On the Line: Wes Knutson, Dustin White And Kogi Pillay of HACKS

The last time I interviewed a trio, they were also a luxe lonchera team. This time around, our gang is from HACKS, and they’ve got a lot on their minds. 

Most indispensable kitchen utensil?
Wes Knutson: A very sharp knife. Clean dishes (respect to dishwashers!).
Dustin White: A good radio.
Kogi Pillay: Whisk.

Where does your name and theme come from?
W.K.: We knew we wanted to do BBQ, but not be limited to traditional Southern BBQ. We wanted to have fun, pull dishes from our childhood and around the world, and put our stamp on it.
D.W.: Wes and I sat down for a few beers to discuss names. We came up with at least 50, but none were really catchy. I finally shot out HACKS, and we both celebrated! It’s a term we used to call our cooks from time to time when they were being lazy or taking short cuts. It’s a parody on ourselves.

What was the first meal that you made that you were proud of?
W.K.: The first pork shoulder I ever smoked. I was hooked on smoking meats.
D.W.: Mac and cheese in high school.
K.P.: When I was seven years old, I made my first trifle. Growing up in South Africa, where there is a large British influence, trifles (layered cake with custard and jello) were a dessert we grew up on. 

Care to share any “interesting” food truck driving or customer stories?
W.K.: When you flip off someone because they drive like a butt hole, they will leave you a negative review on Yelp. 

What do you recommend for first-timers?
: The Sloppy Joe! Combination of brisket, pulled pork and our house-made sloppy sauce. Seriously my favorite.
D.W.: We are known for our smoked brisket, but everything on the truck is really good. You definitely need to try our fried pickles or jalapeno bottle caps.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
W.K.: People assume a food truck is an easy and cheap way to start a food business. Although you can get a truck for under $100k, the costs don’t stop there. You have to pay for a business license in every city you operate. Over 75% of the stops you do charge a fee of 10% of your sales. A truck has very limited storage, so buying bulk like you can in a restaurant is not really an option. You could just as easily get into a small restaurant.
D.W.: People think food trucks are gross and not sanitary— very untrue. We like to think of ourselves as the cleanest truck out there. We put just as much time cleaning as we do cooking. Sure, there are trucks out and about that I would not eat off of, but there are way more restaurants that I would not eat at.

Favorite places to eat.
W.K.: Nostimo Mediterranean Greek has an amazing lamb gyro. But my favorite is at home, making dinner with my wife.
D.W.: Anything pizza or tacos.
K.P.: Thai Garden in Foothill Ranch. Their meals are full of flavor and have just a hint of spice, which I enjoy. Plus, they have a nice variety to please the whole family.

Wes: Tell us about your bartending days.
W.K.: I worked at the best dive bar in OC, Squires Inn! I worked there through my twenties and when I moved back from Denver. Total Cheers-like atmosphere: dart leagues and tournaments and conveniently located next to a tattoo shop (choices were made). The owners, Sonny and Alene Austin, were amazing to work for. They taught me a lot about business and treated me like family. Everyone at Squires really motivated me to go to culinary school; I know they are proud of what I have done.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
W.K.: I have always been a hard worker and put in long days. Being a first-time business owner is much more stressful and time consuming than you can prepare for.
D.W.: Owning and operating a food truck is much harder than anyone can imagine. The hardest job I’ve ever done.

Where did you grow up, and where’s home these days?
W.K.: I grew up in Glendora. Home now is Santa Ana.
D.W.: I grew up in Decorah, Iowa. It’s a small town that is very beautiful, with lots of outdoor activities: fishing, camping, hunting, hiking. After high school, I spent 10 years in the Twin Cities, and another two years in Florida. For the last five years, home is in Orange.
K.P.: I grew up in Durban, South Africa. After 29 years, I moved to Orange County and now live in Portola Hills.

Dustin: Let’s talk about your taste in music. What’s on your playlist these days?
D.W.: A lot of 70s, 80s and 90s jams. From funk to R&B; reggae to country music. Music these days is pretty terrible. We like to keep the old school rocking.

Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
W.K.: I build guitars and amplifiers. All around craftsman, musician, magician and accountant.
D.W.: I can still swing the golf clubs with the best of them. We don’t get very much time off anymore, but when we do, that’s what I enjoy the most. 
K.P.: I’m a graduate of Indian classical dance and started dancing when I was four years old.

Are there any secret, off-menu items I should be made aware of?
W.K./D.W.: Sloppy Joe tacos.

Kogi: What is your favorite ride at Disneyland?
K.P.: My favorite ride is the Haunted Mansion. I love that they change it for the holidays to Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s scary, but not a horror house. I find it entertaining rather than frightening. 

Most frequently asked question by diners.
W.K.: Is this all you have?
D.W.: After they read our menu, common questions are, “Do you have candy? Sunflower seeds? Cheddar biscuits? Carne asada tacos? Al pastor tacos? Rice and bean burritos? Pizzas for six? Beer? Cheeseburgers?” (laughs)

Tell us something most people don’t know about you. 
W.K.: This is my second career. I used to be a machinist at Wagner Die Supply.
D.W.: I can tear it up on roller skates. Before culinary school, I was planning on being a DJ.
K.P.: I was an accountant for 12 years before culinary school.

Wes: What are you homebrewing these days?
: I typically brew IPAs and Saisons. I haven’t had time to brew since we opened, but I have plans to do a peach saison next.

Most undervalued ingredient.
W.K.: Love.
D.W.: Salt. A very simple ingredient most cooks don’t use properly.

Dustin: Favorite place for tacos.
D.W.: My new favorite gem is right next to my house – Viva Mexico Restaurant in Orange off Chapman. Their handmade tortillas are the best.

Any advice for someone wanting to start up their own luxe lonchera?
D.W.: I hope you don’t plan on having a life outside of work.
W.K.: Ditto. 

Kogi: What’s your favorite thing to bake?
K.P.: That would have to be tiramisu. Sugar, coffee and alcohol— three of my favorite things layered together to make a light, creamy and smooth dessert with a rich aroma of coffee and tantalizing hint of liquor. You gotta love it!

What is your long-term goal: expand your fleet, become a brick-and-mortar, or ?
W.K.: Definitely a brick-and-mortar. We have ideas for a few HACKS-related concepts, but we will start small. 

Last thing you looked up/searched online:
W.K.: (laughs) Kittens playing Whack-A-Mole.
D.W.: Price for a one-way ticket to Costa Rica.
K.P.: The hangar buildings in Tustin for my son’s school project.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in this business?
W.K.: I would be a Lotto winner.
D.W.: If I didn’t have the truck, I’d be working with my brother in Vermont to open a brewery/restaurant.
K.P.: I’ve always enjoyed being creative, so I would probably do something artistic, like painting or drawing.

Follow HACKS at www.hacksfoodtruck.com; (949) 877-6544.

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