Talk & Booksigning with Tyler Florence
Wed., Oct. 4, 7-9 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, 1716 Towne Centre Way, Mt. Pleasant

2006 Southern Living Cook-Off Grand Finale
Thurs., Oct. 5, 6 p.m.
$10, includes reception and book signing from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m.
Gaillard Municipal Auditorium

Keep it simple. Use flavors that you love. And, oh yeah, one more thing: be the best of the best, crème de la crème, because this is it, the last round, the one after which one contestant goes home with $100,000. That’s the basic advice given for the 15 finalists who made the final cut out of literally tens of thousands of entries in five categories in the fifth annual Southern Living Cook-Off.

On October 5, those contestants — including Pennie Bingham of Mt. Pleasant, who will be competing in the Party Starters category — will be onstage on the Gaillard Auditorium with Food Network celebrity chef Tyler Florence for the grand finale of the cook-off. “It’s my third year hosting the event,” says Florence, who in 1991 graduated from Johnson & Wales in Charleston. “It’s a big party and a great evening. You’re going to see a lot of great recipes, great cooking, and you’re going to see somebody win one hundred grand!”

The day before the finale, the contestants will be at the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College preparing their recipes for a panel of judges that includes local cookbook celebrity Nathalie Dupree, Mike Lata of FIG, and a trio of Southern Living food pros. The contestants will have to hold their breath along with everyone else, though: the results will not be announced until, in closed-envelope fashion, the end of the Grand Finale takes center stage.

Not only will a grand prize of $100,000 be awarded to the best recipe overall, but prizes of $10,000 each will go to winners in five individual categories: Party Starters, Your Best Recipe, Healthy and Good for You, Super-Quick Family Favorites, and Southern Desserts.

The event itself, a dramatic mix of food preparation and fun, will be preceded by an appetizer tasting featuring goodies from 20 local restaurants and a cookbook signing with Tyler Florence, who notes that he is eager to revisit the tastes of the Lowcountry. “Charleston is a magical city,” the Greenville native who cut his culinary teeth in the Holy City, says. “It was such a wonderful city to go to school in: a beautiful city with a serious culinary background. It’s a melting pot of delicious tastes. Every time I go to Charleston, it just makes me happy.”

After graduating from Johnson & Wales, Florence worked with stellar local chefs such as Donald Barickman and Louis Osteen before heading north to make his name in the Big Apple. “I love Donald Barickman,” he says. “He’s a great guy and a really good friend of mine. In fact, I wrote the forward for his 20th anniversary of his Magnolia’s Uptown/Down South cookbook. I also love Robert Carter at the Peninsula Grill. That’s one of the great American restaurants. Charleston has a big culinary scene and the food is excellent.”

After a whirlwind of accomplishments in top New York eateries, Florence began appearing on Food Network. It was not long before he was a regular, hosting shows such as Food 911, My Country, My Kitchen, and Tyler’s Ultimate. With these, he has cemented his status as a top act onscreen with boatloads of Southern charm and an easy manner in the kitchen. “We’re wrapping up the brand new season right now,” he says. “We just shot 13 new shows and they’re all going to be on the air starting in about 30 days.”

As far as the Southern Living Cook-Off Grand Finale at the Gaillard, Florence recommends that the audience prepare for a good time and bring their appetites. Treats from venues as varied as Hominy Grill, Tristan, Oak Steakhouse, and Coast will be on hand and ready to be washed down with Firefly Lowcountry Vodka or a splash of wine.

“It’s really going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “I hope everybody comes out for it.”