On The Line: Jake McPeck Of Mess Hall Canteen

Mess Hall's special the day we visited - king salmon over kale
Mess Hall's special the day we visited - king salmon over kale
Anne Marie Panoringan

When attending food events, I'm always looking for potential chef interview subjects. Another great find from January's Dux In Tux fundraiser dinner, Mess Hall Canteen caught my attention. This luxe lonchera is not only a family owned and operated business, but Jake McPeck's story about winning a Food Network competition and the theme of Mess Hall Canteen made for a great conversation.

Where does your name and theme come from?
The theme came from years of talking between my dad and I. We always wanted to open a military-themed restaurant, and Mess Hall is a perfect name. Its definition is where a group of military men eat, and the Canteen is the establishment where they drink and socialize. One day, when we open a restaurant, it will be called The Canteen.

Most frequently asked question by diners?
Is it hot in the truck? In the summer, the temperature in the truck averages around 115 degrees. We have two steam tables, six feet of flat top grill space, and oven, two burner range and a full size fryer. 

One food you can't live without:
Ramen. Not the crap you ate in college. The broth that has been simmering for days, with fall-off-the-bone tender bits of meat. If you're not sweating while you're eating it, it's not good enough.

What was the dish you made in response to your competitors on Food Truck Face-Off?
Our competitor added a steak and blue cheese item on their menu for the day, and we responded with our Private Kobe, which is on our menu today. Grilled Wagyu beef, bacon, mushroom, charred onion aioli and bleu cheese. 

What are the (dis)advantages to working with family?
The advantage is rules on the truck are a lot more relaxed. The disadvantage is that you are with each other all the time, so to make time together special outside of work is hard to do.

Most undervalued ingredient:
I absolutely love capers. They just add that pop of brininess/acid into a sauce, dish or tapenade.

Any advice for someone wanting to start up their own luxe lonchera?
I would tell them to go get a job on a food truck and see what it's like first-hand before opening your truck. It's a completely different beast than working in a normal restaurant kitchen.

When you conducted market research, what did you learn that worked for other trucks, and what could be improved upon?
We learned that we need to offer the highest quality ingredients, and have a concept that people would be attracted to and remember. We saw people walking around with nowhere to eat, so we purchased folding bar tables and placed them in front of our truck for customers to eat on. Since we have started doing this, other trucks have followed. We have a menu board on magnets, so that when we run out of something, you don't have to erase it or hand write over it. We can just remove the items. 

What do you recommend for first-timers?
First time eating at our truck? Hands down the Drunken Sailor grilled cheese or mac-n-cheese. It has lobster tail, snow crab, bacon and masago aioli.

Care to share any customer stories?
I'm a really quiet and humble guy. I don't really talk about how we won the truck. It is still crazy to me how often people want to take pictures with me and the truck from being on Food Network, and how people are still excited to see our truck pull up at stops.

Most indispensable kitchen utensil?
When I worked in restaurants, a spoon. My co-workers would go to antique shops and search for cool antique silver spoons. On the truck, I would say a spatula. We do grilled cheese sandwiches, and it's a vital tool to have.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true. 
People think that owning and operating a food truck is easy! It's extremely hard work, long hours (14-18 hour days, even 20+, depending on the event), endless prep due to lack of storage. Not to mention working all weekends and holidays.

You have a whole day to yourself; what do you do?
Whenever I get a day off I always try to sleep in, but my black lab refuses to let me. My day off is usually a day to catch up on our shows, mail and office work for the business. If you're not trying to book events you won't be working. I usually will throw something in the sous vide or smoker in the morning for dinner for my fiancee, and at night just spend the night in.

What was the first meal that you made that you were proud of?
When I worked at 2nd Floor Huntington Beach, I was young, in culinary school still. They wanted us cooks to create a new slider option for the menu. I made a grilled salmon slider with pesto, red peppers, lemon tarragon aioli and feta. It not only ended up on the menu, but won first place at the Taste of Huntington Beach 2012 for best appetizer. That was just the starting point when I realized I might really have a future in the business.

Tell us something that most people don't know about you:
That I was a teppan chef at Benihana.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
To be the best you have to outwork everyone else!

Where did you grow up, and where's home these days?
I grew up in Garden Grove. I spent most of my weekends and holidays at the ice hockey rink playing youth hockey. My fiancee and I now live in Huntington Beach. 

What is your long-term goal: expand your fleet, become a brick-and-mortar, or?
If all goes as planned, we should be looking for a brick-and-mortar sometime next year. It will be a restaurant "themed" off of the truck, but not the truck food. I want it to be a restaurant with seasonal menus and a cocktail program. The truck would support the restaurant for caterings and special events.

Let's discuss your t-shirts and tip jar. Which non-profits do you donate to?
Since we have opened, 100% of our tip jar and a portion of t-shirt proceeds has been donated to Patriots & Paws. We are currently evaluating other local non-profits that are also in need. For our t-shirts, when we first opened I reached out to Jeremy Hanna, co-owner of Sullen Art Collective. He offered to design a logo and t-shirts to cross-promote both of our businesses to help support us getting started.

Last thing you researched online:
Studying locations to open a brick-and-mortar.

What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
I would probably be doing something in sports medicine. I was studying sports medicine in college along with culinary arts.

Learn more about this luxe lonchera by visiting www.messhallcanteen.com.


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