By J.M. HIRSCH
NEW YORK CITY (AP) — Tyler Florence is trying to block out the noise.
A packed dining room is watching him through a wall of windows as he orchestrates a nine-course dinner with a team of mostly borrowed chefs in an unfamiliar kitchen. And the watercress he’s arranging on plates of “beet soil” — impossibly sweet beets slowly baked, then ground with pistachios to resemble a gorgeously moist dirt — isn’t cooperating. Frustrated, he tosses the greens in the trash.
“People don’t come here to see flaws,” he says.
Throwing it all away to start fresh is a gamble Florence is familiar with. And it nearly cost him everything.
If you’ve flipped on the Food Network even once during the past 16 years, chances are good you’ve encountered Florence, one of the original and most enduring icons of the now sprawling network. His easy manner in the kitchen and baby faced good looks wooed viewers early and kept him afloat even as his field got crowded.
His old school behind-the-stove-style shows — “Food 911,” ”How to Boil Water,” ”Tyler’s Ultimate” — were solid, even as so-called “reality” increasingly flavored the network’s offerings. He wrote cookbooks, he launched product lines, he worked the festival circuit. It was an empire built almost entirely on celebrity. It didn’t occur to him that this might not be a good thing.
Florence grew up in Greenville, S.C., and graduated from the culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston in 1991. From there he headed to New York, where impressive cooking skills and hard work under the tutelage of top chefs like Charlie Palmer quickly set him apart. It wasn’t long before he was in America’s living room.
By 2006, Florence married Tolan Clark — celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito had introduced them two years earlier — a woman so genuine and pleasant it’s hard to believe she arose from a world saturated by celebrity (her parents were introduced by Francis Ford Coppola and she had worked for Ryan Seacrest and Wolfgang Puck).
When she became pregnant with their first child, they made a bold — and risky — decision. They’d leave New York and head to Mill Valley, Calif., to be closer to her family. Florence would tinker with making wine, try his hand at a retail store, probably open a restaurant. The empire surely would follow them. But the West Coast reboot ended up crashing the system.
“The world fell apart,” Florence said over a glass of wine during a break at the recent New York City Wine and Food Festival. “We’d just moved to California and the economy collapsed. My wife and I were just terrified. Food Network canceled two of my seasons because they literally didn’t have the ad money to pay for it.
“All public appearance business dried up overnight,” said Florence, who also was taking heat for a lucrative — and to critics, laughable — 2006 consulting gig with Applebee’s. “It’s almost like the business model that was just sort of handed to me and I took for granted was gone. I was like, ‘Wow! I don’t think this stream of water will ever run out.’ And when it did, I was really terrified.”
Florence was forced to lay off nearly all of his employees and burn through the couple’s savings. Vacations were canceled and every decision — and every penny spent — was second guessed.
“We got down to a pretty scary point,” he said. “We were naive enough to think all this glorious fun stuff could last forever and we weren’t smart enough to really kind of establish a series of businesses that truly speak our language and give us a sense of stability. So we said, when we get out of this, we’re not doing this the same way as before.”
They did get out of it, and the rebuilding, rebranding and diversifying of Tyler Florence began in earnest. This time, instead of following the dictates of a network or fame, he followed his passions. Like starting Sprout, a line of hugely successful organic baby foods so close to the heart of this now-dad-of-three, he gets almost mesmerized talking about the ingredients that go into it.
And his Mill Valley retail shop — The Tyler Florence Shop — which flourished and multiplied. “Everything else I’ve done my entire life was defined by the Food Network,” he said. “The retail store was the first time I showed what I was thinking.”
He liked how that felt. So he turned his attention back to wine, partnering with the Michael Mondavi Family to bottle his own in the Napa Valley. His first attempt — TF Zin — received a 92-point rating by Wine Spectator.
He also returned to the idea of opening a restaurant. Except one restaurant somehow turned into four, the crown jewel among them being Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. The building that once housed the city’s much loved Rubicon restaurant — which had closed in 2008 — was empty. It was his if he wanted it.
Six months later, Florence had a lease — and a desire to stay true to the roots of the city and the building. So he imagined what an American tavern in the city 100 years before might have felt like, then aimed for that. When Wayfare Tavern opened in 2010, the reception was lukewarm. Who was this New Yorker who thought he could just march into the city’s cutthroat restaurant scene?
But it’s hard to argue with food that tastes as good as his. And eventually they didn’t.
This fall, Florence brought a small slice of Wayfare Tavern to a special dinner at the New York City Wine and Food Festival, serving a menu of big, bold flavors drawn in parts from the restaurant and his new cookbook, “Tyler Florence Fresh.” Across a bounty of impressive dishes served that night, one stood out — the fried chicken that is the signature dish of Wayfare Tavern.
This chicken isn’t from dorky “Food 911″ Tyler. This is a fried chicken — crisp and aromatic and moist and herby — that is all grown up, that exudes confidence, even a sexual energy. Seriously. That night, women actually lined up at the kitchen door to praise his chicken, even offering to fly to California just to taste it again.
His television career bounced back, too. When the Food Network offered him a new series — “The Great Food Truck Race” — Florence wasn’t convinced it was right for him. It seemed hokey.
Then the show — now in its third season of helping launch food truck businesses — took off. And Florence fell in love, not just with the show, but with its concept — helping people with big dreams make them real. So much so, he’s all but sworn off opening more of his own restaurants. He’d rather focus on investing in other people’s ideas.
The tumult of having it all and losing it — and of seeing the value in both — speaks volumes about Florence’s way forward.
“I think it’s important for everyone to feel failure. I wouldn’t trade any stupid decision for another five years of life,” he said. “We have four restaurants, a retail store, baby food, a television division, a publishing division, and I’ve never been happier.”
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