FN Dish is counting down until the premiere of America’s Best Cook on Sunday at 9|8c. On the new show, four Food Network chefs representing the four regions of the United States mentor teams of exceptional home cooks in a competition to find America’s best cook. The winner walks away with the title and $50,000 in prize money. But which region will that winner be from? It could be North, South, East or West. The final result will be a testament to the mentor who coached the winner. Ahead of the premiere, FN Dish spoke with each of the mentors to find out more about the competition, mentoring strategies, what makes a good home cook and more.
On America’s Best Cook, Tyler Florence is representing the West. Tyler started out in the South and then worked for many years in New York City, so he’s got experience with three out of the four regions. But as a chef who has made his home on the West Coast and runs establishments there, Tyler is more than qualified to represent the West. He’s previously mentored home cooks and budding chefs on the shows Food 911, The Great Food Truck Race and Food Court Wars, and he’s ready to do the same again.
What are some words you’d use to describe the foods of the region you represent?
TF: Bright, crisp, sunny, clean, fresh, organic, healthy, terroir, electric, soulful, purposeful, emotional, American.
What type of qualities do you look for in a good home cook?
TF: I look for somebody who’s been around the block. I look for somebody who has to cook not because they have to but because they really love to. They put themselves in the situation because they enjoy it. I look for somebody who puts a lot of emotion behind everything that they do, even when they scramble eggs on the weekend, thinking through how that can be the best bite of food in that moment. And I’m looking for somebody who really loves cooking for their family, who takes pride in what that emotion means.
You’ve seen amateurs fail and succeed on your shows The Great Food Truck Race and Food Court Wars. Do you think that gives you an advantage with your home cooks, seeing that you know the recipe for success?
TF: Since Food 911, The Great Food Truck Race and Food Court Wars, I’ve been coaching home cooks for a very long time. I’m really good at this. It’s about mining their good skills and developing those to a razor-sharp edge.
Fans haven’t really seen you compete in cooking shows that often. Competing now as a mentor for the first time, what sort of knowledge and skills are you hoping to impart on your cooks?
TF: The most important thing is visualization, to be able to lock into a good idea, the kind that gives you goose bumps. Thinking “this is where we’re going to go” and then to really think through the details of what that dish is going to be like, look like, smell like, what the texture in your mouth is going to be like, just really completely seeing it in your mind, letting your mind be about 10 steps ahead of your actions. We don’t really have time to talk. These mentoring blocks are really small. I need their complete and utter focus. I’m hoping to impart the skill of visualization. If they can do that, they can see themselves being a winner, and if they put it out there, it will happen.
Coming up as a professional chef, who was your mentor?
TF: I’ve had a lot of really good mentors along the way: every chef I’ve ever worked for in Greenville, S.C., my hometown, and Charleston, S.C., where I was in culinary school, and then in New York City, where I moved to in the early ’90s and worked for Charlie Palmer, which was a big deal. I think my insatiable curiosity, having seen hard times when my back was up against the wall, and having no choice but to succeed has really given me a lot of fortitude, a titanium backbone, and there’s nothing that scares me.
What are some words of advice they gave you that you still keep close to you?
TF: In Charleston, when I was in culinary school (this is on day one, class one), Chef Victor Smurro, who’s from Brooklyn, walks up to my station, picks up my knife, feels the edge, looks at me and says, “Dull knife, dull chef.” Then he puts the knife down and walks away. I’ve never forgotten that. What does that mean? It’s all in the details. If you let one area in your life become sloppy and unorganized, it unravels really fast, and you can no longer control it. Sometimes you have to wipe everything out, start over and get back to that place. Keeping that mental check in your kitchen, your food, the quality of ingredients — even where you’re getting them from — you are kind of keeping your knife really sharp. Being creative is actually easy. The difficult part is getting to that Zen-like state. Once you’re there, things just flow like water.
Being that you’re from the South, do you think that will influence the food that your team puts out?
TF: I was raised in the South and I lived in New York City. I moved to New York City when I was about 20 years old and left when I was 36. I’m kind of from everywhere at this point. I think what I really love is very authentic American flavors and foods. I think the difference between grits and polenta is your grandmother’s last name. So taking American sensibilities — rustic, delicious, spicy, rich, feel-good types of sensibilities — and refining it, I think, is unmistakably American. You’re a product of your path. Where you’ve been sort of amalgamates into who you are, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without having grown up in the South. And my food wouldn’t be so good if I didn’t spend time in New York City. And I wouldn’t have a refreshed, enlightened view of food if I didn’t live in California now.
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