On the Line: The Men of the Burnt Truck, Part Two
Paul Cao and Phi Nguyen
Photo by Meranda Carter
Our truckin' trio (Paul Cao, Phi Nguyen and Minh Pham) continue their On the Line interview as we inquire about the Burnt Truck's story behind its name, as well as how often they get carded. If you're wondering where Minh is in our photos, he's about to welcome a new member to their family! Up for more reading? The talk fest begins in part one.
Hardest lesson you've learned:
Paul: Yelling at your cooks doesn't accomplish anything. I've learned to be more patient and empathetic.
Phi: Cooking is the easy part; leading and inspiring your team is tough!
Minh: Hard work pays off. We pretty much work 24/7, but it's all worth it.
What would your last meal on Earth be?
Paul: My two favorite dishes my mom made for me growing up: Braised pork with egg, and deep-fried tofu stuffed with pork and stewed in tomato sauce.
Phi: A nice bowl of pho made by my mom.
Minh: I would want my mom's pho. She doesn't make it too often, but when she does, you can best believe I will be taking some to-go.
My father, who passed away in 2003, is my hero. I've actually learned so much more from him after his passing than when he was alive. Strange, but true. But culinarily speaking, Atsushi Takatsuki has taught me most of what I know today, technically. He helped me hone a lot of my techniques when I first learned about fine dining. For those who don't know of him, you'll be hearing a lot more about him in the next few years.
My parents really had the odds stacked against them, but they were resilient enough to overcome everything -- and then some. I'm very proud of them and will make them proud of me very soon. Culinary-wise, chef Corey Vuu is my chef mentor, and he really inspired me to be the best form of myself, not only in the kitchen, but in life as well.
My grandfather was not only a great cook, but he was also a great person. He grew up poor and was able to rise up through hard work to become a very successful businessman. He was also a great family man. He taught me many life lessons that still hold up today.
Tell us about your food-service-industry background.
Paul: I started out as a pantry cook at Opah in Tustin. I worked my way up to become chef de cuisine at Opah in Rancho Santa Margarita. I left there and became sous chef at Michael Mina's Stonehill Tavern. And most recently, I cooked at Cafe del Rey in Marina del Rey.
Phi: Art Institute of Orange County. Loft Restaurant, Montage Resort, Laguna Beach. Stonehill Tavern, St. Regis Resort.
Minh: Before the Burnt Truck, I never had any food-service jobs. This is my first one.
Where did your name originate from? Did someone get adventurous in the kitchen?
Paul: When I was in college, I only had one dish in my cooking repertoire: spaghetti. I used to make it at least three times a week, and I would purposely burn the bottom of the spaghetti to get it a little crispy. All my roommates used to tell everyone that I make this crazy "burnt" spaghetti. Since that was the first dish I was ever recognized for, I said I would name my restaurant Burnt one day. It's catchy and somewhat oxymoronic.
Phi: I'll leave it up to Paul to explain this one. However, for me, Burnt stands for being burnt out working for other people and finally getting to do something I love, the way I want.
Minh: The name is actually Paul's brainchild.
Having the youthful Asian/Pacific Islander gene, how often do you guys get carded?
Paul: I'm 32, and I still get carded every time I order a beer.
Phi: [Laughs] That's funny: I just got carded the other day for buying a Mega Million Lottery ticket. I didn't mind; it's when they stop asking that I should be concerned.
Minh: [Laughs] I got carded for buying a lotto ticket the other day. I actually don't mind. I think I will be sad the day people stop asking me.
Are there any luxe loncheras or restaurants you've wanted to check out?
Paul: I've heard good things about Chapter One in Orange County, and I've been wanting to eat at Providence in LA.
Phi: Home Skillet are a group of pretty cool people that resurrected our first truck and made it theirs. It's funny hearing the horror stories they tell us at the end of the day about that truck, but like us, they always manage to get it done well. Their food looks great, so we're planning to sneak attack them one day and try their food.
Minh: I love the Lomo Arigato truck. They mainly stay in LA, but any time they are around, I'll definitely be eating there.
Biggest challenge about operating a food truck:
Paul: You have to get really creative in terms of using space wisely. Every food truck specializes in "ghetto rigging" in order to pull off service.
Phi: Keeping it clean and organized. You organize your fridges and shelves just the way you like it, and then hop in to drive to your next spot, and everything turns to chaos. Bread, napkins, spices are all over the place. It's best when the flour container falls over and antiques your entire kitchen. That just really makes my day.
Minh: It's a very tough job. There is always something to do. I think any business owner will tell you that it isn't easy.
Congrats on Jessica, the first Burnt Baby! Any other news to share?
Paul: Phi and I are participating in Sunday Night Chef Fights on Nov. 6 against chef James Harris. Come support us!
Phi: Paul and I will be competing in the next Orange County Sunday Night Chef Fights. We'll be going up against defending champion chef James Harris of Royal Hawaiian. It'll be on Nov. 6, so if you want to see us do more than just sliders, come on out!
Minh: Thanks so much! My wife and I are very excited about our first baby. She will be due in three weeks or so. We just recently raised money for my nephew with muscular dystrophy. We have some other fund-raisers in the works right now. Hopefully, we will be teaming up to help fight breast cancer soon. We will keep you all posted.
What sliders would you tell newcomers to the Burnt Truck to try first?
Paul: Our buttermilk fried-chicken slider, along with our PBJ slider for dessert.
Phi: Cheeseburger, fried chicken, and finish off with the PBJ. Oh, and of course get the tater tots.
Minh: I would always recommend the fried chicken and cheeseburgers for starters. They are classics -- and our best sellers. Personally, my favorites are the Vietnamese pork, carne asada, and Spam and egg sliders.
What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
Paul: Maybe a math teacher?
Phi: I'd be homeless. [Laughs] I have a degree in computer science from Cal State Fullerton, but I really can't see myself doing anything else other than being in this industry. Computer science was just to appease my parents.
Minh: I was always in the financial arena before this. I was previously a banker and a financial adviser, so I would probably be doing that.
What advice do you have for those who might be thinking about a career in food?
Paul: If you love food and you love cooking, then you should definitely go for it. The hours are long, and 99 percent of the time, your cooking goes unnoticed. But occasionally, you'll get that 1 percent who will say, "Thank you for the best meal I've ever had," and that's rewarding enough to strive for that next such moment.
Phi: Stay humble and stay hungry. It gets tough, but if you deal with it and continue to learn every step of the way, you're going to be just fine. Oh, that and kick ass and take names.
Minh: It's a very tough and competitive industry. It's not an easy job by any means. So make sure that it's something you really want to do.
What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten years?
Paul: Hopefully cooking for Burnt the company in one way or another.
Phi: Running our restaurant space or spaces. This is a must. I will not settle for anything less.
Minh: Hopefully, we will have a chain of amazing restaurants in the future. That is my ultimate goal.
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