Ralph Carbone had the day off from financial consulting, so he rode his 2011 black-and-chrome Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail from northwest Las Vegas, under the fresh March sun, to the Aria casino to play cards.
At lunchtime, he saw a tweet announcing Bobby Flay would be making an appearance at Bobby’s Burger Palace in The Shops at Crystals next door on Las Vegas Boulevard, so Carbone walked over to try to meet the famous TV chef.
Carbone is a Bobby Flay superfan. You can imagine this was a pretty exciting moment. However, Carbone is a 10-year transplant from New York, Flay’s original stomping ground, so Carbone kept his New York City cool and told me what’s so great about Flay.
“It’s the ribs. It’s the Indian-inspired chicken. His pork chops are unbelievable,” Carbone said. “I’m addicted to ‘Barbecue Addiction’ (one of Flay’s many TV ventures). I think his techniques are frickin’ amazing.”
Flay, meanwhile, had spent the morning in the Burger Palace kitchen, wearing his line-cook white apron (eyebrows still red at 51; foodie body still svelte somehow) while demonstrating to cooks how many times to flip burgers, and other technical details.
Flay, whose management style is to inspire and never scream, asked the staff what’s the No. 1 question customers ask. A worker quoth the diners, evermore:
“How come you don’t have ranch dressing?”
Flay was, like, “Really?” Ranch is the chef’s devil. But Flay abides America’s renewed business dictum: The customer is always right.
“That’s easy,” Flay said. “I can make that happen starting next week.”
Flay is having a liquor bar, with TVs, installed in the burger joint, too.
And even though Flay runs the delectable and pricier Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace, this Burger Palace offers a more democratic $10 price point, which is quite the financial achievement for a celebrity chef buying good ingredients while renting on the Strip.
And yet, eaters tell Flay they want more menu items, just as eaters always tell chefs they want more menu items.
At Bobby’s Burger Palace, the second-most frequently asked question people pose is, why doesn’t he have a veggie burger?
“I have yet to be able to produce one that I think is amazing. I have yet to have a great veggie burger anywhere,” Flay explained.
To show his condolences to veggie lovers, he added to the menu three salads (quinoa, kale, chopped).
“People want to eat more healthfully. They want to eat more vegetable-driven dishes, but they still want it to have great flavor and be creative,” Flay said.
Veggies are so popular in his New York restaurant Gato, the No. 1 entree there since opening day is a kale-and-wild-mushroom paella with crispy artichokes and egg for $28.
Making such delicious healthy dishes without meat is a legitimate challenge for chefs, he said.
“We’re used to taking a steak and making it the center of the plate. Or a piece of chicken, or a piece of fish,” he said. “To make Brussels sprouts, or kale, or wild mushrooms, or a rice dish the center of the meal is a big deal.”
Flay works seven days a week, overseeing 19 Burger Palaces nationally, plus other restaurants across America, all while cooking and talking on a zillion TV shows.
He and his daughter Sophie, a 20-year-old who doesn’t cook but studies broadcast journalism in California, just shot an online miniseries together.
“It was, like, the number-one-clicked thing in the history of the Food Network,” Flay said. “Now the Food Network wants to do more stuff with her.”
The father-daughter show led to one blogger at SheKnows.com to assert in a headline that the miniseries “helps him win back fans” after Flay landed in the tabloids for a divorce and a “cheating scandal.”
I brought this up, but just as a small course of chitchat. Flay’s friendly demeanor didn’t change one iota.
“Yeah, who cares. That was last year. I mean, I got divorced, it doesn’t matter. I don’t worry about that stuff. Tiny little bloggers are nothing to be worried about,” he said.
After this, I looked up and saw a whole bunch of young women at tables smiling at Flay as if they wanted to eat him up.
“All these girls are looking at you and smiling,” I said.
“Everybody’s smiling in this place,” Flay said, as if suddenly naive to his appeal.
Then the chef posed for more photos with fans. That’s the point at which I met Carbone, sitting quietly nearby. I asked the chef if he wouldn’t mind meeting this superfan. He didn’t mind at all.
Thus, the celebrity chef and the superfan stood toe to toe.
“I love your sauces. I love your fries,” Carbone said.
Flay was humble and appreciative.
As I prepared to snap photos of them together, for Carbone to show to his wife later, Carbone told Flay he had a suggestion for a dish to put on the menu.
“I know you love Indian influences and spices,” Carbone told the chef as scores of eaters looked on. “I think we could do an Indian burger here, or something like that. Maybe an Italian burger with mozzarella with different types of meats, put a little mozzarella on top, and some spicy maranara …”
Flay didn’t say he would make this delicacy. He listened, grinned, and thanked him.
Doug Elfman can be reached at email@example.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman. On Twitter: @VegasAnonymous