The interview gets dicey with author, 'Food 911' host

The most bizarre thing about an interview with Tyler Florence, host of the Food Network’s “Food 911,” is that he won’t always answer your questions.

This is not your garden-variety avoidance.

Instead of just saying he’d prefer not to answer, the boyish 34-year-old who looks as if he hasn’t shaved in about four days veers off in another direction. His direction. Without warning.

And we’re talking softball questions. For instance, ask him where he trained and he’ll say something like “Restaurants in New York City.” Really, which ones? At this point, he blatantly ignores the question and launches into a diatribe about the plethora of shows he hosts on the Food Network — along with “Food 911,” there’s “How to Boil Water” and “Tyler’s Ultimate.”  

How did he get so lucky?

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says.

Florence was in Washington earlier this week to discuss his latest book, Eat This Book: Cooking with Global Flavors, in which he draws inspirations from all over the world.

He was also here to cook at a sold-out wine dinner at the National Press Club. It’s his 14th stop on a lengthy national book tour that takes him to places such as San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as Houston, Freehold, N.J., and Atlanta. I caught up with him at his hotel, the Hotel Monaco, in the empty Poste restaurant.

Again, where did he train?
Intense awkwardness prevails. He stares, somewhat maniacally this time, and replies, “It isn’t important.” Isn’t important? Florence says he graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., with a culinary-arts degree and explains that many of the restaurants he trained at are now closed.

I finally pry the names out of him. They include Aureole (open), where he worked with Charlie Palmer, the River Café (open), Mad 61 (a catering company, still open), where he worked with Marta Pulini, and Cibo (open). “It’s kind of a crap restaurant,” he says. “It was really good when I was there, but then it fell apart.”

Other restaurants where he has worked: Amalfi in Tribeca (open) and Circa in the East Village (closed).

After graduating from Johnson & Wales, he moved to Brooklyn in 1991, where he lived with his then-wife and their son, who is now 9. Since then, he has gotten divorced, but he still sees his son. He says “being poor and hungry” in New York City is a great way “to build a backbone.”

This is not to say he was ever poor. “I wasn’t digging out of garbage cans,” he says. “Poor and hungry is a metaphor for starting out in life.” Recalling the days when he earned $8 an hour, he says, “It’s a simple, meager life, but you have ambitions.”

Florence has a manic air to him, and periodically grabs for his BlackBerry cell phone while sipping on Fiji artesian water.

He is neither fat nor thin. Dressed in blue jeans, a short-sleeve blue work shirt over a white T-shirt, and white sneakers, he looks like an overgrown teenager from the Midwest. The fact that he lives in a Lower East Side loft in Manhattan (which he casually mentions is featured in GQ this month) is revealed in his hip, spiky, haircut.

Florence insists the fame hasn’t gone to his head. He says he gets stopped by approximately 10 strangers a day who tap him on the shoulder to tell him they’ve cooked one of his recipes.

He prides himself on simplistic recipes that any cook can handle. (“Very simple food is the best food,” he says.) The strangers tell him that he has made them look good. He loves the praise.

He shrugs off being named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people in 2003, saying that each year People picks a chef and that year it was just his turn.

For this book tour, among other things, he has appeared on NBC’s “Today” show six or seven times, and he says he’s a close, personal friend of the host, Katie Couric — he says he has her number programmed into his cell phone.

Florence says he is enjoying the whirlwind book tour: “It’s life in the fast lane. To make a great project, you have to support it.”

What is one of the perks of his fame? “I can get a reservation in any restaurant in five minutes flat,” he says. A few minutes later, he adds, “I don’t assume I’m going to get special treatment. You have to be a nice guy. People see through you pretty fast; you can’t be an a- -hole.”

Again, we enter the Twilight Zone, or, should we say, Tyler World. I ask how he got his start in cooking, a fairly innocuous question for a chef, and he tells me he became a dishwasher at age 15 at The Fish Market (closed), an upscale restaurant in his hometown of Greenville, S.C.

He says he fell in love with the energy and choreography of putting together a dinner for 250 people every night. Pressed further about the transition between dishwasher and chef, he ignores the question.

“Haven’t you seen my shows on the Food Network?” he asks. Between 1996 and 1999, he says, he made 50 guest appearances on the Food Network before landing “Food 911” in 1999.

Perplexed. Stumped. Annoyed. Why can’t he answer the question on how he transitioned from dishwasher to chef? “It’s not that interesting,” he says, finally.

Oh, please, Tyler, indulge us.

Florence says his youth in South Carolina had an “enormous impact” on his cooking because he grew up with “deep and rich” flavors and traveled all over Europe to such places as Copenhagen, Italy and France.

Ultimately, Florence says, he wants to be Jacques Pepin, a chef who has had shows on PBS: “He’s a very respected, mature older guy. Everybody loves him.”

But for now, Florence will be Florence: He’s rich and single and says he has no trouble getting dates. “Just doing what I do helps me get dates,” he says.