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

(Continued from page 1)

Tyler Florence
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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.

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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