Fast Talk: Tyler Florence

Fast Talk: Tyler Florence

Jean Claude Dhien
Jean Claude Dhien

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.


Salad of Roasted Beets and Arugula
Time: 20 minutes + roasting time
SERVES 6

2 pounds baby beets (2 to 3 bunches), washed and trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 cups Israel arugula, washed, dried, and hand-torn
Leaves from 1/2 bunch of celery, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup crumbled excellent quality blue cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

Start with the beets because they take a while to roast. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Now you'll need to make a pouch using two 12-inch sheets of aluminum foil. Lay one piece of foil on your work surface and put the beets in the center. Drizzle with a 3-count of olive oil and sprinkle with the thyme, salt, and pepper. Cover with the second piece of foil and crimp the edges several times to seal the pouch. Put that in the oven and roast for about 1 hour or until a knife goes smoothly into the beets. (You can stick the knife right through the foil.) Take the pouch out of the oven, open it up to let the beets cool, and then peel and cut each beet into four wedges. Put the beets in a large bowl, add the arugula, celery leaves, and walnuts, and toss it all together.

For the dressing, whisk together the blue cheese, sour cream, lemon juice, and water. Pour that over the salad and toss. Divide among 6 serving plates.

Veal Saltimbocca Alla Romana
Time: 45 minutes
Serve with Creamy Polenta with Raisins and Pine Nuts and Braised Escarole with Garlic and Lemon
SERVES 4

4 (5-ounce) thin sliced veal cutlets
4 thin slices prosciutto
8 fresh sage leaves, plus more for garnish
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
Lemon wedges, for serving

Put the veal cutlets side by side on a sheet of plastic wrap or waxed paper. Lay a piece of prosciutto on top of each cutlet and cover with another piece of plastic or waxed paper. Gently flatten the cutlets with a rolling pin or meat mallet, until the pieces are about 1/4-inch thick and the prosciutto has adhered to the veal. Remove the plastic or waxed paper and lay a couple of sage leaves in the center of each cutlet. Weave a toothpick in and out of the veal to secure the prosciutto and sage.

Put the flour in a shallow platter and season with a fair amount of salt and pepper. Mix with your fingers to incorporate the seasoning. Taste the flour; it should be well seasoned. Now dredge the veal in the seasoned flour and pat off the excess.

Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter and in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, put the veal in the pan, prosciutto-side down, and cook 3 minutes until crisp. Then flip the veal over and sauté the other side for about 2 minutes, until golden. Transfer the saltimbocca to a serving platter, remove the toothpicks, and keep warm while you make a quick pan sauce.

Add the wine to the pan, stirring to pick up all the delicious flavor stuck to the bottom. Let the wine cook down for a minute to burn off some of the alcohol. Add the chicken stock and the remaining tablespoon of butter, and swirl the pan around to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the saltimbocca, garnish with sage leaves and lemon wedges and serve it while it's hot.

Baked Polenta With Brown Butter and Pine Nuts
Time: 30 minutes
SERVES 4

1 quart chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a medium baking dish or gratin mold. In a large pot, bring the chicken stock and salt to a boil over medium heat. Gradually whisk in the cornmeal in a slow steady stream. The liquid will be absorbed and the cornmeal will lock up; don't freak, just whisk through it. Lower the heat and continue to whisk until the polenta is thick and smooth, about 20 minutes.

Add the cream and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Continue whisking until it is incorporated, and the polenta is creamy, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour into a buttered baking dish and bake until firm, about 30 minutes. To finish, put a small skillet over medium heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Swirl the pan over the heat and cook the butter until golden and nutty, about 1 minute. Add the raisins and pine nuts, tossing to coat in the brown butter. Put the polenta on a serving plate and pour the raisins and pine nuts over the top. Sprinkle with the Parmigiano cheese and serve.

Braised Escarole with Garlic and Lemon
Time: 30 minutes
SERVES 4

1 head escarole, about 1 pound
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
1/2 lemon, cut in thin slices
Pinch of sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups water, or chicken stock, homemade or store-bought

Separate the escarole leaves and wash them individually, taking care to remove any soil at the base of the stems. Shake the leaves dry, stack them up, and slice the escarole crosswise into ribbons about 1 1/2 inches wide.

Place a large deep skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil and butter. Toss in the garlic, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, and lemon slices. Cook, stirring for a couple of minutes, until you can smell everything cooking together. Nestle the escarole in the pan and sauté, stirring, until it begins to wilt and shrink down, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar and season with salt and pepper. Pour in the water or stock, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes, until the escarole is tender. Serve.

Roasted Leg of Lamb With Soft Fennel and Romescu Sauce
Time: 2 hours
Serves 8

1 leg of lamb (about 7 pounds), thighbone removed
5 garlic cloves
1/2 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe Turkish Spice Mix (below)

Fennel Confit:
3 fennel bulbs, trimmed and quartered
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil

Sweet Walnuts:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup walnut pieces
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 fresh hot red chile, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 recipe Romescu Sauce (below)

Stir together the garlic, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper to make a paste. Spread that over the inside of the leg of lamb. Tie the leg crosswise with several lengths of butchers twine. Coat the outside of the leg of lamb with the Turkish Spice Mix and set it on a rack in a roasting pan.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Put the fennel in a small, deep baking dish (or soufflé dish) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the lemon juice and enough oil to entirely cover the fennel (2 1/2 to 3 cups, maybe more depending on the size of the dish). Cover with aluminum foil. Put the lamb and the fennel in the oven and cook until the fennel is very soft and the lamb is medium-rare (135°F), about 1 hour for the fennel, and about 1 1/2 hours for the lamb. Let the lamb rest 10 minutes before slicing.

When the lamb is ready to slice, make the walnuts. Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the walnuts and cook, stirring, until toasted and browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the sugar, parsley, and chile, season with salt and pepper and cook just to wilt the chile, 1 to 2 more minutes. Slice the lamb against the grain and serve it with the fennel, Romescu sauce, and walnuts.

Romescu Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 roasted red pepper, torn into narrow strips by hand
1/2 cup walnuts, ground in a food processor to a coarse powder
1 fresh hot red chile, stemmed
Pinch of sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 cups homemade or store bought mayonnaise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Toss the garlic, roasted red pepper, ground walnuts, chile, sugar, lemon juice and mayonaisse into the food processor and process to blend. Taste for salt and pepper.

Turkish Spice Mix
Makes about 1/2 cup

3 tablespoons allspice berries
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cloves

Combine the spices in a dry skillet over low heat and toast for about 1 minute, or until you can smell the spices (heat releases the oils). Shake the pan while heating so the spices don’t scorch. Let them cool. Transfer to a spice mill or clean coffee grinder and grind to a powder. Use immediately or store in a sealed jar for up to 1 to 2 months.

Recipes from Eat This Book (Clarkson Potter), available March 2005.

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