile. In the station, looking for
Kathy, my grin fades. I spin around to see
her on the floor with Flay, helping him pick
up his steaks. “Get over here!” I yell.
The pressure is incredibly intense. Early
on, Flay has a flare-up, with flames jumping
three feet off the grill (clearly he forgot to
turn his down). And then three minutes in,
James slices off the tip of his finger. He’s
bleeding all over the place. “I can’t touch
the meat,” he says. Fortunately, there’s a
behind-the-scenes Food Network gofer for
stuff just like this. I call the girl over, “We
need a finger cot ASAP!”
The cut slows us down, but after it’s bandaged we’re quickly back on track. The battle
flies by. I’ve made all of these dishes, or variations of them, thousands of times before in my
restaurants, so I’m in a kind of autopilot zone.
The clock is omnipresent: tick, tick, tick.
My strategy all along has been to keep the
components of each dish divided between
James, Kathy, and myself. Some chefs will
have each assistant prepare an entire dish,
but I want to keep commentator Alton
Brown and the judges guessing—totally in
suspense about what’s coming. I only start to
come out of my reverie as the clock is ticking down. Five minutes to go. I’m plating
the first batch of dishes—the ones for the
cameras—when I hear the audience. Sixteen members of the Kelly clan (my wife,
Rica, brother Ned, and more) are chanting,
“One-two-three-four, no matter who wins
the test, Peter Kelly is the best.” I wave my
black towel like a lasso to signal I’m done.
Flay wins the coin toss and, as expected,
opts to present second. This is just what
I want. The judges are food writer and
Queer Eye personality Ted Allen, Karine
Bakhoum, who owns the PR firm KB
Network News, and clothing designer
Isaac Mizrahi, who, despite having less
of a food background than anyone else, is
ironically the most vocal.
My first dish, the triple threat, has three
different takes on the classic steak-andmushroom pairing. It’s an awesome display:
a warm mushroom custard topped with the
grilled cap of beef (the fattiest, most flavorful
part) and a mushroom air; a chive crêpe
filled with grilled porcini mushrooms; and
a Thai chili-flavored beef tartar on grilled
shiitake crowned with a quail-egg yoke. I
present them to the judges, and they munch
quietly for what feels like an eternity.
The next dish steps it up a notch with a
completely different style: Japanese. I bring
in large black lacquer trays adorned with
silver chopsticks, an orchid, and other decorative touches—I put a big emphasis on
plating. We pounded the beef paper-thin,
rolled it around scallions and smoked langostinos, grilled the entire negimaki tube,
and sliced it like sushi. Serving it to the
judges, I pour a sweet-and-sour broth from
a sake decanter over the meat. Allen finishes
eating and says, “I love the presentation and
I love that when you poured the broth, the
aroma hit me. The negimaki is perfectly
cooked, and it’s original.”
I’m starting to feel good. Flay is hovering
next to us, watching my every move. My
next dish is a beef carpaccio. We grilled the
eye of the rib quickly, chilled it in a blast
freezer, then sliced it paper-thin. In the center of the platter, I put a salad of smoked
marble potatoes and lobster, making the
dish a kind of riff on surf and turf. At this
point, Mizrahi and Bakhoum are starting
to feel comfortable enough to criticize.
Both say the salad is unnecessary, overkill.
Dish number four, an Italian style bistecca
alla florentina, has a sauce of rosemary and
anchovy and a side of chickpea fries and
cannelinis in a little cowboyish baked-beans
can (which I also brought with me). It fares
better, with Allen again quick to praise: “It’s
gorgeously cooked, and the sauce is interesting. I’m happy to be on today.”
Last up is my classic cowboy steak. I tied
red bandanas to the bone and, like the first
dish, we went all-out. The steak is just like
my cote de boeuf specialty (cooked with
brown sugar and cayenne and topped with
blue-cheese foam), straight off the menu
from Xaviars. Accompanying it is a smoked
tomato stuffed with crabmeat, chips cooked
with truffle butter, and a miniature popover. Allen loves everything, yet Bakhoum
makes an odd critique: “You think a cowboy would actually eat all this?” Huh? I
carefully let my eyebrows settle and say,
“All the cowboys I know.”
It’s not the pièce de résistance reaction
I’d hoped for. My strategy all along has
been to start out subtle and build to bigger, bolder flavors—same concept we use
every day with restaurant tasting menus.
Was that the right move? As soon as I start
second-guessing, Flay is up.
His dishes aren’t exactly terrible, but I’m
not impressed. One is an “Ode to the Philadelphia Cheesesteak,” with a slab of meat
slathered in an aged-provolone cheese
sauce. Another is a Southwestern rib eye
with an egg on top. Come on, steak and
eggs? Are you kidding me?
As Flay presents, though, the judges are
lapping it up. I keep waiting for them to
drop the hammer, but it never falls. Bakhoum says the cheesesteak dish is “really
satisfying.” Mizrahi says, “You know, this
is why I go to your restaurants all the time.
There’s a mastery of just enough, and not
too much.” He even calls the steak-andegg dish “genius.” I’m stunned.
LEFT: Kelly waves a black towel lasso-style to signal that he’s finished. ABOVE: Although the judges
were lavish in their praise of Chef Bobby Flay, they weren’t as generous in their final scores.
Suddenly, the whole thing feels rigged.
Allen is obviously a fan of Flay, it’s rumored
that Bakhoum has done PR for him, and now
this comment from Mizrahi? I storm out of the
studio. Why did I get the battle of the friggin’
grill?! Kathy and James follow me out. Both
still think we’ve won, but I know better.
And when we get back to the studio,
minutes later, Flay seems awfully confident.
As we await the scoring, he starts giving me
know-it-all pointers. “Next time, you really
need to keep it simple,” he says. “Don’t get
too fancy.” I can hardly stand it. There’s
more steam coming out my ears than ever
came off those infrared grills.
The Chairman stands up for the verdict.
“Today two champions met and battled
cowboy rib eye,” he says. “The judges have
spoken. And the winner is ...”
The audience erupts. Flay’s expression goes
blank. He graciously reaches to shake my
hand and gives a quick congratulatory pat.
The final score is 51-48. I’m two points ahead
in taste and one in plating. I’m in shock.
“Chef Kelly can now claim to be one of
the few chefs to have bested an Iron Chef,”
says Alton Brown. “As for Bobby Flay,
worry not. I seriously doubt that one defeat
will place his reputation at stake. Ha, get it?”
The producers must be in shock, too.
Every Iron Chef has lost at some point or
another, but for Flay to tank on the battle
of the grill to a small-market chef like me?
That’s rough. As he starts to walk off stage,
my 10-year-old son, Dylan, runs over to get
his autograph. He’s more excited to meet Flay
the TV star than to congratulate his dad.
When I get home, I look at the card Flay
signed. It reads, “Thanks for the beat-down.”
The truth is, I can’t imagine doing what he
does, day in day out. Following my win, I
start contemplating offers for other TV projects, but I always pass. I’m no Emeril.
Still, it feels good to win. Would I ever
accept another cooking battle? Well, let’s just
put it this way: Mario Batali and the other
Iron Chefs know where to find me.
See more of Kelly’s
Iron Chef showdown
To view more photos
from the “Battle of
the Grill” and find Kelly’s Iron Chef
recipes go to lohud.com/rocklandmag.
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
You don’t have to be on the Iron Chef
panel to taste Peter Kelly’s award-winning cuisine. Just make sure to make
reservations to any of his four restaurants (xaviars.com) far in advance—
especially for the new X20 in Yonkers.
Xaviars at Piermont
506 Piermont Ave.; Piermont
dinner for two: $140
Restaurant X and Bully Boy Bar
117 N. Rte. 303; Congers
dinner for two: $90
Freelance Café and Wine Bar
506 Piermont Ave.; Piermont
dinner for two: $65
X20: Xaviars on the Hudson
71 Water Grant St.; Yonkers
dinner for two: $110
CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT: Kelly’s first dish, the “Trio of Rib Eye,” featured three different ver-
sions of steak and mushrooms; his carpaccio and lobster salad was a kind of take on surf and
turf; and the artfully presented “Grilled Rib Eye Negimaki” had” langostino rolled in thin steak.