Tim Freeman, executive chef at the Northern Hotel’s TEN restaurant in downtown Billings, wasn’t a fan of Bobby Flay growing up. In Flay’s television shows and in his best-selling books, Freeman said, he came across as arrogant and cocky.
But on Jan.21, Freeman will appear on Flay’s cooking show, “Beat Bobby Flay,” on the Food Network.
“Everything comes back around again,” Freeman said. “Here I was, 37 at the time, looking Bobby Flay in the eye.”
Flay’s Food Network show pits two chefs against each other to create a dish containing a secret ingredient of Flay’s choosing. The winner gets to challenge Flay with his or her surprise signature dish.
When Freeman had the chance to meet Flay, he discovered the Food Network chef wasn’t at all like the person he expected.
“He was a very nice guy, very easy to talk to,” Freeman said. “He was just a chef.”
Well, a very busy chef. While meeting Freeman to welcome him on his television show, he was answering phone calls, receiving and replying to emails and talking with his assistant.
“He was everywhere,” Freeman said, and he figured this was a good sign for the competition. At the time, Freeman thought, “This could work out perfect for me. His head is not in the game.”
Between takes during the filming of the show, Freeman had the chance to speak with Flay.
“I asked, ‘Why aren’t you on a beach somewhere drinking margaritas and enjoying your life?’ He said to me, ‘I owe it to the people who got me where I am. If I were to stop working, they would stop working.’”
An executive producer on many of the Food Network’s shows, Flay presides over a sprawling empire. It’s a beast he has to keep feeding.
“I gained a new level of respect for him,” Freeman said.
Freeman began cooking at age 14. He grew up as the oldest of three boys. He recalls opening the fridge and seeing nothing to eat, but his mother could open the same fridge door and whip something up for the family.
“She could throw a couple ingredients together and make something pretty darn good,” he said. Freeman fondly recalls time spent in the kitchen with his mother. “We could cook together,” he said. “It was therapeutic.”
Freeman didn’t know his biological father. His mother, who died in a car accident 16 years ago, left his father when she was pregnant “out of fear for her life,” Freeman said. “He beat her up, kicked her in the stomach. This was a nightly thing.”
Freeman has an intense love of cooking, a passion he wants to share with others. Growing up the son of a battered woman, he knows how important a basic skill, like cooking, can be in changing a person’s life.
“It helps people take care of themselves,” he said. “It instills self-respect.”
The process of cooking can teach integrity, respect, time-management, budgeting and self-sufficiency, among other life skills. And cooking requires tools and equipment, ingredients, time, and the knowledge of what to do to put together a successful meal.
In partnership with the Center for Children and Families, Freeman will be conducting cooking lessons for battered women and youths who are aging out of the system. The center is a Billings-based advocacy nonprofit focused on the well-being of children in foster care and state treatment, single moms and pregnant women in crisis.
Though clients of the center receive much support as they make the transition back into the community, they can lack basic knowledge of nutrition and cooking skills.
Classes will focus on cooking basics, and equipping participants with skills to be able to enter the workforce and join a kitchen. “When I teach classes, I’m thinking about how this person can better their life. I’m getting the chance to change someone’s story,” Freeman said. “I lived through it. You can change your story.”
Freeman’s favorite place to eat is at home. “I like to cook my food. I like my wife to cook my food. I like my kids to eat our foods.” Growing up, he recalls a diet of hot dogs, bologna, PBJ, and chicken nuggets.
Given the opportunity, Freeman’s 2-year-old son eats Thai food, Spanish dishes, European-inspired cuisine, Indian food and more.
“There is nothing he doesn’t eat,” Freeman said. “He loves to watch me cook.”
Family is sanctuary for Freeman, his grounding force. “My wife and I talk so much about making our family strong, because neither of us had that.”
Want to know if Freeman came out on top? You can catch him Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. MST on Season 7 of the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.”