What is your official title?
Chef/Owner Gorilla Gourmet. HGIC – Head Gorilla in Charge.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
Long. It starts early. I’m usually up and out before 7:00am to make my rounds. I’m maybe going to Sam’s, maybe Gordon’s, maybe the Farmer’s Market, Pacific Rim or Victorian Bakery, then back to the house by 9:00am to prep. We are open for service starting at 11:00am and operate lunch from 11:00-3:00pm. I stop serving guests at that time, and continue to prep from 3:00-5:00pm, then I re-open again at 5:00pm and stay open until 9:00pm; I burn the candle like that pretty hard. All of the information and hours are on Facebook; it’s the only consistent way to connect with my customer base.
Usually that schedule coincides six days a week; Sunday is the only day that I don’t operate at this point. It’s a lot of cooking, a lot of washing, a lot of prepping, you know, all of the glamorous things that every kid that goes to culinary school doesn’t realize will happen on a daily basis after they graduate.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Really, I’m inspired by ingredients; I’m inspired by the product. I don’t think about strawberries in January – I think about them in June or July. I don’t think about root vegetables in June, I think about them in November. I take a lot of inspiration from the Farmer’s Market; it’s important to know when product is going to be coming in, and I try to work that into the day to day dishes I create.
Traveling has also been a huge influence, but my mom is my number one influence – she’s such a great cook. She has an incredible palate and has shopped markets all over the world.
So much of the food on the front end for Gorilla Gourmet has been very pedestrian, very approachable. My first year I played it very safe; I didn’t have the funding to be able to take on extra inventory to play with the product. I had to make sure the product I took on I could move. That was fundamental. I also wasn’t familiar with this market; I hadn’t cooked in this market professionally since high school, so I didn’t know what the expectation was. I didn’t feel like I could get away with Thai Green Chili Tacos two years ago. I really just try to understand my market and keep the food interesting and approachable.
What is your culinary background?
My first job in food service was when I was 14-years-old working at a deli sweeping it out and working the counter in the summer when I would go out to Santa Barbara to visit my dad. I didn’t realize that I wanted a career in culinary, I never really looked at that as a serious viable option.
I moved to Santa Barbara, California in ’95; my dad lives there. I met some people who were graduates of Santa Barbara City College, and they really inspired me to consider culinary as a career. So I stepped into it; well, dove in, really, and never looked back.
I went to culinary school in Santa Barbara, and had the opportunity to work in a number of restaurants and hotels under really great chefs. One of the restaurants I worked in, the only position they had available was to do pastry prep. I really wanted to work for the chef, so I took an unpaid apprenticeship, would show up every day after school, just trying to force my way into the kitchen. The chef finally realized that he couldn’t discourage me from wanting to be a part of the kitchen, and so he hired me, and offered me a position doing the pastry prep.
This all started me on a path I didn’t foresee. After a year there, he encouraged me to go work for a pastry chef; even though he was a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) grad himself, he was trained on the hot side, and there was a lot about pastry that he couldn’t teach me.
So I went and worked for this pastry chef, and she really challenged me and pushed me. She was, and still is, one of the standards I look to in my cooking. Literally, she would work circles around me. I wanted to be that; she was like a Jedi! That’s where I really found my love for pastry. I loved the creative outlet, the finesse. She really supported me and fast tracked me to get into CIA in Napa, CA, where I spent five years cooking.
The opportunities I had while in school and while working as a grad assistant were great – I helped start a restaurant, worked in a bakery, spent a summer in Nantucket. Through all of these experiences, I found myself working for Orient Express, which relocated me to Charleston, SC, where I worked for a year. I had wonderful experience there, where the expectation was great, but I felt a little burnt out.
I honestly didn’t know what the next step was going to be for me. I moved all my stuff back to Kalamazoo where my family was before catching up with an old friend from CIA. She and a friend were traveling the world for a year, and I told them I would rendezvous with them in November in Bangkok. I ended up spending nine months in Asia, and it was amazing.
That’s where Gorilla Gourmet as a mobile street food idea came to be. My time in Asia was inspiration for how great this concept could be. I came back from Asia still trying to figure out what was next, and at the end of February 2010 I came back to Kalamazoo and started shopping my resume around.
I wasn’t going to settle for just any job here, and decided if I was going to take a chance and do something, this was going to be the time to do it. I decided I was all in and bought my truck – an ’86 box truck Chevy. I had a guy lined up to help build the kitchen, but it fell through, so my uncle and I spent 60 hours each week for three months working on the truck; it was a very empowering experience. We got it done, got it licensed, and then it was game on.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
We are working on a Supper Club with Rupert’s Brew House, so right now it’s figuring out how to move that forward. There really isn’t anything like that around here right now, so we are getting creative around food and beer pairings.
We will be involved in more events next summer, like most of the events downtown at the Arcadia festival site. I love Islandfest – it was my first event in Kalamazoo, and I love being in that atmosphere, drinking Red Stripes and eating Jamaican jerk chicken.
Our event circle is expanding, and we are going to be involved in more regional events. I have the nucleus of people around me that I feel is necessary to be able to grow Gorilla Gourmet’s presence, not just in this community, but all around Michigan.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
First and foremost, my family is here. I love the proximity to resources, and quality of life. Starting a business in Kalamazoo has been inspiring and so humbling on so many different levels. What I’m doing on the day to day now is so gratifying because I’m out there grinding it out, connecting with people, and connecting them to the product.
Supporting Kalamazoo has been amazing, and whatever happens to me and to my business, I will always maintain a presence in this community. Even if I have the opportunity to live or do business elsewhere, I’ll still maintain a presence here because I’m committed to Kalamazoo and the people here.
The quality of life here is really great, and it took me moving away and living in some amazing places around the world to fully appreciate how awesome this community is.
What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?
Pandora is the cornerstone of my production program. I can put on some mindless spin of music and just kind of dissolve into it. On the day to day, it’s something upbeat, and it spins off into all these interesting genre variations. I love contemporary latin and classical music. 90’s hip-hop will always be close to my heart. I like to keep it real old school; it’s my bread and butter.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
I take my coffee with milk. Preferably non-fat or soy. I’m a big fan of double macchiatos. Two fingers of foam.
What is your favorite app to use?
Probably the Weather Channel app because Mother Nature writes my schedule! Even though it’s not very “cool” or “sexy”, I live and die by that Weather Channel app.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
What utensil couldn’t you live without?
That’s a great question. You know, probably a tasting spoon. You use them all the time as a chef; they’re always on the station, you use them to plate up, and of course, to eat. That’s a tough call, but I think tasting spoon wins over the rest.
What is your relationship with the other local food trucks?
I’m a big supporter of other trucks coming to market and being in close proximity. Since the ordinance passed, I work closely with other operators, not only to facilitate opportunity for them to grow their business, but also to design and put in place systems to consult.
I welcome the diversity of operators. I don’t want to always roll up to a site and eat my own food, I want to go and see what else is out there. I also think there’s strength in numbers; there’s a symbiotic relationship there for sure. We’ve seen success, and that’s what’s made the city stand up and take notice of what the trucks are doing to transition people’s take on good, mobile food options.
For me, it got pretty lonely out there being the only one to begin with, and to now work with other operators is an asset that I really enjoy. I’ve had great working relationships with the other operators; I want to support them so they know they aren’t in this alone.
If you could put anything on my Thanksgiving table, what would it be?
I think a beautiful bird is front and center. I can’t mess with Thanksgiving at my house. It’s tradition. It’s very consistent. As much as I love getting venison from the farm, or finding an unusual way to utilize pheasant, bringing something like that to bear on a Thanksgiving table would not work; we have to stick to tradition, which means to take it down a notch with the innovating. We’re serving 25 people, so mass appeal is front and center. I am making my sister use fresh green beans in the green bean casserole, though!
What are your thoughts on the new culinary campus?
I’m excited. I’ve witnessed first hand of how transformative a culinary school can be to a community. The bar level in Napa, CA has always been high, and they are continually raising it more. It is one of the few epicenters of food innovation in the country, and they continue to inspire other communities to create a similar space.
I think this opportunity for our community has a multi-layer benefit. We are bringing to bear the depth and breadth of agricultural tradition in the midwest; Michigan is number two in the nation in diversity of product! It’s crazy the type of product that can be grown here due to the climate; I think it’s important being able to highlight that and bring it to the forefront.
I’m interested in seeing where the grand vision and prospect go from here. Bringing together the Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Bronson Healthcare Group, and KVCC is a really unique partnership. I hope that it’s going to add to the vibrancy of what is in Kalamazoo.
What is your dream for Gorilla Gourmet?
To me it’s about expanding the product line. I want to be able to dip into my bag of tricks, which I really haven’t been able to do, yet. I have several ideas for Gorilla, but my next big step would be the expansion of the product; just when you feel like you know what it is, BAM, there’s something new in your face!
Noel, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Noel and Gorilla Gourmet on facebook, twitter, and be sure to stop by Gorilla HQ for some good eats. GET IT! Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.