All New York City neighborhoods have their culinary quirks, but only Chinatown has frog butchers. "The first time you see a bucket of live frogs, you kind of wonder what's going on," says Food Network star Tyler Florence, who lives in a loft on Chinatown's edge. "But it keeps your senses sharp. You walk the streets here and everything is raw, really fresh, beautiful."
This fascination with Asian flavors is clear when he invites a group of friends to his apartment for a dinner party. Nearing the end of an eight-week tour to promote his latest cookbook, Eat This Book—an eclectic collection of recipes inspired by places all over the world, from Puerto Rico to Morocco to, yes, China—Tyler is happy about the chance to spend time at home, in his own kitchen, exploring the tastes of his adopted neighborhood. "Asian ingredients have become part of my pantry," says Tyler, who counts sake, chili paste and Chinese sausage as cooking staples. "Once I moved to Chinatown, I figured I needed to master its flavors."
It's the same casual intensity that allows Tyler—already at work on his next cookbook—to pull off tonight's dinner party. A South Carolina native who began his career washing dishes, Tyler rose swiftly from culinary school to the kitchens of New York City restaurants such as the River Café, Aureole and Cafeteria. He began making guest appearances on Food Network in 1996, and today he is the host of three Food Network shows: Tyler's Ultimate, How to Boil Water and Food 911, where he's taught camping buddies how to cook soba in the great outdoors and shown an Italian grandmother how to prepare Chinese spareribs.
The menu at tonight's party pays homage to all kinds of Asian ingredients. Coconut milk, Asian beer and a fistful of Thai seasonings form the base of a rich, fragrant appetizer of steamed mussels. Curry paste and honey lend heat and sweetness to chicken wings, while fresh ginger and lemon zest infuse a spicy syrup for icy vodka cocktails. As friends gather around the ingenious dining room table—the base of a 19th-century printing press topped with a 1,200-pound slab of marble—Tyler pads around barefoot with a pitcher of the lemon-ginger vodka cocktail.
Two rounds of the deceptively potent drinks send the conversation careening from baby food to Bruce Willis to the spiraling cost of haircuts. "Five hundred bucks and all I got was bangs!" cries one guest, prompting another to reveal the shockingly low price ($16) of her own stylishly tousled hairdo. "There's a guy named Ali," she says cryptically. "He's like this mad magician with scissors."
An hour or so later, Tyler is still shoeless, bobbing his head to Led Zeppelin, then Frank Sinatra, as he spoons knobs of tangy shiso-shallot butter onto lightly charred skirt steaks glazed with a mixture of soy sauce, ginger and brown sugar. "The flavor hits your tongue in a couple of different places," he says of the butter. "It's bright, it's salty, and it has that wonderful minty-grassy flavor of shiso." Ribbons of raw zucchini tossed with salty-sweet miso vinaigrette form a crisp late-summer side dish inspired by cold Chinese sesame noodles. "You take Asian ingredients, but you don't necessarily have to make Asian food," Tyler explains. "It's about understanding what makes the flavors tick."
Tonight, he has clearly figured the flavors out. Everyone's cleaned their plates, but they're still excited for dessert: pistachio meringues with tart ginger-lemon curd. The bottles of Chardonnay and Shiraz—a switch from the beer and sake Tyler typically pairs with Asian food—were polished off some time ago; a half-empty bottle of Champagne sits on the table. The conversation drifts to the usual dinner-party topics: art, romance, condiments. "Mayonnaise should be banned," someone announces, as the table briefly debates french-fry toppings. Tyler swivels on one of the vintage lab stools he uses for dining room chairs and tells a story about a recent trip to Costa Rica that includes an earthquake and something he calls a "braised woodland rat." Did it taste like chicken? "No," he shudders, "it tasted like a big rat."
Someone reminds the host that a TV crew is coming early the next morning to drag camera cables through his bedroom window. By noon, Tyler—who spent 280 days on the road last year—will be off to cater his brother's wedding in South Carolina, then on to a wine dinner in the Napa Valley, book signings in Sausalito and San Jose, California, media appearances in Los Angeles and a food festival in Sydney. Is it any wonder that his home feels like a place not yet fully explored? "Chinatown is the most vibrant neighborhood in the city," he marvels. "Turn a corner and you're in a whole different country."
Rob Willey is deputy editor of Food & Wine Cocktails 2005 and a freelance writer who contributes frequently to Absolute New York.