Tim Freeman risked a lot — even potentially being present for the birth of his own daughter — for the opportunity to compete on "Beat Bobby Flay" last summer.
The head chef at the Northern Hotel, Freeman duked it out on the Food Network television show on June 26 last year, despite the fact that his daughter's due date was within days of the trip. The episode, called “Strike While The Iron’s Hot,” airs Jan. 21 on Food Network.
The risk was real, but Freeman and his wife, Ailleen, decided the trip was worth it.
"We both talked about it many times, and we thought that it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up," Freeman said. "Because you know doing something like that will lead to other things."
Freeman speaks Tagalog and Russian, learned from his time cooking in the Philippines and Russia, but English was just fine for Freeman to describe the city heat during his two whirlwind days in New York City last summer.
“Hotter than crap,” Freeman said. “It was hot. Tons of people, you know. It was nice to be in a big city for a while, but I was happy to leave.”
The heat followed Freeman inside the old warehouse where the Food Network films "Beat Bobby Flay."
At Freeman’s stove range on set, his personal wok brought from Billings was white-hot, then bright with flame.
And there was no escape from the heat after the competition concluded. Crammed into an interview booth, Freeman spent four hours after the throw-down verbally dissecting his performance on film. With a bright light shining in his face, little ventilation and no air conditioning, it was more than a little uncomfortable, he said.
While all that heat put a good deal of pressure on the Northern Hotel chef, it was nothing compared to the conditions Freeman has cooked under.
“There’s a lot more pressure when you have to do it to keep your job,” Freeman said. “That was just fun. I mean if you win, if you lose, it doesn’t matter.”
Freeman is someone who performs well in a loud kitchen, something clear from his preferred cooking music.
“The first day I walked into this kitchen (in the Northern Hotel) ... there was no radio in here," he said. "And I’m like ‘Hey guys, where’s the Slayer?’ They’re like ‘What do you mean?’ Every kitchen I’ve ever been in in my life it’s Megadeth, Slayer, Slipknot, Pantera, Hatebreed ... angry music, but you put out beautiful food.”
But the chef has started taking more quiet time lately. Freeman leads a busy life, and in the past month he's taken to shutting the previously always-open office door for five- and 10-minute blocks during the day to Skype with his wife, infant daughter and 2-year-old son Wyatt. Even his approach to cooking has taken on a more quiet, thoughtful approach.
“As I’m getting older, the more I’m starting to really get interested in the science part of cooking and get away from the day-to-day grind on the line,” Freeman said. “Why, when you roast a vegetable, does it intensify the flavor? You know, that’s the kind of stuff I’m interested in as I get older. At the core of my bones, I’m still a chef, I just am starting to pick up other interests now.”
The stadium seating packed with an audience watching his every move contributed to the difficulty of cooking four dishes with a secret ingredient under a 20-minute time limit — all while dodging slow-footed camera operators.
Freeman at one point warned a cameraman to back up. The advice was ignored and moments later, a burst of flame from Freeman's wok caught the camera’s fuzzy audio attachment, setting it alight.
“He didn’t listen to me, and I just said ‘OK, well, cool man, you don’t want to listen?'” Freeman said. “I just said, 'I’ll set you on fire.’ As soon as I hit my ingredients into (the wok) — because you know they’re a little bit wet and that hot oil ... it creates a fire bomb.”
The crew stomped out the fire while Freeman kept cooking.
Battling in the opening round against Steve “Nookie” Postal, former Boston Red Sox executive chef and current chef at Commonwealth in Cambridge, Mass., for the right to beat Flay, Freeman said his personal wok became an important part of the show. Though he says he doesn’t watch cooking shows often, Freeman noticed the quality of the studio-provided wok on Flay’s show and decided to bring his own.
Freeman's personal wok has sandpaperlike handle — a craft secret, as he called it. When a wok heats up, the metal handle does, too. A chef can wrap a dish towel around it while the handle's hot, and the small fibers singe and stick to the metal, leaving an ideal no-slip grip when the towel is removed.
The wok grip trick came from one of the many Chinese chefs Freeman worked with while in Russia earlier in his career. As it turned out, those Chinese chefs had taught Freeman one more helpful trick for the competition.
Seeing the flatness of his stove range, Freeman knew it wouldn’t work with his wok. The wok’s bowl-like structure is meant to spread heat. Freeman knew that with his wok sitting on the range, heat would intensify in a small spot and a focused point of heat, potentially hurting the quality of his dish.
“So I pulled the (grate) out, flipped it upside down and I dropped it back down," Freeman said. "And the bottom of a kitchen burner is a really large metal ring, so the wok was able to sit down on that metal ring.”
In an interview, Freeman slammed his fists on a table to emphasize the noise, which at the time of filming was so loud it caught the attention of another chef.
After the show, Freeman’s grand plans to sightsee in New York evaporated in the afternoon heat. He went back to his hotel room and ordered room service — a strip loin steak done medium, fries and a shrimp cocktail — and then Skyped with his family before resting until his flight the next morning.
“I was so exhausted, like mentally and physically, because it was such a long day and the heat of the place kind of zapped the energy out of me,” Freeman said.
As luck would have it, the risk was more than worth it. He was still able to witness the birth of his daughter, Madison Mara, on July 2.