Talking with Chef/Owner Blake Burnett of Chew Chew Food Truck
1. Tell us about Chew Chew Food Truck.
Our food is different. We use the term “eclectic fusion” to describe it. We take something people are comfortable with and mash it together with something having a more global flavor. Our most popular dishes have something familiar and something that’s different, and that excites people.
2. What’s an example of eclectic fusion from Chew Chew?
Our Korean BBQ Short Rib Melt is a good example of what we do. It’s similar to a pulled pork sandwich with the cole slaw. We make our own version of a quick kimchi coleslaw. We use braised short ribs, gouda cheese, and Korean BBQ sauce. The sauce, along with the kimchi coleslaw makes it very different from a pulled pork sandwich and yet, at the same time, there are a lot of similarities. The textures are similar. The flavors are not so far from a BBQ sandwich, but are very different at the same time.
3. Can you tell us about your kimchi?
A traditional kimchi is fermented cabbage and carrots and various ingredients that can differ. But, it’s traditionally buried underground and fermented for a long period of time, giving it a strong, aromatic flavor. I call ours a “quick kimchi” which provides the flavors but is tossed quickly to retain the crunch of the coleslaw.
4. You’ve also described your food as “New American Cuisine.” What does that mean?
It’s the familiar side of what we do - the comfort food like hamburger and grilled cheese - but with a completely different twist added to it. In America we’re really good at doing that because we’re such a melting pot with so many different cultures that we’re open to. People may shy away from just having Vietnamese or Korean food but if you can take the familiar aspects of American food and mix in other flavors people will be more receptive to it.
5. What attracted you to the eclectic fusion style of cooking?
I think it’s always been my style ever since I’ve taken on a creative role with my cooking. It happened naturally through traveling and trying different foods. I like to try many kinds of food. It’s what drove me to put together the different types of things we do on the truck.
6. Are you the cook on the truck?
It’s myself and my sous chef, Lance Larson. Lance and I have worked together for a long time. We make everything on the truck from scratch, including all our sauces. It’s quite a lot of work sometimes.
7. How long has Chew Chew been in operation?
Our soft launch was September 15 (2013).
8. Does your menu change a lot or is it pretty settled?
We have a few items that are really popular and we’d never be able to take them away. But I also like to keep things fresh and bring in new items. Seasonally, I want to go after what’s available locally
9. Where did you get your recipes?
I did a lot of researching, looking at what was popular on the food trucks and what was going on here in Jacksonville. There have been a lot of food trucks popping up and there’s a lot of different things going on with their menus. I wanted to target something different that others aren’t doing right now.
10. What would you recommend to someone for a first visit to get an idea of what Chew Chew is all about?
I’d probably recommend the Curried Chicken Wrap. It’s a little bit of East meets West, with a lot of Thai flavors going on. I start with a Thai citrus sauce that I toss with Napa cabbage, carrots and cucumbers. I then make my own coconut Thai green curry. The chicken is fried, Buffalo style, and tossed with the curry. It’s all served in a flatbread wrap.
11. How did you come up with that combination?
It was just something that I’d played around with and I felt that it worked. The fried chicken traditionally has a coating of hot sauce. The curry works in a similar way, coating the chicken while keeping the crunch of the fried chicken. People are familiar with Buffalo style chicken and most have had curry before, but not many people have thought to combine the two. It’s a little bit different.
12. What’s been the reaction when people see the combinations you’re putting together?
I think there are people who are just naturally drawn to trying something different, no matter what it is, even if they’re initially hesitant. I have a lot of customers who will try anything different that I’m doing. Whether they like it or not, they’ll give it a try. At the same time there are certain things on the menu that are less challenging and more familiar and there are a lot of people who gravitate straight to those.
13. What are some of your more different items?
While I don’t do the Lobster Corn Dogs all the time I’d say they’d fit the definition of different. Some people think I’m nuts for doing it and other people think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever had. We put chunks of lobster tail, knuckles and claws onto bamboo skewers, dip them in corn dog batter and fry them. It’s nothing too outrageous but the sweetness of the corn dog batter works really well with lobster. There’s texture that similar to a corn dog, with the soft, crunchy outside and the chewy inside. It’s definitely very different. I wanted to see if people would buy lobster from a food truck. So far I haven’t been able to keep them on the truck - I sell out every time.
14. What’s the most popular item at Chew Chew?
It’s the Korean BBQ Short Rib Melt, by far.
15. Do you have a signature dish?
I think our style is really our signature. For example, we have a fish taco on our menu. By itself that’s not different than what you see elsewhere, but we added our own twist. We start by blackening the fish and add our home made pineapple salsa and roasted poblano-ranch dressing. It’s not too off the wall and doesn’t scare people, but it is different. It’s not that the fish taco defines us but it’s that we try to do things just a little differently. And more than any single dish, it’s that willingness to be a little different that is our signature.
16. What’s your favorite item from Chew Chew?
That’s hard. It depends on the day. My taste depends on my mood. BBQ Sliders are some of my favorite, even though they’re pretty simple. The fried jalapeños really set the sliders off. Who doesn’t love a little hamburger?
17. Is there anything on the menu that really surprised you by its popularity?
Yeah, we have a BBQ Spring Roll that we do. It’s pretty simple, with BBQ roast pork and a vinegar based apple slaw that we roll up in a spring roll wrapper and serve with our house made BBQ sauce. An egg roll generally has cabbage and roast pork in it, so that was the idea behind it - using traditional ingredients but with an American twist. It’s another of those things that sells out almost every time we make them.
18. Where did you learn to cook?
I went to culinary school at FCCJ, which is now FSCJ. Most of my hands-on knowledge has come from years of working with great chefs in local restaurants. As a young chef I was really inspired by certain chefs like Thomas Keller, Chef Nobu and some of the really popular guys who were putting out great books at the time. As I got older I was inspired by the chefs that I worked with. And as I started to grow on my own, what really inspired me, and continues to inspire me are the ingredients. I’ll see something that I think is really beautiful and I’ll want to turn it into a great dish.
19. Do you have favorite ingredients?
It depends on the season. Every time the season changes I get excited about what’s going to be new and fresh and what’s becoming popular again.
20. Are there any trends that you see, especially coming here to Jacksonville?
It’s exciting to me to see the growth in Korean, Vietnamese and Thai foods. They’ve been really growing here and thriving in Jacksonville, which is good to see
21. What made you want to go to culinary school to be a chef?
Probably growing up in the kitchen with my family and seeing my Mom and Grandma cooking. I started to have a passion for good food from being exposed to it from a young age. Living in Florida as a young person, working in the restaurants is one of the only ways to make money. From there, seeing the food being produced, along with the lifestyle of the chefs - it all seemed fun to me. That’s what got me interested, originally.
22. Where were you working before Chew Chew?
My first serious cooking job was at Eleven South Bistro, in Jacksonville Beach. I took an internship through the culinary program at Eleven South. I was really inspired by the guys I was working with - from the salad guys all the way up to the Executive Chef. I stayed there for 5 - 6 years, working my way up and getting a feel for things. From there I had an opportunity to help open up the Speckled Hen Tavern and Grille. That was a good experience being able to see what it takes to get a business up and running. From there I worked at The Corner Bistro in Tapestry Park. Working with such great chefs prepared me to be comfortable with my own style of food. I’ve taken a lot of influences from the chefs I’ve worked with and taken what I like from it and made it my own.
23. Why did you decide on a food truck instead of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant?
To open the restaurant I’d want to open would be very expensive. I wouldn’t be able to afford it on my own. Seeing the food truck scene here in Jacksonville, and seeing it really growing, made me want to be a part of it. I wanted to bring my unique style and flavors to Jacksonville. A food truck was the only way I could do it.
24. How do you like the food truck lifestyle, being a jack of all trades?
It keeps things fresh and exciting. Of course the truck is going to break down, there’s a lot of equipment we’re not familiar with as chefs, but you have to wear a lot of hats and be prepared to drive the truck, work on the truck, stock the truck, be a delivery guy and a little bit of anything.
25. Have you had any big surprises?
The biggest surprise has been the way the customers react. They want to come to the truck and are excited about the food. They don’t mind waiting in line. My biggest surprise has been how well Jacksonville residents are accepting the food truck scene.
26. How have the city laws been to operate with?
The community is embracing food trucks and the city seems to be slower to embrace them. The city will eventually have to follow what people want. Places like Jax Beach really need the type of culture that food trucks bring. It’s more like art than food because you have people who can do so many amazing things. People love having the choice the trucks bring them. Jacksonville has to leave the options open for people.
27. Speaking of art, how did you come up with the design of your truck?
I worked with a local mural artist, Jessica Becker. She was voted #1 artist in Jacksonville by Void Magazine. She and I collaborated on the design. With the name of Chew Chew, I wanted the truck to look like an old boxcar with a graffiti style mural on it. So, Jessica and I sat down with some ideas and she came up with the design. I loved it and let her run with it. She’s so talented, I thought it was perfect.
28. Have you settled on regular locations yet?
We’re getting there but are still working to find our 5 regular lunch spots. On Tuesdays we’re downtown at Everbank Plaza on Riverside (map). On Wednesdays we’re at the Acosta building on Corporate Centre Parkway (map). And on Friday we’re at the Brightway Center on University Boulevard (map).
29. Are you out on the weekends?
On the weekends we’re out at different events. We just tried out a new spot at Hodges and Sutton Park on Saturday (map). We’re going to try to find a regular spot like that on the weekends when we’re not at a rally or something. The Hodges location is about as close to the Beach as we can get. People on that side of town don’t get as much exposure to the food trucks, so they’re excited to see us out there.
30. Have you ever considered having a bunch of food trucks in a permanent location on a regular weekend day?
I have. I’ve actually spoken with Anthony from The Happy Grilled Cheese. He’s been very helpful with spots and advice. He and I have spoken about collaborating and having a lot of food truck rallies with many trucks coming out every weekend. People in the Beaches don’t get much exposure to food trucks and I think they’d be very responsive to something that was close by on a regular basis.
31. Does the colder weather impact your business?
I haven’t seen that yet. I’d say the rain will deter people more than the cold. Some of our best days have been on cold, miserable, windy days.
32. Do you offer catering?
Yes. Food trucks are actually great for private events. We’ve done everything from office parties to kids parties and engagement parties. Sometimes people are just having a party at their house and they want something exciting and different. It’s really affordable and the mess stays on the truck. We clean everything up and you don’t have to worry about it. It’s a really good catering idea for any event.
33. How have the food truck rallies been going?
They’re very popular. Last week we did a rally at the Landing put on by Jax Truckies. I had a line from the moment I opened the window until I ran out of food. It’s a good thing and shows that we can use more trucks in Jacksonville. People who are looking at starting their own business in this industry, this proves there’s more market for talented chefs who come out.
34. Can you tell us about your Chuck Norris joke of the day?
It all started off between my sous chef, Lance Larson, and I. We’ve worked together for a long time and we’d go back and forth all the time with the Chuck Norris jokes. They’re really popular and there’s sites on the internet dedicated to the jokes, so we don’t have to make them up ourselves and we don’t ever run out. Some people have no idea who Chuck Norris is, but it gives us a little break from the craziness of cooking.
35. So, what’s your favorite Chuck Norris joke?
My current favorite is: did you know that Chuck Norris can pick apples from an orange tree an make the best lemonade you’ve ever tasted?
36. What’s next for Chew Chew?
We’ve only been out a few months but I’m really happy with the direction we’re on. I’d like to keep growing our lunch and catering business. By showing our personality and uniqueness to the city I hope we can inspire others to do the same