Four years after he started his food-truck career, Phi Nguyen is a Hollywood star.
Well, not him specifically. But eateries on wheels have been the rage recently at the multiplex, thanks to "Chef," Jon Favreau's sleeper hit about a man who recovers his zest for life by launching a food truck and heading on a cross-country odyssey.
The Burnt Truck, a gourmet slider dispenser that Nguyen founded with two childhood friends, may not have made such a picturesque trek — unless the OC Fair & Event Center, Sport Chalet in Huntington Beach, the Irvine Spectrum Center and other Orange County locations count. Still, he's used to some of the sights depicted in the film: fast-paced kitchen work, milling crowds and the satisfaction of scoring a new repeat customer.
Nguyen and his colleagues — fellow chef Paul Cao and partner Minh Pham, both of whom he met in Bible school years ago — offer a tight menu that ranges from sloppy joes to vegetarian to Korean barbecue. Food trucks aren't their only passion, though: Later this year, the team plans to partner with the owners of another local truck, Dogzilla, to open a restaurant in Irvine.
Last week, toward the end of a shift at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds, Nguyen talked about the intricacies of being a chef, waiter and owner all at once — and all within the space of a few feet. The following are excerpts from the conversation:
Let's start by talking about the movie "Chef." Have you seen the movie yet?
I have. I just watched it about a week and a half ago, so it's fresh in my mind.
What did you think?
I loved it. The whole time I was watching it, I could relate to almost everything they were talking about, just like kitchen standards and the struggles that you go through, the little problems that they ran into. It's one of those movies ... I didn't want it to end. I could relate to it so well.
Has your food truck been getting more attention since that movie came out?
Not that I've noticed.
I sometimes wonder if it's starting a national trend right now for people going to food trucks.
I think that the trend is still going strong. It was stronger about four years ago, and it's starting to slow down a little bit, but it's still really strong. We still see a lot of new food trucks coming into the scene, and it's still very busy, as you can see here. It's always busy here. So there's still a strong interest in food trucks right now.
In the movie, it's kind of a spiritual renewal for the character when he starts running a food truck. Is there something spiritually exhilarating about running one of those?
It is very exhilarating. It's high energy, and there's a lot of stress. There's a lot of things that come along with running a food truck. You know, things happen on a daily basis. It's very gratifying. You see immediate results right away. When I worked in the kitchen, you were back there, and you never get to see the guests. You never get to see their reaction, whereas here, you cook the food and you actually hand the food physically to your guests, and you get to see their face light up as they look at it.
One of our favorite things is looking out the window and seeing someone for the first time at our truck take a bite, and they do the head nod like, "Yeah, it's good." So, yeah, it is exhilarating in that aspect.
Both you and Paul have been in the restaurant business. What motivated the two of you to get into a food truck instead?
I don't know. It kind of just happened — playing poker one night, and everyone was hungry. Paul started looking through his pantry, and he found some ground beef, some canned sloppy joe mix and some Hawaiian bread. So he just whipped together some sloppy joe sliders real quick and then kind of joked about it, like, "Hey, we should open up a food truck." And it kind of just disappeared into the clouds.
And then a couple months later, Paul called me and he was like, "Hey, we're gonna start a food truck. We need your help." And I told him he's crazy. "No way. I'm working my way up through the kitchen." But after a while we all agreed, "Let's just try it. Let's just do it for fun." And we wanted to make good food for our guests and work with our friends at the same time, and it just kind of blew up, and here we are today.