Food & Drink

How Tyler Florence’s South Carolina Roots Inspired His New Grilling Cookbook

Life’s heating up for the Greenville-born restaurateur, cookbook author, and TV star

A man sits at a table with food with cameras pointed at him.


Florence hamming (steaking?) it up at his Miller & Lux restaurant in San Francisco.

Tyler Florence has spotted a tom turkey, one of two dozen meandering in the driveway of the home he shares with his wife, Tolan, and three children in her Marin County hometown, just north of San Francisco. “I’ve been outside twice today to get the mail,” he says with a laugh. “This turkey has been eyeballing me!” The bowhunter plans to head to Sonoma the next week to bag one, and if he succeeds, “I’ll smoke it, shred it, and make a big gumbo out of it.”

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As the fifty-three-year-old native of Greenville, South Carolina, bounces with enthusiasm between topics—the spring turkey season, his cast-iron collection, the secret to the multistep sous vide fried chicken he serves at his Wayfare Tavern (a dollop of buttermilk brine in the breading mix to create “crispies”)—it becomes apparent that the energy needed to juggle his family life, six (soon eight) restaurants, multiple Food Network shows, and the development and release of his new (and seventeenth) cookbook, American Grill, must come naturally, with no ebbing in sight. “We’ve never been more creative,” Florence says of his team. “Our food has never been better. I feel like we’re kind of turning into this rare 1971 vintage that’s just starting to peak right now.”

Taking a seat at Miller & Lux.

Greenville’s exploded in the last decade. What was it like growing up there?

It was a little enclave that seemed to have a progressive, intelligent population. So when Michelin moved to Greenville [in 1985], there was an influx of the European point of view. Then Ristorante Bergamo opened on Main Street, and Addys Dutch Cafe opened around the corner, and all these wonderful little restaurants just started to happen. It felt like we were carving our own niche out of the world.

You were a latchkey kid. Did you cook for yourself?

Growing up in a typical divorce setup, you have to help your single parent out by being supportive and taking care of yourself in a lot of ways. I taught myself how to cook by using a blueberry muffin mix in a bag that you added milk and eggs to, and then we’d have fresh-baked muffins in the morning. Or one of my big party tricks was taking frozen burritos and popping them in the microwave just long enough so you could bend them open, stuff them with cheese, then stick them back into the microwave. And then you get this really good, super-cheesy burrito. I ran a very successful nonprofit restaurant at my mom’s house, where I would just literally cook for all of my skateboard friends. [Laughs.]

Your grandparents influenced you too.

My paternal grandfather used to—because he was a kid of the Depression era—barter for a lot of their sustenance. “I’ll work for that side of ham…” He lived in a very, very rural place, outside of Augusta, Georgia, in an old town called Lincolnton. And he had a smokehouse and used to smoke his own ham. And then my maternal grandmother in North Carolina had this really big garden. On summer vacations, my mom would ship me off to High Point, and I remember picking green beans by the bushel. She canned, and had this massive cellar full of the most delicious vegetables, corn and tomatoes and green beans and lima beans. It was always kind of a family joke that I didn’t like her green beans, but I really, really did. She used to cook the bejesus out of them—until they were just absolute mush with onion and bacon and black pepper. Unbelievably delicious.

In a lot of ways, some of the things we work on here in the kitchen, I’m like, take it down to the next level, just past al dente; there’s a deep savoriness that melds into the overall flavor profile when the starches turn into sugars. And so I carry that stuff with me today.

You’re big into cooking with seasonal vegetables. What’s your own home garden like?

We have apples and pears that we make into a mock aqua vitae— punch ’em with a chopstick, fill a big container with vodka, and throw in cinnamon sticks and star anise and fresh bay leaves from our backyard and Meyer lemon peel. We let it macerate for almost a year, then decant and strain it and you have almost like a cognac or a brandy flavor profile, which is wonderful on a cold winter night by the fire. I make hot sauce every year from the ten-plus varieties of chiles we grow…

Do you eat your tomato sandwiches over a sink?

We grow three different styles of tomatoes: small for salads, medium for sauce—we can a bunch of those—and large-format tomatoes for sandwiches, just to have that exact experience. We’re talking white bread, mayonnaise, heavy salt and fresh-cracked pepper, juicy tomato so big it covers the lip of bread. And you got to go Duke’s or go home, right?

Florence tucked into a booth, a glass of his own M&L cabernet sauvignon in hand.

In American Grill, you draw a direct line from your childhood to your steak houses and now this book on grilling.

I started working in restaurants when I was fifteen, washing dishes at the Fishmarket in Greenville, the nicest restaurant in town. A lot of mauve; the waiters wore tuxedos with a frilly shirt and cummerbund. And in the kitchen, it was all about lobster thermidor, flounder stuffed with crabmeat and covered in hollandaise, other dishes that required tableside service—things that felt very eighties. But I was able to pull from that, to create elegant new experiences at my Miller & Lux restaurants. And also the Peddler in Greenville, the fancy place where everybody went before the prom. It was the first place that I ever had a filet mignon wrapped in bacon.

That’s the first place I ever saw someone come by with the rib eye slab on a trolley.

And they’ll cut the rib eye right in front of you at the table, which is awesome. This is crazy, but because of that, we have this spectacular tableside presentation with our beef at the restaurant now, with our cuts. The Peddler is part of the DNA of Miller & Lux, no doubt.

On the other end of the spectrum, you also worked at Little Caesars.

My dad had an advertising agency in the eighties, and Little Caesars was his first big client. It was a family affair. My dad had all these banners and stuff in the trunk of his car, and then he had this Little Caesars mascot outfit. That was my summer job, being the Little Caesars guy and learning how to make pizzas. I used to march in the Christmas parade, and ride in the back of the car with the mayor, waving. And I was there for all the ribbon cuttings. I’m a people person. I definitely got good at having conversations and finding common ground.

All great skills for your Food Network shows. A lot of “celebrity chefs” no longer work in the kitchen or have restaurants. You still seem pretty hands-on.

Honestly, if the TV stuff went away tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me at all. Listen, I’ve had a great run. My restaurants are the purest form of my identity. And I love hospitality. It’s all for that moment when people who see you on television or pick up your cookbook or make a couple of recipes of yours from online, they come to your restaurant, and the second they put a spoon in their mouth, you can see their eyes roll back in their head, and they get it. They get it. This is the real deal.

Get recipes for Florence’s grilled pork chops with herb buttergrilled spinach artichoke dip, and campfire potatoes with tomatoes, bacon, and blue cheese.

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