On The Line: Tony Lu Of The Slummin' Gourmet - Part One
"Orange County has the best patrons! Our Orange County followers are loyal, supportive, encouraging and generous. We love serving here in the OC" - Tony Lu
And that is how you start an interview! Tony Lu and crew have been truckin' between counties, offering luxe meals in an approachable lonchera setting. Our long overdue meeting finds us snacking on appetizers inside Diamond Jamboree.
How did you come up with your concept?
Coming from a fine dining background, I've always wanted to introduce "haute cuisine" to the general public, but also make it approachable and as affordable as possible. My wife, Angie, was the one that came up with the name for our truck and our tagline "fancy without the schmancy."
Best culinary tip for the home cook?
When peeling fresh ginger root, use a metal spoon. Way less waste, and you can maneuver easily thru all the nooks and crannies.
Your earliest food memory:
Chinese New Year's dinner with the fam. There were always at least 30 to 40 of us at grandma's. The food just kept on coming out of the kitchen, all night long.
Favorite meal growing up:
Noodle soup. It remains my go-to meal after a long day's work.
Your best food find:
Mezcal. Specifically, Ilegal from Oaxaca.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Salt-- perhaps also the most basic ingredient. Proper seasoning completes any dish. Under or over seasoning, on the other hand, can ruin even the most beautiful ingredients.
Best advice for aspiring truck owners.
It is a totally different animal from other areas of the food and beverage industry. Do your homework, and be prepared to devote all of your time and effort into the business.
What is your beverage of choice?
California red wine. I have a small "reserve" of 80 bottles or so at home, mostly from Central and Northern California. I wouldn't call it a collection. Wine is meant to be enjoyed, so the inventory is always changing.
What do you recommend for first-timers at The Slummin' Gourmet?
We offer a seasonal, rotating menu depending on what items catch my eye that week, or what I'm in the mood for. Of course, we also have perennial favorites like our kobe beef sliders, lobster corn dogs and walnut shrimp tacos. But be sure to check the Chef's Special first.
(From Lawrence Tai at Waffles de Liege) Most trucks are run by cooks, or just people who manage the truck. But all the cooking on Slummin' is done by chefs. Who is in your crew?
My entire cooking crew and I are all graduates of culinary school, and before "truck life", worked in various fine dining establishments throughout Southern California. The TSG family is a tightly knit circle. Gabriel is my sous chef and Stephanie is my senior line cook. Both of them are instrumental to the growth and success of TSG.
Graduating from culinary school does not make one a chef, but it certainly provides some basic fundamentals required of the job. Lawrence is very kind.
One food you can't live without:
Rice; it's a staple for most people on Earth.
Where was your most recent meal?
Sushi at the local joint. I always get the omakase (chef's choice).
What is your most popular item?
Kobe beef sliders. Everyone loves a properly cooked and seasoned burger. We add caramelized onions, blue cheese, baby arugula and a homemade bacon aioli to ours, and it's always cooked to order. The walnut shrimp tacos are a close second, and the banana bread pudding has its own cult following.
What is your goal for The Slummin' Gourmet: brick & mortar, more trucks, or stay the same?
It's difficult to maintain certain standards with expansion given our concept. We're extremely chef driven as we cook everything to order, and our menu is constantly evolving, so having multiple trucks is not something I forsee in our future. Given the right opportunity, I would consider moving into a neighborhood brick and mortar, while maintaining the truck to serve a wider audience.
I've had the privilege to work for several established and phenomenal chefs whom I consider mentors, but my favorite "chef" is my mother. She may not be a professional, but her creations have the flavors that bring back memories of my childhood.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
Growing up in Asia, South America, and being a culinary professional for over a decade now, I've had the opportunity to sample a lot of "out of the ordinary" ingredients. Ant eggs, brain, bugs, turtles and snakes come to mind. I am a sucker for offal.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own).
Night markets in Asia. Arepa stands in Caracas. Any neighborhood bistro in wine country.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Banana ricotta pancakes with Vermont maple syrup and plenty of seasonal fresh fruit for my wife and boys, who are three and five years old. They like their pancakes with a smiley face.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
We get a lot of special requests. Quesadilla without cheese. Well done burgers without buns. While I may not personally recommend it, and sometimes even feel the need to talk them out of it, I am happy to serve the food however the customer chooses.
What surprised you most about operating a food truck?
The expenses. People have this misconception of low operating costs associated with running a food truck. From the permits to the business licenses, the lot fees, multiple insurance requirements, maintenance fees, gasoline, etc. . . the list goes on and on.
Is there a dish that you'd like to learn how to make?
Perhaps brewing the perfect cup of coffee or tea. That is definitely a craft I would love to explore.