Why did you decide to go to culinary school?
I started washing dishes at 15 and went into the U.S. Army at 21. Aside from the military, it’s really the only other thing I’ve done.
I was in the Army for five years and then got my bachelor’s in history, working in the kitchen through college. Then, I got a job with the government sitting in a cubicle. That wasn’t for me. I had education benefits that were set to expire in 2017, so I thought: “Why not get a culinary degree?”
What inspires you?
I’m a bigger guy, and I’m a big eater. I’ve spent time in the South stationed at Fort Hood, went to school in Tampa, and lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Southern barbecue is what I really loved the most. So, working with meat is really my draw.
I live in Maine now, grew up here, and my wife, Jessica, is from Texas, so when we host a party people are stoked—they love to come over because we’re doing a brisket, or a Carolina-style pork butt.
What was your wife’s reaction to your transition to culinary school?
She’s always been a restaurant person too, working as a server. It’s a natural progression—I’ve been cooking, she’s been serving. It’s like a family occupation. Even though she’s leaving the field now that she’s finished up nursing school.
Is there anything you’re learning that makes the experience valuable to you?
Working with the younger people. I’m 35. Most of the students are in their late teens, early twenties. There’s a noticeable difference in their work ethic and how they communicate. Maneuvering through those differences is the biggest challenge for me.
Tell us about your food truck.
Less out of necessity and more out of boredom, a Korean childhood friend of mine, Josh Dionne, and I hopped on the Korean-Mexican fusion train and brought Tacos Del Seoul to Maine. There’s nothing else like it here. The only city in Maine is Portland. It’s about 70,000 people, but it’s a huge foodie and beer scene. To put out something completely different from the hamburger or french fry truck was a lot of fun. We’ve had great feedback.
But, it makes for a full day. Even if you go out and sell tacos for four hours, you still have driving time, an hour and a half of prep and setup, selling and cleanup. It eats a lot of time. Working in the school schedule crippled us a little bit. In the summer, though, we’re free to just work.
What are your plans after culinary school?
I’m looking to work more with food trucks. The initial startup costs are much more reasonable than putting your house on the line for a restaurant. It’s one of those things where today we’re a Korean taco truck and tomorrow we could be a barbecue truck—all we have to do is peel the stickers off.
Trying to find new ways to bring that culture to Maine is my focus. There are so many opportunities out there for it, like catering a wedding. That’s becoming a really hot trend. A lot of people are reaching out to us to see if we can do that. They want to have their wedding in a barn and they want a food truck there. It’s hip; it’s the thing to do.
Do you have any advice for other students?
Get in a restaurant and get some experience, even if it’s just washing dishes. Learn how the business works.
For people my age or older—just do it. I was miserable sitting in a cubicle looking at those four little half walls all day. Take a leave and do something else.
What do you think makes a chef successful?
Creativity, certainly, but dedication is key. You have to put in a lot of time. Personality helps a lot, too. You can build a good staff around that.
Experience is really the number-one thing. In the military, you have lieutenants who come out of the academy or ROTC, and they know nothing. Then, you have seasoned sergeants who’ve been there ten years. They’re the guys who know how things work. Like a line cook who’s been in the trenches. It’s all about experience. The more experience you have the more valuable you are, even without the degree. But when you put the two together? That’s what I’m shooting for.