Chef and server, on wheels

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.

Do you ever think you'd go cross country like the character in that movie?

Absolutely not. That's crazy. Good for him, though.

Tell me a little about the name of your business. Where did the Burnt Truck come from?

It's a long story, but the short version [is that] Paul, in college, he used to cook for all his friends, and one of the dishes that he used to make is spaghetti. What he would do is, after he makes the marinara and the pasta, he puts it all together in the pan and folds in a bunch of cheese, so it almost becomes lasagna-like. And he sets it on the pan on low heat, and the bottom burns and gets crispy. And he'd cut it out like a pie and serve it to his friends.

And after a while, his friends caught onto it and they would say, "Hey, Paul, make your burnt spaghetti! Make your burnt spaghetti!" And so that's the first dish he was known for, and he told himself in college that one day he was going to open up a restaurant and he was going to call it Burnt. So when this thing came along, it was just automatic to call it the Burnt Truck.

If you were talking to somebody who was thinking of starting a food truck, what's a piece of advice that you might give them?

My advice to them is to put your head down, work hard and expect to learn a lot along the way. It's a totally different species than running a restaurant.

What are some of the things you guys learned along the way?

There's so many. Something we learned along the way is, I guess, working in the kitchen. You're in a high-stress environment and you never get to see the guests. And sometimes that stress, when you hand the food out to your guests, you can't turn it off.

And we learned that now that you're in the food truck, you're also the front-of-the-house people and you need to be able to work urgently in the back, and then the minute you turn to the window to hand out your food, you have to put on this mask-smile regardless of what's happening back there. That's something that we learned really quickly, because people can really take it the wrong way when you really don't intend it to. That was one of our biggest lessons.

Is there kind of a camaraderie among food truck owners? When you're taking a break, do you ever wander over to one of the other food trucks and buy something from them?

Absolutely. There's a huge camaraderie. There's actually a little unspoken rule that no one accepts money from other food trucks. So right when things start to die down, you'll start seeing all the food truck people kind of crawl out of trucks and run to other food trucks. You know, we feed each other.

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