December 26, 2012

From empire's ashes, chef rises to the occasions

Tyler Florence starts anew in California with four restaurants, a retail store, baby food and more.

By J.M. HIRSCH, The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Tyler Florence is trying to block out the noise.

Tyler Florence
click image to enlarge

Tyler Florence visits with customers at his Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco.

Photos by The Associated Press

Tyler Florence
click image to enlarge

Tyler Florence puts a finishing touch on his fried chicken dish in the kitchen.

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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