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Tyler Florence: The Man Who Only Speaks Marketingese

Tyler Florence and the great food trucks.
Tyler Florence and the great food trucks.
Photo: Food Network

Recently I had a chance to speak with Tyler Florence on the phone. Florence is the handsome Ur-celebrity chef. I was happy not to see him so as to avoid being bamboozled by his shayna punim. That's his shtick: Though few serious chefs hold him in high esteem, he is wildly popular. Florence routinely figures into the fantasies of American women, hoisting them onto a marble island and ravishing them with his dimples and heirloom tomatoes. We spoke about his new Food Network show, The Great Food Truck Race, which debuts August 15th. There's absolutely no way to sway this guy from the marketing line. If there's a question he doesn't want to answer, he just answers another one. Smart. He's a half-politician, half-chef chimera, always on message, always so handsome. Even over the phone his voice is handsome.

I was just reading about figs on the plate kerfluffle.

Oh yeah, the figs on the plate thing. To me it's like one of those things we where you've got to take a stand and say, "You know, we do put figs on a plate. Because we have the best figs in the country." You know, real men eat figs.

Are there going to be David Chang pork buns, too?
We actually have figs on the menu two places. We have it as an appetizer and then we have figs 2.0 as a dessert.

Figs on a Plate is the new Snakes on a Plane of 2010.
Yeah, it rolls off the tongue.

Tell me about your new project, The Great Food Truck Race.
It's one of the biggest shows the Food Network has embarked on. It's a really exciting journey with seven of the best food trucks in the country who race across America. It's like Cannonball Run but with food trucks.

Presumably every truck would get there quicker if they didn't stop, right?
Well, it's a race from one city to the next. And once they arrive that's when the competition begins. It's a 72-hour challenge with no rules. So people can be as creative as they want, they can be as conservative as they want to. Every truck is given the same amount of start-up money. They start from scratch every single city.

Do they maintain their shtick? Would a taco truck always be a taco truck?
There's no rules. They can make it up as they go. Some trucks stick to their formula to their detriment. Some trucks learn how to adapt to different communities. If we're in one community where burgers are big and we go to another where they aren't, they think, "Do we want to do this or do we want to survive?" It's a fight for survival on the streets between the best food trucks in America. It's a competition reality television show, but it's also a documentary.

What are some of the lessons you've learned about in your crisscrossing of America, it's not every day you get to take a journey like that.
Everybody we tapped for the show is very good at what they do. The difference between surviving and not surviving is getting the word out and marketing. It's never really about the food.

Does that message resonate with you, personally? You are a food personality who is omnipresent in a bunch of multimedia platforms integrated for a 360 degree approach?
Yeah, we're diversified. I mean, I've been doing this for fifteen years. Anyway?[pause] the whole food truck thing began two years ago when the economy crashed. The idea of four walls was bourgeois. But what about the idea of four wheels? We can take this concept out on the road and give people what they want when they want it.

In terms of lessons learned, not so much about the food trucks but about Americans, it's almost a Travels with Charley-type road trip. Were there any insights you gained about the American character, whether food-related or not?
We were really surprised by what resonated with communities. Because I'm the host of the show I'm also the axe-man. The trucks that were sent home were the ones that didn't know how to adapt to survive. It was about fortitude and working together as a team and not giving up. We learned how confident people can be up against the wall and what they're made of.

And in terms of people who aren't the contestants, presumably you had a lot of dealing with people who ate at these trucks?
That's what's so great about the show. Usually there's a judgment panel at the end of it telling you what to think. We let the American people tell us what they thought by voting with their wallet. That's what's so great about the show. It's a rock n' roll show about making money in a new business environment.

It premieres August 15th.


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