Bobby Flay and Michael Symon go way back. Friends for more than 20 years, the pair rose to fame together on the Food Network and stayed close, and because of that they’ve have always been hesitant to compete against each other in the kitchen — until now.
The chefs are starring on the network’s new series BBQ Brawl: Flay v. Symon where they each mentor a team of pitmasters, and face off against each other for advantages throughout the competition in Austin, Texas. In honor of the show — which gets heated at times and is filled with Flay and Symon’s hilarious digs at each other — PEOPLE sat down with the stars to discuss their friendship, family, and of course, barbecue.
Symon shares a unique grilling tip that Flay calls an “amazing idea,” and Flay opens up about just how proud he is of his 23-year-old daughter, Sophie, as she continues her career as a journalist on ABC. Read on for the full interview.
Why did you guys decide to do this now?
Bobby Flay: Well, we’ve been good friends for a really long time and it was something I had been talking to the network about in terms of like a barbecue competition. Obviously competition shows have been incredibly successful for over a decade now. I just thought it’d be fun to do something. Basically, my rule is I just want to shoot and work on TV with friends of mine, or my daughter. Just people I really like to hang out with. So I asked Michael if he was available to do this, and he agreed. And so, we thought that Austin would be a good place to start out a series like this just because Texas is so well known for barbecue and it’s kind of in the center of the barbecue belt.
Michael Symon: We compete with everything, like off camera we compete in golf. Everything else is some kind of random battle, like, ‘I’ll bet you ten bucks I can make that in a jar.’ But we’ve never really competed on cooking on TV. And when we originally talked about the show we were just completely going to mentor or coach ten great pitmasters. And as the show kind of developed, then they were like ‘Could you guys cook against each other in a couple little competitions throughout it, to get advantages for your team?’ It’s competition, but we have fun with it.
Can you dial it back to how you first met? How long ago was that?
MS: I know exactly when we met. We met briefly through [chef Jonathan] Waxman a long time ago. But the time we really met was in, I want to say 1998 or 99. I had a show on Food Network called The Melting Pot with Wayne Harley Brachman, who was Bobby’s pastry chef at Mesa Grill. We were in the middle of filming first season and you came in the studio because you had just won against Morimoto on the American Iron Chef. And that was the first time I really met you. That was 21 years ago.
BF: I remember it.
When did it more develop into a friendship?
MS: You know, the chef world’s so intertwined, but I would say especially in the past 12-15 years.
How often do you guys get to see each other?
BF: We see each other all the time and like 10 years ago we started traveling together. Vacations and stuff. And then I had a house in the Hamptons and he and his wife would stay at my house all the time. Then I said, ‘Get out.’ [Laughs] And then he bought his own house.
Is there anything you guys disagree on?
BF: We disagree about what’s good and what’s not.
MS: We actually do. Like restaurants. I’ll be like, ‘This is great!’
BF: Michael loves everything! Michael has great taste, he’s a great chef, and he’s a great friend, so I always take what he says for real. But every once in a while, I’ll go, ‘What? Did I come to a different restaurant?’
MS: I only say spectacular when I think it’s truly spectacular. Last night we went out to dinner and I was like, ‘It was fine.’ But sometimes we do have different tastes.
BF: He gets very enthusiastic. It’s nice, he’s very positive!
MS: Even in fancy restaurants, sometimes I like the most humble of dishes. When they’re done well, I don’t know what it is, it really excites me. I don’t think those excite you quite as much all the time. You like it when you see something you haven’t seen.
BF: We just don’t always agree.
Bobby, your daughter is a budding Food Network star herself, right?
BF: She’s a journalist first. She did The Flay List with me as a favor to me. She went to school for broadcast journalism and she graduated in May. She’s got this job at ABC now as a Community Digital Reporter. She’s getting great experience doing it, but she really cares about hard news.
MS: I remember she was 10, 11, 12 years old coming here for Iron Chef and her sitting at the couch doing homework.
What about her are you most proud of?
BF: First of all, she’s eclipsed me already in many departments. I dropped out of high school in 10th grade; she’s a college graduate. She went to this well thought of broadcast journalism school, USC. Most people that come out of that school, if they can get a job, it’s in market 112. She was like, ‘No, I’m going to stay in Los Angeles and I’m going to get a job in the #2 market.’ It doesn’t happen. She did it all on her own. She’s not interested in me helping her one bit. She wants to create her own lane. I can’t imagine how many times she’s been asked in her lifetime, ‘Do you want to cook for a living? Do you want to be a chef? Do you want to be in the restaurant business?’ That would be an obvious question for people if they know who I am and they know she’s my daughter. She’s like, ‘No, we have that covered in my family, I want to do something else.’
BF: It’s great. With that said, she’s a huge fan of food in general. Food is obviously really important to her; she grew up being exposed to all different kinds of food and that’s why she’s such a great eater today.
MS: Sophie loves to eat.
BF: She loves to eat, but she wants to make her own mark. I’m very proud of her.
What are you guys grilling for at home?
MS: We grill a lot of whole fish lately.
BF: Most people will not do that.
MS: I know, they freak out. It’s the easiest way to cook it; the bones keep it moist, it doesn’t overcook. It’s a little bit more work to eat.
BF: It does stick to the grill sometimes.
MS: You know what I’ve been doing? I’ve been buying chicken wire and brushing the chicken wire and fish with oil and wrapping the chicken wire around the fish.
BF: Oh, so the wire sits on top of the grates.
MS: It still grills, it gets all the smoke and the char and all that stuff. Then I can pick up the whole thing and flip it. Then I just bring the whole thing off into the kitchen, I open it up, and it’s done.
BF: No, seriously. That’s an amazing idea!
MS: Thanks buddy.
BF: But I really mean it. [Laughs]
BF: Where’d you buy the chicken wire? The hardware store?
MS: The hardware store.
BF: I’m doing that this weekend. I’m serious, that’s amazing.
You just learned something from Michael, but did you guys learn anything from the competitors on BBQ Brawl while you were filming?
BF: First of all, let’s get this right. These people are world class barbecue experts, okay? Basically, the way that I was mentoring/coaching/prodding them, was keeping their enthusiasm up, taking notice of things that they didn’t when they were cooking something. Also, making them think about how the judges are going to take something when they cook it in a certain way. Just kind of monitoring their progress. They don’t need us to teach them how to cook, that’s for sure. They are 100% professional. They are battle tested. They win all these crazy trophies and awards.
MS: We’re just guiding them a little bit. You give your opinions on things. In one episode, I felt terrible because I felt strongly that one of my competitors should try this thing and it didn’t work. The judges didn’t respond to it and that’s on me. They were awesome, really talented. It was fun to work with them.
If you were watching it, would you be shocked by the winner?
MS: Yeah. I think there were a lot of surprises.
BF: I’ll say pleasantly surprised.
BBQ Brawl: Flay v. Symon airs Thursdays at 9/8c on Food Network.