The number one question asked of celebrity chef Bobby Flay is “How do you do it all?” The answer is his B Team, a group of talented women who provide the support he needs to run restaurants, do television shows, write cookbooks and so much more. Jennifer Baum, founder of New York City-based public relations firm Bullfrog & Baum, moderated a panel at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival to talk with Flay and his team members—Stephanie Banyas, Sally Jackson, Christine Sanchez and Elyse Tirell—about how they all work together to create a highly successful company.
Baum: Bobby, you’re an Iron Chef with six fine dining restaurants, including your latest, Gato, 18 Bobby’s Burger Palaces, several cookbooks, cooking shows and a variety of other projects. It truly does take a village. What do you look for in a team member?
Flay: The most important thing in my life, besides my family, is food. My entire universe revolves around that one word, whether it’s the restaurants, cookbooks, television, you name it. First and foremost, they have to be interested in food. Not quite obsessive, but it’s something they have to think about a lot because we’ll be having conversations every single day that surround food.
Baum: How did you meet Stephanie, who has been with for you for 18 years, at a time when you had only two restaurants and one television cooking show?
Flay: I met Stephanie when I was looking for a personal assistant a long time ago, and this was before chefs had assistants. Chefs would ask me why I need an assistant, and I explained that I was building an infrastructure of people because there are certain things I don’t want to do anymore. It didn’t make any sense for me to do go run errands or other things that interfered with business.
I called the French Culinary Institute and I told them I need a personal assistant, someone who really loves food, but doesn’t want to work in the kitchen. I interviewed 25 people and I picked Stephanie because she was complete dedicated to food and I could see that right away.
Baum: How about Elyse and Sally?
Flay: Elyse Tyrell and Sally Jackson both started working in my restaurants. They both worked the door. Sally worked at Bolo and Elyse at Bar Americain. I’m observant and I’m always watching how people do their job, how they work, if they smile, if they’re happy or sad. If they’re making a customer’s experience better. If they are on time for work. All the fundamentals of being a good employee. They both had all the qualities I look for.
Baum: And what about Christine?
Flay: Christine Sanchez was a chef in my kitchens. She started out at the garde manger station for her internship at Mesa Grill and then she went on to become a sous chef at Bolo. She then became my culinary director for a while until she needed to take some time off for family matters. She worked and quit several times, but we always kept space for her. Now she’s been here a bunch of years and is no longer in the kitchens anymore.
Baum: How do you fit them into your organization?
Flay: My daughter is now 18 and I heard through the grapevine that Sally Jackson wants to work for me, but only because she loves my daughter, who was seven at the time. So Sally came in to be a part-time caregiver for Sophia, because I was divorced at the time.
Baum: Stephanie, you’re Bobby’s right hand person. How did you fit in?
Banyas: I did every position of the people here. I started doing his schedule, writing his books with him, doing recipes for his television shows, doing every charity event.
Baum: All the people here have very clearly defined roles.
Flay: I like building infrastructure. My business partner is sitting right over there (pointing into the audience at Laurence Kretchmer). He doesn’t like to spend money. I like to spend money to build infrastructure because I feel if I do that, the business will blossom. So when I find someone who has that certain something, I hire them, even if I don’t need them at the moment and it’s going to make my payroll more expensive. If someone is good I feel I will ultimately need them and find a spot for them in the company.
How the B Team was born
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Baum: So you hired Stephanie first as your personal assistant and then you began to hire more people.
Flay: Stephanie said to me at some point, “I don’t want to do certain things anymore, like run errands.”
Banyas: During my first six months Bobby threatened to fire me five times and he’d say, “Listen, this isn’t working.” For two years we fought and then he told me that he was going to hire another personal assistant. I told him, “No, you’re not!”
Flay: The problem was, I needed stuff done and she didn’t want to hire someone else. Ultimately, I hired someone else and that began the growth of what Stephanie’s job is. I separated these people into their own lanes, but they cross over a lot and that’s why they work so well together. Sometimes I give a project to two of them because I think they’ll work well together, but most of the time they all work together as a team.
Stephanie is the queen bee. She’s been with me the longest and certainly has the strongest personality. She does a lot of incredibly important business things for me. She handles matters relating to food when it comes to cookbooks, recipes for television shows, dealing with food organizations for events. Stephanie is the point person. She did handle my schedule up to two years ago, when she handed it over to Elyse.
Sally is really my family assistant and she does lots of other things as well. As you well know, families have lots of needs and I want to make sure my family always gets taken care of in the best way. My daughter, my mom, my dad, my cousin, they all have needs. Part of her job is to talk to my mother on the phone two or three hours a day [the audience laughs]. My mother will say, “Bobby, I went to the doctor today and I talked to the nurse and she loves you sooo much. Do you think you can get a book to her cousin?” I can’t say, “No,” right? It has to be done. Enter Sally. It’s a tiny little piece of what she does, but she takes care of all my family business and keeps it straight, including organizing me as well.
I also have this side business that I’m very passionate about. I’m involved in thoroughbred racing and she handles that, as well. She’s in the state of Kentucky more than anybody from New York.
Baum: How did the B Team idea come about?
Flay: I’ve started talking about the B Team in public more because the single most common question asked of me is, “How do you do it all?” This is how I do it all. I have people like this who are dedicated to the end results of being successful in all we do.
Stephanie is a gigantic force with the cookbooks. We basically sit down and decide which cookbooks we’re going to write. We write the table of contents based on titles, Stephanie then goes off and gets the recipes done because she knows exactly how I’m going to cook something. That’s 18 years of experience together.
I shouldn’t say this because she’s sitting here, but she’s irreplaceable. I can’t sit with someone new who could possibly understand what someone who has been with me 18 years does.
Sally, on the other hand, will write the head notes for recipes. Chris Sanchez then comes in and styles the food for photos and it all becomes a team effort. They are so important to the cookbooks, they are all co-authors of the cookbooks.
Baum: What about Christine?
Flay: Because Christine is a chef by trade, I’m able to utilize her in many ways. I love brainstorming things like the spring menu at Gato. I will sit down with her for a few hours and we will do it together. Being a chef can be a lonely place. When you’re the executive chef of a restaurant or many restaurants, it’s all on your shoulders to come up with ideas and make them come to life. I utilize Chris because she thinks like a chef who has worked in my restaurants. If I come up with an idea, she’ll sometimes tell me that she doesn’t like it. It’s important for me to hear.
Her other title is v.p. of culinary solutions. We have a retail line at Kohl’s with 320 different product lines. She’s the one who goes to meetings, talks to the designers and marketers. When they pitch ideas, she’ll say, “He’ll hate that, I won’t even bring it to him,” or she’ll say, “That’s a great idea, let me get it in front of him.” She’s constantly working with them to make sure everything is tested either by her or by someone else she trusts. She makes sure the Bobby Flay brand at Kohl’s is exactly the way we want it to be. If I tried to do that myself, things would get past me because I wouldn’t have enough time to spend on it.
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Baum: How else does the B Team help you?
I dropped out of high school. So learning in a traditional way is not what I do. I learn from what’s in front of me. When I have an idea I take a pan out and I put it on the stove and cook. Stephanie is way more learned than that. From books she’ll know if something is going to work or not, but I have to see it. I learn from these guys (B Team members) all the time.
Jackson: What Bobby is good at is taking our input and advice and making us feel as if we’re valued. He calls me in for a style question and he’ll ask me to come to business meetings with him because he wants to hear my thoughts and views. That’s gratifying.
Flay: I reach out to these ladies for different things. They all have incredible strengths. Sally is that person who has that gut feeling I need to get approval from. If she doesn’t like it, it’s probably a bad idea.
Baum: Bobby recently launched a website that prominently features the B Team. Most chefs would make the website very much about them, but Bobby didn’t do that. If you go to BobbyFlay.com you’ll see a big emphasis placed on the B Team. That’s why they are here today with Bobby.
Flay: Knowing how things work is really interesting to people. The B Team not only helps me, but they are all really interesting on their own. BobbyFlay.com is like a monthly online magazine that has a different theme each month. They all work on it constantly. Is it helping my bottom line? Not today. But at some point, it could. There could be a television show about the B Team. I produce a lot of television shows and I’m always looking for people who are genuine; people who are authority figures; and people who can help someone else in every day life. That’s these people here.
I want to talk about Elyse for a second. She’s my personal assistant, but that title doesn’t do her justice. This is a person, the youngest of the group, and she’s willing to do anything. She’ll ask if she can take a wine class. No problem. She wants to go to culinary school. No problem. She wants to make herself better and more valuable. I want her to do more and eventually move up and train the next person. That’s the way it works in this company.
Baum: How does your office operate?
Flay: We have some basic simple rules: You have to look presentable because we have people coming into our office all the time. You have to be on time, at 10 a.m. We return every email and every phone call. We abide by the fundamentals of good manners and good work ethic. After that, we can have a good time and be creative, and that’s why they’ve been here so long.
Audience question: What are you most proud of: your restaurants or your TV shows?
Flay: It’s not even close. I’ve been doing food television for 20 years, but my restaurants are the most important thing for me. I’m most happy cooking in my restaurants. If you walk into Gato there’s a good chance I’ll be cooking there and smiling a lot. I just love it. Cooking for me in many ways saved my life. If I had to pick one, TV would be gone.
Audience question: You have a super talented team, are there any guys who work for you?
Flay: If it was up to me, women would exclusively run the world. I really mean that. I don’t know how it happened, but it just came to be. My business partner is a guy [crowd laughs.] I’m proud that we’ve been able to offer so many women great positions in our company.
Restaurant Hospitality editor Mike Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. The event, now in its 14th year, attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is trade panels designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson's reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.