By Samantha Miller
July 13, 1998 12:00 PM

Redheaded and freckle-faced, Bobby Flay was as rough-and-tumble as any other kid in his Upper East Side Manhattan neighborhood. But by the age of 7 he was exhibiting some unusual tastes. At the supermarket he pestered his mother for cake mixes. At home he clamored to assemble deviled eggs. He even asked for an Easy Bake toy oven. “I thought it was really cool, cooking by lightbulb,” he says. “It was at the top of his Christmas list,” recalls Dorothy Flay, “so I thought, ‘why not?’ ”

Lucky she did, for her 33-year-old son is now one of the country’s hottest young chefs thanks to his inventive southwestern and Spanish-inspired cuisine. Flay’s expanding empire includes two booming New York City eateries, two cookbooks, a TV show and a line of bottled sauces. He also plans to open versions of his flagship Mesa Grill in Las Vegas and Bethesda, Md. “The only people I know how to feed are New Yorkers,” he demurs. “I’ll see how the rest of the country goes.”

New Yorkers certainly go for Flay. Mesa Grill, which opened in 1991, rakes in $5 million a year, drawing a chic crowd for such dishes as Blue Corn Tortilla Crusted Red Snapper with Fire Roasted Poblano Chile Vinaigrette. Although Flay shuttered his more casual Mesa City in May, his Spanish restaurant Bolo is thriving. He has won three two-star reviews from The New York Times along with a Rising Star Chef of the Year award from the James Beard Foundation. “My crush on Bobby is no secret,” wrote New York magazine food critic Gael Greene in 1996, lauding his “chili virtuosity.” ABC news correspondent Elizabeth Vargas, a pal, agrees: “He is so inventive with spices and peppers and herbs.”

Flay’s telegenic looks and easygoing demeanor haven’t hurt, either. “My first take on Bobby was that he was really intelligent, a little bit tough and very cute, and therefore incredibly marketable,” says his business partner Jerry Kretchmer. “Then I realized he can really cook too.” He was right on both counts. Flay’s third cooking show, Hot Off the Grill with Bobby Flay, began airing on cable TV’s Food Network in June. (He also hosted Lifetime’s The Main Ingredient with Bobby Flay and TVFN’s Grillin’ & Chillin’.) His two books, 1994’s Bold American Food and the new Bobby Flay’s from My Kitchen to Your Table, have sold well enough to earn him a beefy $400,000 advance for a third.

Flay’s success once seemed unlikely. Raised by divorced parents Dorothy, a paralegal, and Bill, a lawyer turned restaurant manager, young Bobby fell in with a rough crowd. “We never really thought of ourselves as gangs,” he says, “but it was a pretty tough group.” He bounced in and out of parochial schools before graduating in 1982 from a now-de-funct Manhattan private high school. Soon after, Flay’s father, a partner in the theater-district eatery Joe Allen, telephoned his unemployed son. Recalls Flay: “He told me—he didn’t ask—to show up at the restaurant the next day because the busboy needed to see a sick relative.”

Flay became a full-time busboy, then a kitchen helper. Proprietor Allen sent him to train at Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute. In 1987, after cooking in several New York City restaurants and briefly trying his hand as a stockbroker’s assistant, Flay got the top chef job at Manhattan’s Miracle Grill. Though Flay had never visited the Southwest, his take on its cuisine drew a cult following, including well-known restaurateur Kretchmer, who helped drum up financing for Mesa Grill.

Flay’s two-year first marriage, to chef Debra Ponzek, ended in 1993, and he is now separated from Kate Connelly, former cohost of TVFN’s Robin Leach Talking Food. Though he has a reputation as a man-about-town, Flay makes plenty of time for daughter Sophie, 2, whose custody he shares with Connelly. “I was a little scared about being a dad, but now I think I’m really good at it,” says Flay, who lives in a lower Manhattan apartment. Between restaurant rounds, he indulges Sophie with trips to the zoo and “10 tea parties a day,” he says. Her tastes already run to the exotic, including capers and lobster. “Imagine,” boasts Flay, beaming. “Only 2 years old and she knows!” Fire up the Easy Bake oven.

Samantha Miller

Lisa Kay Greissinger in New York City