A day in the life of Kim Jong Grillin's Han Ly Hwang.
March 17, 2016
You may not be eligible for a James Beard award, and you sure as hell are not going to get a Michelin star slinging food from the window of your truck.
But, I will say this: there is no greater feeling than cooking at a food truck when the odds (and the weather) are against you. Here’s how my days in the pit usually go.
I wake up, and try to remember all the product I sold the day before. Is there even food left in the low boys or the fridge?
Most purveyors won't deliver to food trucks. If you can't make the $200-$500 minimums for delivery, then they don't even bother offering their services. Without a walk-in, not to mention proper refrigeration, buying in bulk is not an option. As a result, I'll burn about two to three hours in every direction shopping for what I need for the day.
I finally arrive at my cart. Before I even open the door, I check my water tank — and more importantly, my waste water level. I've got about 80 gallons before all my sinks start backing up and my truck smells like a grease trap. I used to have to empty the tank manually before I could afford a service, which is not fun when you are hungover.
And yes, I have puked several times during this process.
If everything goes smoothly, I finally start prepping for the day. The truck is just like any other kitchen, except you’re most likely doing everything by yourself. In an 8’x16’ space, you come to know the true meaning of clean-as-you-go; by the time you are done butchering, or making 50 pounds of kimchee, you have to clean the whole truck again.
I can usually knock out everything I need for the day in about two hours. To do that, I have to be clever with my menu, which is where cross-utilization becomes key. While my chef buddies are adding more components to their dishes to achieve the perfect plate, I have to pare down your plates to save space—which I find really steps up creativity and technique.
If there’s any free time left, I hit social media pretty hard to get people to come by the window for lunch.
I’m open. I’m ready. I’m waiting. there’s no way of knowing if you are going to busy or even going to have anyone come by. It's sad. Really sad sometimes.
When your food has to compete with restaurants — they have plates, you have paper plates or boxes. They have seating and shelter when at best, you might be near a parking space for your customers to eat in their car. They have servers and booze, you have a self-serve water bucket — the only way to offset the inherent disadvantages is to create something so good that people can't live without it.
When, "Fuck, I’m starving and I guess this roach coach is all I got," or “More food, less money” are the predominant motivations for most of your customers, there’s no room on your menu for experiments. Your customers have to come back, and they have to tell all their friends — if you’re throwing out food in this game, you’re dying a slow, painful death. Success is your only option.
So, you put on that plastic smile and hustle! The one thing that caught me off-guard when I first opened was that I had to be the host, the server, and the cook. Not easy when you have a line of people waiting to order food, and you’re flying solo. My best advice: get the money first, then apologize for the wait. If you are sweating and flustered but miraculously still nice, not only will people wait, they'll think, my gosh! Look at how hard he’s working. I better tip him.
Little do they know, all good cooks hustle. It’s just that in a food truck, they just get to interact with you and watch you run around in an aluminum cage. It really is like a zoo, if you think about it.
At this point in the day, most restaurants are at their slowest. Same rules apply at a food truck. Where most restaurants will make staff meals or change over to the dinner menu, you will either be prepping for the dinner rush or closing until 5pm. No point in wasting time for one or two stragglers who are having a late lunch. I take this time to check in again on social media to remind people I still have food and that I am alive and well.
After chugging a few beers, I'm back at it. Or back to waiting. Either way, I'm ready.
By now, I've either sold out of food, or I'm wrapping it up. I load my dishes into my car to wash at home, so I don't have to fill the water tank the next day. I clean the truck, make sure the propane is off, make a prep list. I’m exhausted. But I am also satiated —I got through it, again.
Everything in a food truck is so fragile. In a kitchen on wheels, anything and everything can and will go wrong, just like a kitchen without wheels. But I love it. It's so dangerous and fun. Who cares about James Beard awards, or Michelin Stars? When no one notices all the work that goes into having a successful food truck, it's like laughing at your own inside joke that no one gets. Surviving today so you can open tomorrow is the goal.
Owning a food truck is marathon, not a race. You just have to know where you want to go.