This month we’re thrilled to profile Tyler Florence, Food Network star, cookbook author and chef/owner of Wayfare Tavern, El Paseo and Tyler Florence Fresh. Here, we ask Florence all about the road that led to his impressive culinary career, the inspiration behind his restaurants, and the best advice he’s ever received. Read on for his story, in his words.
What inspired you to pursue a cooking career?
When I was 15, I really wanted a car. My parents told me I would have to get a job and save my money if I wanted something. My girlfriend’s parents owned the nicest restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina. I started as a dishwasher but fell in love with the energy of the kitchen. The chef was French and the menu was mostly seafood. I moved from the dish station to prep and then working on the line fairly quickly. It was the first thing I was ever really good at. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a chef for the rest of my life.
Tell us about making the move from restaurants to television. Were there any big surprises or challenges?
It was a learning curve. We were taking the format of what Julia Child had invented and making it modern. There was a lot of experimentation. Television production, a lot like a day in a restaurant, can take 12+ hours a day to shoot. I had a lot of stamina and was willing to do just about anything for the shot. The early years were rough — my recipe writing wasn’t as polished, and I was cooking food that was too complicated to produce at home. After a few seasons, I finally got it that less was more. Recipes that had fewer, better ingredients and a simple but solid technique played out on television the way they’re supposed to: friendly and approachable. After I found my own voice, one that is different from my restaurant voice, we skyrocketed.
How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
I would describe my cooking philosophy as American. Pure and simple. I’ve eaten my way around the world and I am a die-hard fan of many different cooking styles. But my cooking style — the style that of food that keeps me up at night trying to decode my own ideas — is gorgeous American cooking. It was actually a hindrance early in my career because I could clearly define my cooking style. If I said “American,” people off the bat assumed burgers and fries. If you didn’t stand behind the Italian flag, the Japanese flag or the Spanish flag, no one took you seriously.
Now American cookery has developed as a rootsy, smart, electric genre of cooking. It’s both a product of the melting pot of our country and also something so unique that you could only describe it as evolutionary. To put it simple, the only difference between grits and polenta is your grandmother’s last name. We have an amazing food culture here. My food is absolutely American.
What was the inspiration behind your restaurant, Wayfare Tavern?
Wayfare Tavern is without a question one of the most important opportunities I’ve ever had. The restaurant is in the former Rubicon space, one of San Francisco’s most celebrated restaurants. They called it quits in 2008, and the space sat dormant for over a year. One of the building owners (who is now my business partner) met me at our gym one morning in 2009, mentioned Rubicon to me, and I almost freaked out. I never had a chance to eat there when it was Rubicon, but I’m very aware of the caliber of chefs that the restaurant graduated — chefs that would go on to put San Francisco on the culinary map.
When I sat down to think through the next incarnation of the space, there was a lot to filter. It was 2009 and the economy was in the tank. Fine dining restaurants are supported by a community with healthy expense accounts. In 2009, that really didn’t exist. White tablecloth, multi-course tasting menus that cost $120 per person were a restaurant genre frozen with the credit market, only to be thawed out when the Dow hit 14,000 again.
In the meantime, I started doing research on the building which was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1906. The neighborhood also had a fascinating story as the center of the red light district know as The Barbary Coast — a neighborhood filled with every vice known to man: salons, prostitution, opium, dance halls and taverns. The more I read, the more I realized that this level of San Francisco history didn’t exist anymore, as if it were swept out into the bay after the earthquake and re-established as the financial district it is today. To me, Wayfare was that one restaurant that could have survived the earthquake. I wanted to bring a bit of history back to a neighborhood that seemed to have lost its identity — a restaurant for and by San Francisco.
Then we went on a year-long hunt into libraries and historical societies, trying to find out what restaurants looked like in the late 1800s. Most of San Francisco burned in 1906, so the real images were hard to find. We found a book from 1910 called Bohemian San Francisco, written by Clarence Edger Edwards. It was the holy grail. The book, page for page, describes the restaurant scene San Francisco before the earthquake in such detail that I could smell what they were eating. In the book, the author describes the cafe society of the day as Wayfarers, people who are world travelers, bon vivants with their thumbs on the pulse of art and culture. Once we had the name, the design fell into place. We re-imagined the space as a tavern that San Franciscans of distinction have been dining in for over 100 years. I love my restaurant. It’s one of my proudest achievements.
What’s an ingredient you use often that may surprise people?
My pantry expands and shrinks all the time with flavors and ingredients I’m experimenting with. One thing I’m really into right now is smoked olive oil. It’s a made by a wonderful mom and pop company based in Sonoma. They have patented the ability to cold smoke olives before they’re crushed. It’s one of the sexiest things I’ve ever tasted.
What do you enjoy most about owning your own restaurant?
All three of my restaurants — Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco; El Paseo in Mill Valley; and our fast casual restaurant in terminal 2 of the San Francisco airport — are my happy places. It’s where I can teach the guys in the kitchen how to love and respect the ingredients in front of them. It keeps my mind sharp, as we’re constantly experimenting with new techniques and better ways to get to the truth in food. When I see someone’s eyes roll back in their head because the food is so good, that’s the most fulfilling feeling I can have as a professional. San Francisco is a very competitive restaurant town. To stay on top, you have to be a little better than you were yesterday.
You’ve also dabbled in making wines, baby food, and cutlery. How does your vision as a chef influence your other projects?
I’m very passionate about all of our businesses. Sprout was co-founded 10 years ago in my apartment back in New York. Our wine business with the Michael Mondavi Family has become a very important brand for the company. I’m there at 5:30 in the morning cutting grapes with the guys during harvest, and I designed the bottles. We geek out on yeast and I study the fermentation. When we blend, we get into a very zen-like mindset, clear our thoughts and focus on characteristics of the varietal — the structure, balance and aroma. We’re five seasons deep, with 15 medals under our belts. I think we’re getting pretty good. Michael and Rob Jr. are amazing mentors. Me, I’m a student who’s truly in love with the subject matter.
The vision of a chef, or the definition of a chef, is expanding everyday. The business opportunities that come up all have to be taken very seriously. It all has to fit comfortably inside your brand. For me, everything we do has to answer two questions: Is it world-class? And is it delicious?
Do you cook at home? What’s your go-to meal to cook for family?
My wife Tolan and I split cooking duties in the house. I think our children actually prefer her cooking over mine. I think I get a little too fancy with the spices sometimes. Her slam-dunk dish is her turkey meatloaf; mine is pancakes on the weekends.
What about if you’re home alone?
If I’m home alone, which is almost never, I like to chop raw vegetables and make a giant salad. We keep the vegetable crisper packed with treasures from the farmers’ market.
Who or what inspires you in the kitchen? Any heroes?
I’m more inspired by the amazing ingredients our farmers are pulling out of the ground every day, and the ranchers we cultivate a relationship with that get us one step closer to the truth, than I am by other people and what they are cooking. I follow a ton of very talented chefs on Instagram, the brightest people in the business. Yes, we do get inspired by technique and flavor components, but we try to not do things that other people are doing. If you get a box of heirloom tomatoes, quiet your mind and listen to the tomato — I mean, really understand it. Building a dish from it that respects the four-month-long struggle to create such a dynamic flavor can be the most inspirational moment that season.
What’s the best cooking advice you ever received? And the best you’ve ever given?
In my first year of culinary school at Johnson and Wales, chef Victor Sumuro walked over to my station, picked up my knife and felt the sharpness of the blade with his thumb. He laid it down, made eye contact with me and said, “Dull knife, dull chef.” I never forgot that, and my knives have been razor blades ever since.
The most important advice I give my cooks is that you are a product of your path. What you do, who you work for, and how you carry yourself along that path adds up to who you are as a professional. Keep your path in top shape.