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Q&A with JBF Taste America All-Star Tyler Florence

Hilary Deutsch

September 30, 2015

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A veteran of the food industry for over 20 years, Tyler Florence is one of the most well-recognized and trusted chefs in the country. With over a dozen cookbooks to his name and numerous seasons of Food Network cooking shows, Florence has helped introduce elevated cuisine that’s easy to prepare, presents beautifully, and is, above all, incredibly delicious and nurturing to enjoy. This weekend, the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America® cross-country culinary tour is stopping off in Seattle where Florence will promote his appreciation for local bounty with like-minded James Beard Award winner Thierry Rautureau, as well as the cream of the crop of the Seattle restaurant scene. Read on to discover where his love for wine started, why vegetables should take center stage, and how he’s working to make a difference in children’s lives.

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JBF: What are you most looking forward to about your upcoming visit to Seattle for Taste America?

Tyler Florence: What I really love about Seattle, especially at this time of year, is just the impeccable soft weather. It kind of feels like Ireland to me—it’s rainy, misty, and foggy. I just have this urge to wear a sweater and a rain jacket, go into Pike Place Market, taste really great seafood, and just walk around.

JBF: Is there a technique or ingredient you just can’t get enough of right now?

TF: There’s not really a technique I can’t get enough of because when we create menus, we let the marketplace dictate what we’re going to do. So we don’t really walk into the season with a preconceived notion of, “Oh, we’re going to sous-vide everything,” or “we’re going to foam everything.” I always try to focus on purity and clarity. I want whatever I make to be the best version of that flavor profile I’ve ever tasted and I want it to be a deep, emotional experience. I don’t want any distractions. We always talk about the high-definition channel between the tongue and the brain. It’s sort of a fuzzy signal; it’s not crystal clear. Then when you can make it crystal clear, it just takes you to this euphoric space, and that, to me, is the high art of cooking.

JBF: What are some of your favorite bars and restaurants to go to in the Bay Area?

TF: My wife and I love Trick Dog in San Francisco, it’s an amazing bar. My restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, gets 90 percent of my focus when I’m in town. My friend Paul Liebrandt was just visiting and we had dinner at Quince. It was just spectacular. I also think Saison’s fantastic.

JBF: You’ve created your own line of wines. What inspired you? And did you find yourself approaching the process with a chef’s eye?

TF: I did, and next year will be ten years since we've been making wine. I first became interested in wine when I was washing dishes in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Pairing wine together with food was something that felt like theater every night. Because he knew I was interested, the sommelier would walk back to the dish pit and explain the label and where the grapes were from, and I was really interested because there was a real story to tell.

We're doing what they call DTC, direct to customer, with our wines. We're trying to stay out of the mass-distribution system because it just puts too many people between our consumers and our brand. When we get down to the editorial process, it’s just like making soup. It's a different discipline, but when you get into it, you’re sculpting something with a range and clarity, and with the truth we were talking about earlier—the emotional connection, experience, and balance.

I don’t know why winemakers don’t collaborate with chefs more often because we meet at the same table. We have so much fun coming at it from different points of view with our winemaking team because they produce amazing, world-class wine, and when we get together, we collectively produce something different that we all step back from it and go, “Okay, that’s unique.”

JBF: You’re also one of the founders of Sprout organic baby foods. What motivated you to help start that company?

TF: As a parent myself, I just became increasingly concerned that there was no real option for parents to give their children a nutritious head start in life. And you see the kids that are addicted to burgers, pizza, French fries, and chicken nuggets—they’ve never had a healthy relationship with vegetables in their life. They don’t know anything about them, and were never introduced to them in a delicious way. So we started roasting vegetables and making purées that are naturally sweet without any kind of added sugar. If you just change the direction of baby food, there’s a gigantic market to jump into and really make a difference in children’s lives. It’s been a real joy creating Sprout. It’s an amazing brand, and it’s growing every day. 

JBF: What city is next on your “must-hit” list?

TF: My wife and I just got back from the Toronto Food and Wine Festival last weekend and Toronto’s on fire. The city feels so cosmopolitan, and there are so many great neighborhoods—there’s high-end food and prestigious food, and there’s bratty, fun food. We had a really good time. I’m glad people are starting to appreciate Toronto more as a major culinary destination.

JBF: What dish or ingredient is your culinary spirit animal?

TF: I think I have more of a herd than an animal. The reason I think our restaurant is busy, knock on wood, is that we have an incredible team that works together to create food that’s understandable. I couldn’t do it alone. What we like to do is collaborate to produce food that makes you walk out and think, “Well, that was just spectacular.” We like to geek out on where we get our ingredients from and what we like to do with them. We share a collective drive to find the truth.