Tyler Florence, Chef of Wayfare Tavern and El Paseo, Cookbook Author and TV Personality
In the childhood home of chef Tyler Florence, there was always a reason for celebration.
“My Dad was the youngest of eight kids,” Florence said. “There was always a birthday, always someone staying over, always a potluck. It made everyone happy.”
Florence shares that, even as a young child, he enjoyed the collective mission of feeding everyone. Florence says that he always knew he wanted to be a chef, eschewing Saturday morning cartoons in favor of Julia Child and PBS’s Saturday morning lineup of cooking shows. Influenced, too, by the home cooking of both his grandmothers, Florence developed a deep emotional connection to the flavors of the South, from fried chicken to pimento cheese.
“The flavors have been there so long, they stand for something,” he says.
Florence started in restaurant kitchens as a 15-year-old dishwasher and says he fell in love with the craft of the chefs. Filling in wherever needed, he waited tables, learned dressings and sauces and kept on washing dishes.
“To this day, I hate an unorganized dish station,” he says.
At 19, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Johnson & Wales University’s School of Culinary Arts. There, he earned degrees in both hospitality and culinary arts. Taking what his grandmothers taught him to the next stage, Florence learned Low Country cooking from the area’s masters, chef James Burns at Anson restaurant and chef Louis Osteen of Lou’s Charleston Grill, and attributes much of his training to chef Donald Barickman of Magnolias restaurant in Charleston. From Barickman, Florence learned the important details that make Low Country cuisine special, like “what size of grit was needed, and what time of year to harvest the sweetest shrimp.”
But Florence longed to “go where the news was,” New York City, and moved there in 1994 to work for Charlie Palmer’s Aureole. “Louis Osteen was a friend of Charlie’s. He handed me off,” says Florence. In New York, Florence’s cooking shifted towards refinement and he picked up a more artistic sensibility. Florence moved on to cook the food of his family’s Tuscan roots—contemporary Tuscan—at New York’s Mad 61. Turns out it was great preparation for cooking in California.
“I felt like, when I got here in 2006, that I had been doing California cuisine for a while,” says Florence.
At Florence’s two restaurants, Mill Valley’s El Paseo and San Francisco’s Wayfare Tavern, the flavor profiles are Californian, filtered through South Carolina. “I want to create an authentic American experience,” says Florence. That means cauliflower soup with lobster beignets or buttermilk-brined chicken on the menu at Wayfare, or American red snapper with quinoa, almonds and pickled shallots at El Paseo. “I am trying to deliver a plate of food with an emotional connection,” he says.
With a new test kitchen in the works at his eponymous Tyler Florence Shop in Mill Valley, Florence intends to keep exploring the boundaries of food science and technique, forging deeper connections to the experience of American food.
No doubt, in Florence’s next steps, the dish station will be tidy and his talent in delivering fine American food will put down even deeper roots.
Where are you from?
Greenville, South Carolina
At what age did you begin cooking?
Professionally, at 15
From whom did you learn to cook?
Initially, from my paternal grandmother, Edith Florence, affectionately known as “Florence Mamma”
What dishes or ingredients define the place you grew up?
Grits, country ham and redeye gravy
What is your first food memory?
Favorite food memory?
Fried chicken thighs
What is the first dish that you remember cooking by yourself, or mostly by yourself?
Deconstructed frozen burritos
When did you first leave the South, and what/who was it that brought you out?
When I went to New York in 1994. I left to take a job at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole restaurant.
Southern ingredient you can’t live without?
Southern food you miss the most?
Fried oysters, eaten during summer vacations at the beach
Favorite Southern dish?
Whole hog smoked barbecue with Carolina barbecue sauce
Southern food you wish would never be served again?
How do you incorporate Northern California and/or international ingredients into Southern dishes?
I think it’s the other way around; I incorporate Southern ingredients into my dishes. It gives a rootsy truth to the food I cook.
Do you think your Southern heritage influenced your love and appreciation of food?
Yes, absolutely. Without question. My favorite times are sitting around a big table with friends and family.
Favorite Southern-based band and/or song?
Pie or cake?
Cake, coconut cake