Tyler Florence says Southern food is 'universally beige': 'Everything's kind of brown and good'

Tyler Florence started working at restaurants in his hometown of Greenville, S.C. when he was 13. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Tyler Florence started working at restaurants in his hometown of Greenville, S.C. when he was 13. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.

Tyler Florence is known as a Food Network superstar. With 16 cookbooks, multiple television show credits and a growing list of restaurants to his name, the 51-year old prides himself in being one of the cooking network's most popular chefs.

The culinary mogul recently signed another five-year contract with Food Network, started his 17th cookbook and entered a deal with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts to open two new restaurants in Hawaii and Colorado. But he says it seems like yesterday that he was a kid growing up in the northwestern South Carolina town of Greenville.

"As a person who grew up here," says Florence, speaking with Yahoo Life during his homecoming appearance in Greenville for the destination's Euphoria food wine and music festival. "I was very, very interested in food as a young kid, and started really committing to the restaurant life and working in restaurants here in Greenville when I was 13 years old. A lot of [those] restaurants have long-since closed, but those are the places that gave me a commitment to hospitality and food service."

Florence spoke about growing up in Greenville, S.C. at the town's annual food, wine and music festival, Euphoria. (Photo: Terri Peters)
Florence spoke about growing up in Greenville, S.C. at the town's annual food, wine and music festival, Euphoria. (Photo: Terri Peters)

"Looking back and seeing the oysters and the pimento cheese and biscuits — that's who I am as a person and how I got on that interesting track from South Carolina to New York City to California," he adds.

As a Southern boy at heart, Florence says there are certain foods that take him straight back to his childhood. "South Carolina tastes like ... hickory-smoked," he says. "It's pork shoulder, it's ribs and then you kind of get into the down-and-dirty side dishes like collard greens cooked down all day with a ham hock, fried okra, really good mac and cheese and macaroni salad."

But when faced with a choice between cornbread, rolls or biscuits on the side, he can't possibly choose.

"I'd probably pull off a little of each," he says, "but I think with cornbread, it depends on the cornbread."

His favorite cornbread? The kind straight from the box, which is what his mom would make. "I think the boxed kind is like cornbread cake," he says. "It has a high sugar quality to it and I kind of like that, to be honest."

But there's a type of cornbread from his youth that haunts the Worst Cooks in America judge. "My grandmother used to make cornbread that was really dry," he recalls. "She would make it in a big cast iron pan and it was dry as a bone, like you couldn't swallow it — it was this dry-ass cornbread. It was always a big thing but I didn't want to eat it."

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Today, Florence says everything he cooks is "filtered through the flavor profile of a kid from the South."

"Growing up in the South, I like to say everything's kind of brown and good," he says. "If you look at pictures of Southern food it's like … universally beige … but those colors are delicious and you take that from a cooking standpoint and know that the flavors are the most important part from an execution standpoint."

"I've had a chance to introduce people all around the country to flavors of the South," he adds, "and it'll always stick with me as a significant part of who I am."

Another significant part of the Great Food Truck Race host's career is mentoring the next generation of chefs. During his time visiting his hometown, he met with high school students interested in the culinary arts to share his own story of his rise to culinary fame with them. He also visits his alma mater, Johnson and Wales University, often to mentor rising chefs.

"I think in a lot of ways that's really where my heart's at," he says. "We try to make sure [culinary students] have a clear contemporary role model of somebody who is not of a bygone era — somebody who is out there in the workplace right now and has stood at the frontline of the industry and can let them know the life is going to be great and they're choosing a fantastic career."

At a dinner event that was part of the Euphoria festival, Florence prepared Southern dishes like fried chicken for guests. (Photo: Terri Peters)
At a dinner event that was part of the Euphoria festival, Florence prepared Southern dishes, like fried chicken, for guests. (Photo: Terri Peters)

And, after 26 years on television, Florence says he's found his work with food truck owners extremely rewarding as well. "Right now there's over 47,000 active food trucks in America, and we did that — The Great Food Truck Race did that," he says. "It's in its 16th season and we've proven that this tiny little niche in the industry has now been carved out as part of the restaurant culture in America."

So what advice does Florence have for aspiring food truck owners?

"If you really hustle, you can put six figures a year in your pocket — and if you have two trucks. you can double that," he says. "There's a new path to take versus just saying you're going to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant inside four walls — you can take four wheels and have a legitimate business."

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