On The Line: Joe Youkhan of Chef Joe Youkhan's Tasting Spoon, Part Two

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Photo by Meranda Carter

If there's something we've learned about great chefs, it's that they have great mentors. Find out who Joe looks up to in this installment of On The Line. To catch up on Part One, be sure to click here.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
Being a chef and business owner takes a tremendous sacrifice of time away from my sons.

What would your last meal on Earth be?
Harissa - It's a dish from my childhood. My grandma used to make it on special occasions. It's porridge with faro (Faro would break down out of its shell, with a consistency similar to Cream of Wheat), stewed with whole shredded chicken. It would simmer overnight. Bland on its own, but we we'd add a trough of butter and salt. We would dip bread in it. I'd also drink copious amounts of red wine.
Who's your hero, culinary or otherwise?
My father. To see a man be able to put in seven days a week and serve food with a smile on his face; he's doing what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it. He subconsciously interjected a work ethic into me. He never had to say anything, like it was thru osmosis.

Tell us about your foodservice industry background.
During my childhood, I watched my dad work at Pizza and Brew, a family-owned restaurant chain in New York. There were seven brothers for their seven restaurant locations. Everyone would have Sambuco shots. It was very New York.

When I moved to California to pursue cooking, I was at Saratoga Grill. My big claim to fame (and where I made my mark) was at Ritz-Carlton. I left there for Chat Noir in Costa Mesa. It was as French as a 306-seat restaurant could be. We went thru so much escargot and frogs legs! I also stayed through its conversion to Savannah.

In December 2010, The Tasting Spoon catering company began.

Where are you from, and how did you end up in Southern California?
Born in Yonkers, but grew up in South Bronx. I moved out here because I have cousins who live out by Buena Park. I went to Kennedy High.

How did you decide on your truck's exterior design?

It was two-fold. The original thought was that a lot of influence in my life was expressed in tattoos. A close friend and investor, Chaz Biasi, is also an illustrator and tattoo artist. I went to him to design the truck.

I ultimately want people to know that when they see the truck, they they are getting an extremely high quality food experience. We thought the design would be very appropriate. The
big picture is to have multiple units, and nickname them after the imagery on the truck: Garlic, Tomato, and so forth.

What is your connection to Break of Dawn?

Dee (Nguyen) has been a tremendous support for The Tasting Spoon Company and our launch. He's my go-to person in the industry. He'd say to me, "When are you getting out there? When are you going to make this happen? You can do this. You will do this. Look at me, and look what you can be." He's a great friend, and was a great mentor at Ritz-Carlton. Ultimately, he's a consultant.

The strawberry and lemon verbena lemonade sounds like a granita. Is it labor intensive?
Fresh strawberries are muddled with fresh lemon verbena, which I make myself. I sweeten it with agave nectar, hit it with soda water, and ice it down. It's totally ready for vodka.

Individual pizzas cooked to order - how is that accomplished in a food truck?

I maximize all the flavor potential of all the ingredients. The dough is slowly fermented for a few days, and it's ready to go with tons of extra virgin olive oil. I start with a screaming hot grill, and pound out the dough super-thin. Then we kiss it on the grill to mark it. I put a layer of seasonal ingredients I've already given a ton of love to on top. The convection oven is cranked up all the way, with a stone on the bottom part. The pizza is placed on there for three minutes.

What dish would you tell newcomers to Tasting Spoon to try first?
Anything with the house cured pork, like the carbornara and pork belly sliders. It's pork, and it's what I would eat. Our quiet hero is the veggie fonduta: eggplant, tomato, zucchini and garlic, with cheese and basil.

What would you be doing if you weren't in this business and why?
I'd be a cage fighter trained in Jiu-Jitsu [Editor's Note: He's not kidding.]. I'm already a black belt in Eagle Claw Kung Fu, plus a second degree purple belt in Gracie Barra. I'd respectfully beat people.

What advice do you have for those who might be thinking about a career in food?
Don't do it. You don't choose it. It chooses you. If you're doing it, it's because it sucked you in, and you don't have a choice. Either you're born with it, it bit you, or something happened along the way. You didn't make a conscious decision to do this.

Go get a hot sauté pan thrown at you. If you keep coming back for that punishment, it's meant for you. Be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, which is your life. You have to love making people happy. At the end of the day, a chef just wants affirmation.

What do you see yourself doing in five years?

Ultimately, I see a culinary company that is very diverse. There would be a pasta division, charcuterie division, cheese, and brick and mortar with different people heading each one up. My hands would be in everything that I love. A company of my own that encompasses all these concepts that I am a part of. I want to be inspired by them.

What do you see yourself doing in five years? Ten?

Spending time with my family and sons. I want to build a company that I can leave for my kids. My boys are everything. They need to know something was accomplished for my time away from them.

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