With The Great Food Truck Race, host Tyler Florence helped take the grunge stigma out of street eats. Now the celebrity chef, 42, is tackling mall fare in his new show, Food Court Wars, premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday on Food Network.
We chatted with the South Carolinian from his Mill Valley, Calif., home that he shares with wife, former Miss Wyoming Tolan Clark, and two kids, Hayden, 6, and Dorothy, 4 (Florence also has a 17-year-old son, Miles, from his first marriage).
How does the show work?
We traveled to six towns in smalltown America. On each episode, I try to help two teams. I get a chance to either fix them or amplify their strengths in two days. We don’t tell them what to do. On Day 3, whoever makes the most money wins. What’s great is you don’t have to get locked in for the whole season. We give away six food-court restaurants rent-free for a year. Plus $10,000 in investment capital. Hopefully this creates a foot in the door for new culinary concepts to have a voice and space.
Are you a big food court guy?
Not at all. I didn’t grow up in a mall like everyone else. Now I’ve probably spent more time there than I ever have in my whole life! I’m not trying to say in some hyperbolic way that the stuff you get there is so good. Just the opposite. I think food in malls is atrocious. We are taking the energy that we put into The Great Food Truck Race to create this beautiful niche in lowering the bar where more people can get into the game and create more diversity and healthier options. In posher cities, you’re gonna get a little better experience because people are willing to pay more. But it’s pretty consistent from coast to coast. Right now, there’s kind of these homogenous, bland offerings. I want to make the food court sexy!
What trends should shoppers be looking out for when we’re out at the stores and getting hungry?
I’d say more natural cooking, but it won’t be focused necessarily on low carbs or salads, per se. Food that has a conscience. That’s the underlying message.
So you think this show will change the way people look at their mall eateries?
Yes, I do. I run restaurants in Northern California, and I know that it takes an enormous amount of capital and man hours and labor. Not everyone has the opportunity to raise the type of money needed. When we launched The Great Food Truck Race we had people saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re doing a show about those roach coaches that are out by construction sites? That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.’ I told the [naysayers], ‘You don’t understand how great they can be.’ Now they’re so popular.
You have various businesses, cookbooks, restaurants and TV shows. You’re constantly traveling. How do you juggle it all?
First and foremost, I’ve got an amazing wife. She holds the fort down and lets me be me. The next layer is my incredible staff that keeps the wheels on the bus and helps me make compelling television. I’m also really good on texts and emails. When I’m not filming, you’ll see me in a chair with my iPhone.
Are you one of those people who don’t need much sleep?
The older I get, the less I need. I take very, very good care of myself. I don’t want my judgment clouded; I’m always thinking. Sometimes I’ll jump out of bed in the middle of the night and have to get something done because my brain cannot rest. As soon as I do, I can go right back and not have a worried, fitful night. I’m very happy when I get to check stuff off my list.
Have you spoken to your former Food Network colleague Paula Deen? Do you think she’ll be back for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival?
I haven’t spoken to her, but did call her publicist. I’m sure this will all sort itself out eventually, but I’m not in a position to comment. I’ll be back in February for the festival. I don’t know about Paula.