Tyler Florence—itinerant chef, cookbook author, and host of the Food Network's Food 911, Tyler's Ultimate, and How to Boil Water—talks with Travel + Leisure about his plans to open a new restaurant in New York City's Nolita neighborhood, the ingredients he can't do without, and what inspired him to don a toque in the first place.
1. When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
I was 15, washing dishes at a restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina. The chef was a god to me: he drove a Harley and women stopped by to see him every night. I thought, That's what I want to do. I've since learned that cooks are like misfit poets—they travel the globe to learn from world-class chefs, they're socially unacceptable, and they work with their hands. I fell in love with the whole thing.
2. How often do you travel?
I travel all the time. I was on the road 280 days last year doing different shows for the Food Network. You can talk to people, read books, and taste food, but you never really get to know a place until you actually go there.
3. What was your first trip abroad like?
I went to Paris at age 19. I was totally broke-I ate only tomatoes, cheese, and baguettes-but it opened my eyes. Whenever I speak to culinary students, I tell them, "Max out your credit cards, take your knife kit and your Michelin Guide, go knock on a chef's door, and tell him you want to cook. Do it for free if you have to. The experience will change your life."
4. Any memorable moments during your travels for the Food Network?
While taping Tyler's Ultimate in Piedmont, I went looking for truffles with a B&B owner/tartufaio (truffle hunter) and his wife near some freshly cut cornfields. Mist was rising off the ground, and it was cool and damp, like the first autumn morning when you need a scarf. When his dog started digging up the earth, that distinctive truffle aroma filled the air—it's like a mix of old socks and sex. I put a few in my pocket, and I smelled like truffles for a month.
5. You've spent a lot of time in Italy for your shows. You must have a few other amazing finds.
In Montalcino, I went to the Biondi Santi winery, where Brunello wine was first made 120 years ago. This dapper Italian cat, Franco Biondi Santi, explained how his grandfather decided to put the right grape on the right hillside and document the whole process. Now, his notes are the road map for every Brunello. In the cellar, there was an area for the special reserves, and then a creaky old door that looked like some stage prop. Franco opened the door and revealed 400 bottles from 1955, valued at something like $4,000 a bottle. And then he opened a small box with some of his grandfather's first vintage—a few dusty old wine bottles with no labels or markings. But he knew what it was. And it's all about the heritage that went into that. You're talking about 120-year-old grape juice.
6. Are there certain ingredients that you always keep on hand?
My new favorite spice is Spanish paprika; it's smoky and rich and tastes meaty when you bite into it. Lemon is key—a couple drops of juice can really open up the flavor of a dish that's falling flat. I can't live without good salt. My favorite is Sicilian sea salt, because it tastes like dehydrated seawater. I'm much more into olive oil than butter. And then there's soy sauce. I live in Chinatown and love Asian food because the flavors are mind-blowingly complex; mix soy sauce with some ginger and chili paste—it's so delicious.
7. Is there any food you won't eat?
During a trip to Hong Kong, I was walking through the street food stalls with the intention of eating everything I could and decided to try the infamous hundred-year-old egg. It was preserved in lye; when it was cracked open, the yolk was black and snotty and smelled horrible. That's when I drew the line on what I would and wouldn't put in my mouth.
8. What is your favorite flavor?
The taste of coffee, especially really good espresso. But I'm also a big fan of miso. I think my last meal would be the black cod miso at Nobu. Either that or a big bowl of guacamole.
9. You're opening a restaurant in New York-can you tell us a little about it?
In Nolita I'm opening a place called Agridolce, which means "sweet agriculture," a twist on the Italian term for sweet and sour (agrodolce). It will look like a really gorgeous farmhouse, and half of the restaurant will be a market where we will champion artisanal producers and make farmers look like rock stars. For example, instead of 25 olive oils, there will be five with descriptions of why each one is amazing. Sort of like edited grocery store shopping. I want it to mirror the experience you have when you travel—I want you to touch it and really know it.
10. Where do you go when you want to get away?
I really like Miami—it's beautiful, it's warm, and the people are friendly. In some places, like Boston or Washington, D.C., there's a really heavy energy, and in others you just know you are in the right spot. That's what Miami is for me. I get off the plane and the stress just leaves my shoulders.