Tyler Florence's Guide To Food Trucks To Celebrate The Great Food Truck Race - Exclusive Interview

It's been nearly a decade and a half since Tyler Florence started hosting "The Great Food Truck Race." But the Food Network star isn't about to give us another Padma Lakshmi-like moment this year and pull on our heartstrings by announcing his out — "I enjoy it so much," he affirmed to Tasting Table when we sat down with him to celebrate Season 16 of the show.

Florence serves up famously good, $37 buttermilk-brined organic fried chicken and a $25 brie and smoked bacon-topped cheeseburger at his flagship restaurant, Wayfare Tavern, which consistently makes it onto San Francisco's various best burger lists. But just because he knows how to do what he described to us as the "glorious high art of expensive steakhouse burgers" doesn't mean the chef doesn't delight in simple, cheap, delicious street food. The two-time James Beard Nominee for Best West Coast Chef loves himself an American-cheese-heavy smash burger and was more than happy to give us pointers for making our own at home.

He also told us that he's passionate about offering himself up as a mentor and resource to the contestants on "The Great Food Truck Race," gushing about this season's "beautiful," "vibrant" food offerings. Season 16 is "David and Goliath" themed, but it simultaneously showcases the nation's food culture diversity (from crepes to Pakistani curries to Puerto Rican-Miami fare to Bostonian meatball subs). If what Florence told us is anything to go by, we're in for quite a ride.  

Tyler Florence reveals his food truck concept

Congratulations, first of all, on 16 seasons. How has hosting "The Great Food Truck Race" changed the way you order street food or make decisions about what to order off of a street food menu?

We started the show in 2010, so the show's been on for 14 years now. It's crazy. The industry has blown out [to] where there's like 47,000 active food trucks in America, and "The Great Food Truck Race" has had so much to do with that. We've been this North Star for young culinary startups that want to jump into the business and get something going for themselves. Where brick-and-mortar restaurants can be expensive — a $4 million, $6 million business — you can get going with a food truck for $50,000 sometimes. It's a low bar to get a high level of impact out of a mini mobile restaurant, and you can make just as much money off a food truck as you can a brick-and-mortar restaurant with less cost ...

It's also a great catering vehicle to have as a separate addendum to a brick-and-mortar restaurant ... Eleven Madison Park has a food truck. Some of the best restaurants in America have food trucks, so it's cool. To answer your question, so many amazing food mash-ups start on food trucks because now it's the safe place to be inventive. You feel like you're going to get some great, cool, new concepts off of food trucks, whereas with a brick-and-mortar restaurant, sometimes people have to play it safe because it's too much risk to be edgy. [With] a food truck, they can go, "Let's just do it," because they got nothing to lose.

One of the keys to success on "The Great Food Truck Race" is a great concept. If we're going to push you, if you were going to open a food truck tomorrow, what would your great concept be?

One of our signature dishes at Wayfare Tavern, which is our flagship restaurant in San Francisco, was our fried chicken ... As a matter of fact, during the pandemic, we did the Wayfare Tavern Fried Chicken Truck for two years, and it was really successful. We had so much fun doing that. That's what I would do.

That's also my advice to startups or even professionals — fewer, better dishes. A food truck is all about celebrating your signature item. You have to be known for one thing in particular. I would have a very lean menu. I would have two or three or four things tops and maybe variations of that, but be known for something and be good at one thing really, really well.

Tyler Florence's favorite fried chicken flavor combo is solidly Southern

You're very well known for fried chicken ... Could you give us your top unusual or underrated fried chicken combos that would really pop eyes in a food truck scenario?

There's so many different variations of that between Japanese fried chicken and Korean fried chicken, American fried chicken, and then that breaks down to Nashville Hot and all kinds of fun combinations. But what really works out with chicken is a combination between spicy and sweet. Those combinations are always awesome. You can see those [in] chicken and waffles, for example. It's the combination between the sweet vanilla aroma of the wok bowl and the maple syrup that you drizzle over top of the crispy black pepper fried chicken. Those combinations always taste good.

Tyler Florence teaches us to up our fried chicken game

What are the most common mistakes people are making when frying chicken at home? How can we up our game?

It's pretty step-y. Fried chicken is not overly complicated, but it's a big commitment. You got a big pot of oil that's going to get hot. You got chicken that's marinating in buttermilk ... My grandmother in Georgia used to make fried chicken in a cast iron pan, and she would shallow-fry it. You put oil halfway up to the mark in a cast iron pan. It makes really good fried chicken. It makes better chicken fried steak — thinner cuts are great. If you're going to cook it, shallow fry it.

Deep-fried is where you're going to get the most crispy texture of all because it cooks at the same time. You have to think through a big pot of oil. Start off at 375 degrees because you're going to put cold oil into that. Setting the oil at a proper temperature is [a] good clutch to not mess it up, because if it's too hot, it's going to burn before it cooks all the way through. If it's too cold, the crust is going to balloon off because it steams before it gets crispy. Start at 375, and when you put your chicken in, it's going to settle at that proper temperature at 350, which is exactly where you want to cook it.

Then, thinking through the crust is important. It's got to be big, bold flavors — a lot of black pepper, a lot of garlic powder, a lot of onion powder. I don't put paprika in mine, but some people do. The pre-step is to make sure that you get chicken in a good buttermilk bath. That's where I like to add my hot sauce.

Buttermilk and hot sauce?

And a little bit of sugar, so you're balancing it out. It's thinking through the flavor. The combination between spicy, sour, salty, and sweet — it's great. You can make it spicy at the end if you want, but I enjoy a spicy condiment to go along with it. I like to enjoy super savory, heavy black pepper. If you want to make it spicy, that's where you go for that big, dusty bit. Or if you want to drizzle with hot sauce or splash it with hot sauce, that goes on right to your end.

The food truck that blew Tyler Florence away on Season 16

Let's dig into sauces, because, as anybody who's ever watched a culinary competition knows — whether it's "Worst Cooks in America" or "The Great Food Truck Race" — a sauce can save a dish, right?

Sauces can cover up a lot, that's for sure, when it comes to cooking. Sauces in particular ... What's your favorite?

I really like chili oils.

Me too. I love chili oil.

From this season of "The Great Food Truck Race," do you have any sauce memories that stand out to you or surprised you?

A bunch! Oh, my gosh. There's a truck from Detroit, which is Pakistani street food, called Khana, and they crushed it. Their sauces were incredible. There's a common shelf of curry spices and curry flavors that Indian cuisine and Pakistani cuisine [share] — [they're] obviously very different but sort of similar in flavor profile. You taste it, and you know what part of the world they're from.

The flavors were incredible. Their approach to creating curries ... blended with coconut milk, I think that was ... Some of the most vibrant food that we had came from Khana. It was such a pleasant surprise because ... we've certainly never had a Pakistani food truck before, and I was blown away by how delicious it was.

Tyler Florence teaches us to succeed at curry sauce

If we were going to take the idea of a Pakistani curry sauce, could you give us a quick, off-the-top-of-your-head home recipe that we could try?

Putting together a great Southeastern Asian, Pakistani, Indian curry flavor profile, you got to start off with fried hard spices. You definitely want to think through frying mustard seeds and frying grilled hard spices that are going to start to perfume and create the aroma. The next layer is going to be the onions and garlic and ginger, which is going to be the bulk for the sauce itself. In that, you throw in the curry spices. That's where you get the complexity of the different ... curries and things you're going to add to that. The last part of that is going to be either a tomato element or a coconut element, or sometimes it's both.

Coconut milk is such a great thing that most people should have in their pantry because it's like instant sauce in so many different ways. It's so easy to create beautiful coconut-based sauces, and kids love it because it's got a sweet flavor profile. [Add] that, let the flavors simmer, and hit that into the blender, and then puree it so you get this bulk viscosity — then you also get the explosion and the flavor at the same time because you create this velvety puree of all of it.

If you create a beautiful curry sauce from scratch, you want to fold in your protein right at the last second so it almost poaches in the finished sauce, versus adding the proteins too early, so they don't feel like they've been boiled. You want them to be succulent and just finished. I like to make the sauces first and then fold the protein right at the last second.

Tyler Florence gives us a master class in street burgers

Burgers are a quintessential street food. You once admitted that a late-night burger with cheese and bacon is always a guilty pleasure. The first "Great Food Truck Race" winner specialized in monster hamburgers ... What ingredients, sauces, and toppings do you look for in a great street food burger?

At my restaurant in San Francisco, we have a $25 hamburger. It's dry age grinds. It's a 75-25 fat-to-lean ratio. It's bacon jam, it's a brioche bun, it's melted brie. It's the glorious high art of expensive steakhouse burgers. It's great. I love it — often called the best burger in San Francisco, and I love that.

Now, when you're talking about food truck burgers, you're going to jump into smash burgers — which is a different genre — which are awesome, too. But you're still talking about a good fat-to-lean ratio ... That's going to be important if you're making a good smash burger. It's a griddle burger; it's not a grilled burger. We make smash burgers at home all the time on my pancake griddle, which is a great place to make smash burgers because when I pull out the pancake griddle, I can make eight double patties at a time ...

It's either minced onion or julienned onion, but you want to put a little bit of onion down first. That's going to be the place that you get the smash burger going. Then you take your burgers and you roll them into a ball first, drop them onto the onions as they're starting to ... almost White Castle-style. Put it on top of the onions as they cook. The smash part of it is where you take a spatula and smash it into the onions, because what you're trying to create is a quick-cook where the edges get nice and crispy, but the texture of the meat is super soft.

The onions are going to create a level of moisture and flavor and savoriness, which is fun. When you go smash burgers, you got to go two stacks; you got to go double-double. You put cheese on them ... and then top it off with bacon and animal sauce or barbecue sauce or however you want to go with it. 

What is your favorite cheese for a Smash burger?

You got to go American. Don't come at me with anything else. It's dumb; you can't go too fancy with it. At Miller & Lux and Wayfare Tavern — our restaurants in San Francisco — we use triple cream brie. That's actually my favorite cheese on top of a burger because it has this soft mushroom note to it and it has high fat content. When you get into it, there's a level of unctuousness [that] is special. But with smash burgers, it's got to be the 64 slices of American cheese, single-wrapped. That's what you got to go with, because anything else is going to feel too fancy and silly.

The food trucks that inspired Tyler Florence this season

We went through what dishes took you by surprise when we got into that food truck, but are there any techniques, ingredients, or combos from this season that inspired your cooking?

What I was inspired by was the passion that a lot of the teams brought to the table on what they were cooking specifically, because [there's] always best in category for everything. We had a team from Atlanta, Lisa's Creperie, and her crepes were amazing. It seems easy in a lot of ways, but it's always a beautiful canvas to create fun, sweet and savory combinations with crepes. I don't think we've ever had a crepe truck, which is wild. They really blew it out. They had a good time doing it.

We had this truck called Da Bald Guy from Honolulu. That was crazy, too, because you get this Polynesian, slightly Japanese thing with their cooking, which was awesome. They really brought it out. They were incredible.

We had a team called D'Pura Cepa ... Originally, they were from Puerto Rico, but now they're coming out of Miami. They smashed it and they had a good time. We had three knuckleheads from Boston; they were making great meatball sandwiches. Their food was fantastic. In "The Great Food Truck Race," this season, you're going to see this beautiful slice of American pie.

[In] a lot of ways, [I'm] watching their passion and getting a chance to spend a lot of good time with them as a mentor — because a lot of these food trucks and a lot of these teams are just getting started, and I've been around the block so many times. [I'm] helping them, like, "What's your next step? Tell me about your brand. Tell me about your business. How are you growing here? What are you going to do out when the show gets out?"

That's one of my favorite things about spending time with the teams — getting them prepared for the success of the show and [making] sure that they've got an avenue with me [so] that they can ask me questions on what it takes to build a good, successful brand.

The red flag that should stop you from ordering at a food truck, per Tyler Florence

Let's talk your biggest green lights for picking out a food truck vendor on the street. What should we be looking for that says, "Yes, I want to eat here"?

The beautiful thing about food trucks is their billboard ... It's 50-50. You've got a kitchen, and you literally have this mobile billboard you're driving around the city with. When food trucks are clever and [have] a thoughtful, tasteful design that celebrates what they do, and it looks like a carnival, or it looks fresh and clean, or — most importantly — it looks happy ... The design of the food truck should communicate with people exactly what your brand is. As they're driving by your truck going 35 miles an hour on the road, they're going to give you two seconds to communicate that thought. The design of the food truck needs to be really important and something that is a careful consideration for the design itself.

That's the most important thing. The second thing is going to be placement. When you're driving a food truck, you got to make sure that you're visible and there's plenty of parking where you're going to go. If I see a food truck or I'm searching out food trucks specifically, make sure that you're adjacent to a place that's easy to get to and the parking's going to be convenient for me — make it easy to enjoy it.

Some people — and this is a rookie mistake on "The Great Food Truck Race" — think about visibility, and they don't think about parking. Sometimes it may not be the most visible place. If you've got a strong social media game that you can tell people where you're going to be, the most important thing over visibility is making sure that you're associated with a place where people can park their cars.

Is there any red flag that would turn you away from a food truck as a customer?

If the truck is dirty, if they haven't washed the food truck, how good can the food possibly be? If you get some truck that looks a little banged up, I don't think I'm going to be eating from it.

Tyler Florence recommends his favorite LA food truck

Do you have any recommendations yourself? From traveling the States, what are the top food trucks that you would go back to?

Gosh, the food trucks flip over so quickly. There's the Kogi Barbecue team in LA — it's always a good time. That's a great place to start. But the food trucks from this season of "The Great Food Truck Race," they're everywhere: Atlanta, Brooklyn, Denver, Miami, LA. There's great food trucks everywhere ... That's always an exciting part of the journey, to see the startups and to see them get going and doing great things with the craft of it.

You have been going for 16 seasons. Padma Lakshmi just announced after 21 seasons of "Top Chef " that she's out the door. Have you given thought to when it's time for you to move on from "The Great Food Truck Race," or is this something you are hoping to continue indefinitely?

Well, listen, we're always evolving. We're definitely into our restaurants more than we've ever been. We're opening up Miller & Lux in Hawaii at the Four Seasons Hualalai. We're in a real growth pattern right now with the restaurants.

This is my 27th year on the Food Network. I love them to death, and we'll keep going as long as they'll have us, because it's such a rarefied air to do what we're doing as long as we have. I enjoy it so much. Padma is amazing as well — she's a friend. It's great. It's amazing to watch it evolve and make room for a new generation of folks coming in. But we're still here, and we're having a great time doing it.

Tune into the next episode of "The Great Food Truck Race" Season 16 ("David vs. Goliath: Meet Mookie"), which premieres Sunday, June 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Eight food truck teams can't believe their eyes when Tyler welcomes pro baseball legend Mookie Betts to judge a ballpark eats challenge — with the winner receiving the largest reward in the history of the race.

This interview has been edited for clarity.