By Grady Smith
August 15, 2010 at 01:30 PM EDT

Between Hell’s Kitchen, Masterchef, The Next Food Network Star, Top Chef, and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, it’s been quite the busy summer for reality food competitions. But just when you thought TV’s proverbial stove top was getting overcrowded, along comes The Great Food Truck Race, a delicious reality concoction sure to simmer in the late summer heat. Sort of a cross between Cannonball Run and Top Chef, The Great Food Truck Race follows seven gourmet food trucks—which serve everything from burgers to crepes, banana pudding to frog legs—in a cross country road trip from Los Angeles to New York, during which the restaurants-on-wheels must test their cooking skills and business savvy to outsell their competitors. Pretty innovative, right? Food Network staple Tyler Florence, who serves as “the host and the axe man” on the surprisingly exhilarating program, talked to EW about his new hosting gig and what kind of ride we should expect from The Great Food Truck Race, which premieres tonight at 10PM on Food Network.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with this show?

TYLER FLORENCE: You know what, when new Food Network show ideas pop up, I usually get a phone call to see if the idea is kind of great for the mix, if it’s a good time for everybody, and this felt like a great show at the right time—just because it’s so important to a lot of people right now in the country [given the economy], and a lot of chefs are doing amazing things at a mobile level. It just felt like something that was very important. So, we kicked around the idea with Tom Foreman, who’s the executive producer—he did Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Kid Nation and a lot of really amazing programming—and we kicked around the creative concept of what the show would be about, and we kind of came up with this concept for The Great Food Truck Race. It was this race across the country with the best food trucks in America, and it was like Cannonball Run.

How does this competition really work? Is this a race, or are contestants judged on their cooking, or is it business-based?

It’s a rock-and-roll business show. [Food trucks are] such an old but a new medium at the same time—they have really been around since the pioneer days, and the idea of taking food trucks and putting them up against each other at a competition level—it’s really hard to say, “I like this, and I like that” from a traditional competition show standpoint, so we really decided to make it about the money. You can’t really compare a taco truck versus a crepe truck because they’re just so different. So, once we get to a new city, the competitors have 72 hours to find the food, find the best position for themselves for the weekend, market themselves to the best of their ability, and make as much money as possible. We put the money together, we count the tally, and whoever made the most amount of money wins a very particular prize for that certain city, and the team that made the least amount of money goes home. And the winner gets $50,000.

Well, I’m intrigued.

It’s a great show because it’s really following these teams live and seeing what their worlds are like because it’s really on the fly.

I think when most people think about eating on the street, they picture little food carts serving pretzels, not gourmet food trucks. Is this a shifting trend?

Well, it started with the economy crashing two years ago. All these really amazing chefs were having a hard time raising $2 million for a restaurant, much less money for a cup of coffee. There were all these really talented guys out there who didn’t have a home, and they realized, “For $2 million, I can build a brick and mortar business, or for about $25,000, I can be in business for myself, and I can be in business for myself next weekend.” It just seemed like a no-brainer. Out of adversity in economic situations, people become very creative when their backs are against the wall about how to create a new economy for themselves, and all of the sudden, this whole new genre that was just parked outside a business complex became this thing that was really cutting edge and very interesting.

Are we going to see different teams shine based on what kind of cuisine is popular in each location?

You’re going to see huge surprises every single episode by what is successful, what’s not successful, who wins, who goes home. You’ll find teams that have little or no business even being in the competition doing very, very well because of their gut-instinct, their drive and determination to win. So, I was blown away just being in the middle of all of it and watching these people really give it their all.

What is your role on the show? Are we going to see you as more of a judge or a mentor?

Well, I’m the host of the show. I tell it like it is—I give people props when they deserve it, and I tell them they’re blowing it when they’re blowing it. Since there’s no real judgment in a sense because the people vote with their wallets, I just tell the guys who won, and then I tell the team who lost. I’m the host and the axe man.

Have you ever had a particularly bad food truck experience?

There are a lot of trucks out there, and obviously some are better than others, and even watching The Great Food Truck Race, you’ll watch some of these teams do amazing things with amazing food, and you’ll watch some teams just blow it. They’re in a different city and the can’t find the food they need, so they have to change the menu around, and then there’s a break down, and it’s sometimes like a domino effect—it really affects the food. The people, like I said, end up judging with their wallets if they want to buy it or not, but it’s always kind of survival of the fittest out on the streets, and when it comes to great food trucks, the really good ones rise to the top.

Do you have any food truck experience?

The reason the show really makes sense for us is that our restaurant Rotisserie and Wine up in Napa—we’re actually starting a food truck with that in October.

What do you think, PopWatchers? Will you be tuning in to The Great Food Truck Race?