Monday, July 19, 2010

TYLER FLORENCE ~ The name. The brand. The man. The Experience.

So I am looking at celebrating my first anniversary as a blogger! It’s an exciting benchmark, and one I’m proud to have accomplished. To commemorate this occasion, I thought I’d take a short break from blogging about the wonders of the many restaurants I’ve been blessed to visit, and let you know about another way to spend time enveloping yourselves in all things pertaining to food and it’s miraculous restorative properties:  the live celebrity demonstration~

A short while back I was extended an invitation to attend a Tyler Florence Event at the Macy’s Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton. The invitation was from the fabulous folks at the Macy’s Culinary Council featuring so many of your favorite celebrity chefs, among them Rick Bayless and Cat Cora. These events have always held an interest for me, but somehow I hadn’t yet managed to getting around to attending one. I wasn’t really sure quite what to expect.

I arrived promptly as instructed. My “press pass” allowed me to be escorted past the volumes of folks waiting for their time with Mr. Florence to a front row seat where I would be able to photograph with an unobstructed view and take my notes with room to write. Very classy. This particular demonstration and book-signing event was held in the cook wares department on the Third Floor of the Macy’s Home Section in the Pleasanton Store. Without an actual kitchen, the staff had pulled off a remarkable set. They had converted the large open area right there on the floor of housewares into an ample stage, complete with portable stoves, chopping surface and a nice elevated platform sufficient to allow the attendees a good view of the goings-on. This was all set up in front of seating that would accommodate over two hundred people. Pretty impressive. I have a good friend who used to set up similar events for a well-known and popular line of cookware, so I know what a large amount of energy and teamwork it takes to set one of these events up so professionally. This one went off pretty much without a hitch. Gotta tip my hat to the people at the Macy's Culinary Council.

Though I’d never attended an event like this before, I’d strolled by several similar events in progress at various times over the years. Once seated, I thought this event might be similar, but by the time the sous chef had prepped all of Tyler’s pre-show ingredients, and we had been served cucumber-flavored water --- with a hint of mint & lime --- by an army of staff clad in white shirts and black ties, I realized I was mistaken. This was going to be a high-class event for a Twenty-First Century Foodie. The water was a welcome delight as, at this point, having arrived so much earlier than the others, I was growing thirsty from the long wait. Nice touch, that.

A higher class presentation makes all the sense in the world, since today’s home chefs and food-goods consumers are a much more educated and knowledgeable group than the housewives who might have purchased an old-fashioned vegetable slicer and dicer from the carnival barkers of my childhood. Not that Donna Reed and my beloved mother didn't know their way around a kitchen, but I'd bet good money that neither of them had ever heard of a Meyer Lemon or Star Anise back in the day.

Shortly after completion of the prep, Tyler Florence arrived. After a very warm welcome for our host, we were off. I found him charming, and more importantly, completely authentic. I expected a lot of sales pitch, and that the presentation would feel a bit like a direct-marketing session. It would have been fair to utilize my time this way, since this was a book-signing and promotional event. But this delightful young man is a real performer, and he was there to give me a show. I think it's fair to say he gave more than he got. After putting the audience at ease, Tyler began to chat easily about himself and what he’s passionate about. No surprise that much of what he is passionate about is food. His niche market would seem to be homestyle cooking, and feeding a young family. That seems appropriate, as he is a father of several young children himself. (I saw him shopping for baby dresses for his little daughter before the presentation, and found it heartwarming to see a celebrity parent so genuinely and obviously involved with his kids).

Tyler promotes meals you can feed adults and kids alike. Simple. Flavorful. Easy prep, great food. He spoke about honing the palates of young children by exposing them to variety before the natural “fight or flight” instincts kick in at just about three years old.  If they haven’t learned a taste by then, he believes a child may run from experiencing that taste for years --- perhaps forever. He suggested that if we want our kids to follow in their foodie parents’ footsteps, we may wish to open their palates by ensuring that they eat from a wide selection of food-types while very young, before that window closes. For that reason, he began his own line of organic baby food, Tyler Florence's Sprout!

Throughout the presentation he was unflappable, warm, engaging, and completely winning. I have never seen anyone so natural at speaking, nor as well informed on his own topics. He began his cooking demo by filling us all in on what projects he’s currently got in the works, chatting easily through this delightful spiral of topics covering dozens of various enterprises.

Tyler Florence is literally a whirling dervish of production. He’s got a new show coming out on the Food Network, entitled "The Great Food-Truck Race. ” He’s opening a restaurant in his new home base of Mill Valley, in partnership with Sammy Hagar. He’s got a Napa Restaurant in the works that will serve something called “fast casual.” Tyler described it as, “on one side will be roast chicken, and on the other, wine splits.” He’s got a line of wine coming out, the result of a collaboration with renowned vintner Michael Mondavi. In response to an audience questioner as to the name of the line of wine, Tyler flashed his boyish smile and said, “Well, it’ll be called ‘Tyler Florence’.” Of course it will.

One of the last items he discussed as he verbally juggled the many balls he’s got in the air, metaphorically speaking, was his new iPhone app, “Tyler Florence’s ‘Fast!’ .” This application is a shop and browse recipe application. Ironically enough, I’d just checked it out the day before when looking for something handy to drag around with me to the market.  At the time I didn't purchase it.  The Fast! application allows a shopper in the grocery to select meals based on fresh ingredients spotted while shopping, and then to group those recipe choices with other recipe choices designed to compliment them.  Instant menu.  Smart!

It may actually be one of the best applications I’ve ever purchased.  Tyler Florence’s Fast! is slick to look at as well.  Every button is intuitive to the user. The application itself is attractive, its color scheme a clean masculine combination of wood, blue & copper. The layout is smooth and the flash presentations are sparingly used and all run smoothly without interfering in the apps' practical uses. No feature inhibits the function of the application itself, which is impressive.  That is, after all the goal.  I’m currently using it on my iPhone and very very happy with it. It’s got a higher price tag than most apps, but I can honestly say it is money well spent.

Tyler made us three recipes, and all were delicious. He whipped up a Filet of Petrale Sole Almondine, which I know children will like because I myself dined on it regularly as a small child. I’m pretty sure it was the first dish I ever ate when dining out at a restaurant with family. Tyler followed his sole dish by whipping up some stunningly tasty mashed potatoes. His special ‘trick’ is to boil them in milk rather than water, which allows the potatoes to retain all of the vitamins ordinarily lost when the water is drained away. Instead of tossing it, he mashes the potatoes right back into their cooking liquid. The result is a creamy and flavorful mixture that just about any member of the family will enjoy. His final dish of the presentation, was a simple baking sheet topped with green beans, which were roasted with a parmesan “frico,” (FREE-ko). A frico is that lovely, crunchy, crust of melted cheese formed when the cheese bakes soft and then cools and hardens into nice crunchy bites of crispy goodness. At the conclusion of the demonstration, we were all provided tasting plates of the foods prepared, along with printouts of Tyler’s recipes. Tyler fairly beamed as he let us know that this event was “sold out” the same day it was announced, with over 225 reservations. This was part of a believably heartfelt thank you. Again with the classy.

More impressive than Tyler’s talent, or his many projects, was his personality. My front row seat made it evident that he’s the real deal. He was unfailingly kind and respectful to the staff assisting him. The preparation was so thorough that the bumps were minor, but for the few curves he was thrown, Tyler handled them with aplomb, never losing his cool. Never at a loss for words, there was no lull he didn’t turn into a moment of control. Tyler Florence is one polished performer, his love for what he does constantly shining through. When Tyler says he cooks for the reward of the bliss on his diner’s faces, there’s no question that he’s being sincere. He really does want to see “your eyes roll back in your head” when you eat his food. Boyishly charming, extremely easy on the eyes, Tyler Florence is the definition of Panache!

I was hoping to check out Wayfare Tavern, the new restaurant of Tyler’s that was to open about a week after this presentation, on June 22, 2010. Wayfare Tavern is located in the Old Rubicon, right next to the Trans America Building in San Francisco. They serve what Tyler termed “American Traditional” featuring such treats as Fried Chicken and Burgers. I have been holding the review trying to snag a reservation for Wayfare so I could get in on the ground floor to sum it up for you, but to date I have been unable to do so. Since there was already so much to say about Tyler and his culinary exploits, I decided to break it up and write him up in two parts. Coming soon to a blog near you: Tyler Florence, Part Two — Wayfare Tavern.

It was evident from this up-close and personal time with the man, that Tyler Florence likes to impart simple, honest flavors in his cooking. He instructs with an easy, manageable style of preparation that makes every witness to it want to jump up and begin cooking. He begins each dish with the freshest ingredients and approaches his cuisine with the assuredness of a seasoned pro who understands food. I was struck as he handled the green beans, discussing their natural sugary goodness, going into depth about how that goodness could only be coaxed out by roasting them. How boiling them would drain them of vitamins and flavor. His passion for the food and his sincere relationship with preparing it well, was arresting. Here is a man who conveys with every gesture that he really, really likes what he does, and that he wants you to enjoy it, too.

What he does is cook for people and teach people how to cook well for themselves. He is someone who imparts a great amount of wisdom in a short amount of time. He is able to sell you on his latest project, and bring you in so close you want to buy what he’s selling, because you know if you do, you will have gotten your money’s worth. I have spent decades in the kitchen and even I learned quite a bit from this handsome young man with a spatula. Tyler Florence is the American Everyman, your neighbor, your brother, your friend. A charmer with a sales pitch, this young man is selling something authentic, something worth buying. I say: Get all you can while it’s still hot!

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