The first time Chef Francesco Buitoni got the call to appear on Food Network, he said no. At the time, he had more than enough to do at Mercato Osteria Enoteca, his acclaimed Italian eatery in Red Hook. From whipping up new menus and perfecting pasta recipes to leading the kitchen and taking time for his family, he had quite the pile of to-dos on his plate.
Then a few years passed, and Food Network called again. The producers wanted Buitoni to appear on Beat Bobby Flay, the competition show in which top chefs across the United States go head to head with Chef Bobby Flay to see who can make the best rendition of a signature dish.
“I had never done a cooking show before,” Buitoni admits. “It was a little scary in the beginning.”
Buitoni serves guests at Mercato.
He may not have cooked on television, but that’s not to say that he was a newbie in the kitchen. On the contrary, Buitoni is a low-key legend in New York’s Italian food scene. To start, there’s his name. In case “Buitoni” didn’t ring any bells, the Red Hook chef is part of the family behind the iconic Italian pasta brand. Although the Buitonis sold the company to Nestle in 1988, after founding it way back in 1827, they still maintain their reputation as unparalleled pasta-makers.
Then there’s the buzz about Buitoni himself. After getting his start in Rome, Italy, Dutchess County’s seventh-generation pasta king strengthened his culinary prowess at beloved New York City kitchens like Al Bacio, Teodora, and Bettola. He also developed his knowledge of wine during that period, and even served as sommelier at Mario Batali’s Otto.
An endless variety of pasta dishes await at Mercato.
Needless to say, the chef had more than enough background knowledge when it came time to film the show. Yet even with his years of preparation, the onscreen competition was a novel experience.
“Timing is very important,” he reveals. When the battle begins, “you don’t have much time to grasp where everything is. They make it so you have to work for it.”
Nevertheless, Buitoni enjoyed the chance to compete and meet some of the network’s top faces.
“It was fun seeing Giada [de Laurentiis],” he says. “I liked being in front of an audience and having people cheer you on.”
Inside Mercato in Red Hook
In the episode, ‘Say Cheese!,’ Buitoni battles California farmer and chef Duskie Estes to see who will move to the next round to challenge Flay. The Food Network’s Giada de Laurentiis and The Kitchen’s Sunny Anderson star as guest judges in round one. From there, it’s a surprise to see which of the two competitors will level up to battle it out over a signature dish.
While Buitoni remains tight-lipped about the outcome of the two heats, he’s thankful for the chance to participate and experience a new culinary environment.
“It was different from working in a restaurant,” he says. “Everything is state-of-the-art.”
Buitioni, the pasta king
Now, though, he’s happy to be back in Dutchess County for the holidays. He moved to the Hudson Valley more than a decade ago, when he and his partner, Michele Platt, longed for a place away from the craziness of New York City that reminded them of Rome. After getting a taste for upstate cuisine while working at Stony Creek in Tivoli and Ca’Mea in Hudson, he made the leap and opened Mercato Osteria Enoteca with Platt in 2006.
While he waits for the episode to air, he’ll be busy whipping up winter specials laced with seasonal flavors like mushrooms, radicchio, and game. Unsurprisingly, a lot of pasta-making will be involved.
“It’s something I’ve always done,” he says. “I started making pasta with my grandmother. It feels natural to make pasta. It calms me down.”
Buitoni’s episode (Season 18, Episode 8) of Beat Bobby Flay, airs on January 3 at 10:30 p.m. on Food Network. Tune in to see the Hudson Valley pasta whiz show his stuff…and maybe even make it to the top against Flay himself.