The chef and culinary empire builder is finally preparing the Thanksgiving meal after years of ceding it to his mother-in-law. To honor both their traditions, he’s combining her family recipes with his own.

By Daniel Duane
Updated May 23, 2017
© John Kernick

"When I fell in love with my wife, Tolan,” says chef Tyler Florence, “it just worked for a lot of reasons.” Near the top of that list was Thanksgiving at Tolan’s mother’s house, in Mill Valley, California. “Marjorie has the most elegant entertaining style,” Tyler says. “For Thanksgiving she always roasted an amazing turkey, there was always a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of her dishes were, like, Great-Grandma So-and-So’s fried corn.”

Mrs. Moss, however, was less accommodating on one aspect of Thanksgiving. According to Tolan, "When Tyler and I got married, Mom basically said to him, 'Welcome to the family. You can have any holiday you want, but you will never host Thanksgiving.'" So that’s how it went, even after Tyler and Tolan moved from New York to Mill Valley and got to work transforming his TV stardom into a culinary empire. That empire now includes Wayfare Tavern, in San Francisco, and El Paseo, a Mill Valley steakhouse, plus a kitchenware store, wines and even a social media app.

Mrs. Moss’s Thanksgivings were a steadying influence. “I have a big family,” says Tolan. “I have a lot of brothers. Like, it’s kind of hard to say how many. I have one full brother, a stepbrother, two foster brothers whom my parents ended up adopting and some other brothers who basically just lived with us when their parents went through hard times, so they’re like family to me now.” Mrs. Moss welcomed a constant stream of newcomers, too, like Cecilia Chang, the legendary restaurateur. (Says Chang, “Tyler and Tolan, they always tell me, ‘Cecilia, you are like family.’”) “It went from two tables to three to 35 people, until all the chairs barely fit,” Tyler says. “So I said to Marjorie, ‘If Thanksgiving ever feels like it’s getting too big...’ She looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’ll have to pry Thanksgiving from my cold, dead hands.’”

Last year, Tyler and Tolan bought a 6,300-square-foot house on five wooded acres with five goats, a dozen chickens, two rabbits, nine beehives, an orchard—and a bomb shelter. (“It’ll make a great wine cellar someday!” says Tolan.) Shortly after moving in, they got a call. Says Tyler, “Marjorie was ready to pass the torch, but she wanted to be sure we could handle it. And look, I’m a chef. I’ve cooked hundreds of Thanksgiving meals. And Tolan is a professional event planner. But we were like, ‘Wow, OK, Marjorie. We’ll give it our best shot.’”

Of course, Tyler had his own notions about Thanksgiving, borne of his South Carolina upbringing. “My grandmother kept a coffee can of bacon grease by the stove; my grandfather smoked his own hams,” he says. “Thanksgiving is all about that deep emotional connection to food that takes you to a place where you feel beyond comfortable.” He has also built his culinary career around a passion for reinventing American comfort foods.

Take the dip Tyler now makes for Thanksgiving: He roasts onions whole, scoops out the caramelized insides, chops them up and mixes them with sour cream, mayonnaise and seasonings, then spoons them into the onion shells. Or his turkey. “The Norman Rockwell idea is a big hang-up,” he says. “Putting a 14-pound bird in an oven for four hours is like putting half a cow in there expecting perfect filet mignon.” His solution is spatchcocking—splitting the bird and forcing it flat—then roasting it for less than two hours with polenta under the skin.

This is not to say that he’s jettisoned all of Mrs. Moss’s traditions. ”We have a couple of dishes that Tyler doesn’t think are the best, like my great-grandmother’s fried corn from a can,” says Tolan. “But we still make that one no matter what.”