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As Seen on TV

Brian Flays Bobby

As we sit in OKO Westport on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Brian Lewis speaks easily, as though he’s not surrounded by a flurry of activity on the precipice of evening’s rush. He wears colorful beaded bracelets crafted by his twin toe-heads and a dark apron.

Brian, celebrated chef and founder of OKO Westport and The Cottage (OKO Rye opens early fall), is all smiles, bald head, and CrossFit muscles: the kind of chef the camera loves.

On The Martha Stewart Show and TODAY, Brian cooks his signature dishes with a confidence and expertise that sends show hosts and audiences into spirals of adoration. (Fun fact: Westport’s own Craig Melvin appeared with Brian this past February on TODAY, proving to the nation that Westport is full of handsome men, even though that’s not the point of the broadcast. Or this article.)

So we’re not surprised he wandered into the purview of Beat Bobby Flay (BBF) producers. BBF is a reality show cook-off between local chefs and the venerated chef de célèbre Bobby Flay. And yes, the title lacks nuance. Most of the time Bobby wins… but not always. Yes, Brian (spoiler alert) eviscerates Bobby and serves him his heart to eat alongside his losing pasta.

Now, chefs are that rare breed of professional who have tremendous respect for others in their trade. So BBF is woefully free of Real Housewives histrionics, and Brian would no sooner rip out Bobby’s entrails than serve Spam popsicles to his patrons. Still, the tension and deftness in which these men whip up sachetti, or “beggars purses,” makes great TV.

If Martha and TODAY show him as an expert culinary artist, BBF reveals his cooly competitive side, the part which enables him to simultaneously run three successful restaurants and still have the brainpower to conceive of new ventures, which I’ll get to later.

Brian competes twice during his BBF episode. In the first competition against a fellow chef he must use their chosen ingredient: boneless quail. With seemingly no more effort than a parent ripping open a box of mac and cheese, Brian grills the bird with harissa, throwing on some carrots, dried currants and Swiss chard. “A French chef I worked with out in California introduced me to Moroccan-style cooking,” Brian explains. Evidently quails abound in Morocco.

He wins and is pitted against Flay himself. Brian has 45 minutes to create his signature English Pea Sachetti with Robiolla Fondutti, a popular dish at The Cottage. In that time, Bobby made his own dish, Mushroom Ricotta Sacchetti with Carbonara Sauce.

The first competition proves his dexterity and knowledge of cuisine from everywhere in the known universe. The second shows his intensity and focus, even as he struggles to close the purses when the pea filling refuses to set. There are no modest smiles, no witty banter. According to Brian, “I took [the competition] as seriously as a Saturday night in a restaurant.” It’s a mental CrossFit workout and Brian is determined to finish strong.

Which he does.

It’s hard for him to conceal a smile when I mention his victory, though he shrugs off my compliments. “I’m more competitive with myself than with other people,” he says, “I couldn’t let my own self down.” He’s also quick to praise those who work with him at his restaurants.

Though he has no immediate goal of spicing up our tele-viewing with his presence, he wouldn’t mind another run at Bobby. “What I’d really like to do is offer him a re-match,” he muses. “I’d let him choose his signature dish.”

Of his future plans, he says, “If I opened another [restaurant] in Westport, it would be something really small and outside the box. I like the idea of a food truck with no wheels, of having no plan then going to the farmers’ market and seeing what’s up.”

Kind of like how I go to my refrigerator every night at dinnertime and am consistently surprised by how few groceries I have, except completely opposite.

Then a small hurricane of two little boys fly in and throw themselves on him. Yes, they’re proud of their father’s victory but are more interested in ice cream and ripping off Brian’s bracelets. Which, for a kid, makes a lot of sense.

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