Talking about Corner Taco with Chris Dickerson
1. Tell us about Corner Taco.
We call our cuisine "semi swanky street food." Our specialty is hand crafted tacos using corn tortillas made in the authentic Oaxacan style. We make our corn tortillas fresh every day using a custom made corn tortilla machine. There are only two in Florida - one at Epcot, and ours. It really gives us a taste advantage and authenticity edge.
2. How does the machine affect the taste?
It means we can make our tortillas without preservatives. Corn tortillas mold after a short period of time, which is why store bought tortillas or even traditional Mexican grocery store tortillas, need to add preservatives if they want their tortillas to last a few days. The only things we use are preservative free pure Maseca corn flour, warm water, kosher salt, and extra virgin olive oil. That's it. It creates a brighter, popcorn type of flavor.
3. What is the overall concept for the food at Corner Taco?
It's a riff on authentic Mexican tacos. I say it's fusion, although I'm not sure I like that moniker. I used to cook in 5-star hotels and got tired of the formality and the pretense. So, my training is in classical French but I also worked at Nobu under a Japanese chef who does a lot of fusion, Japanese/Peruvian type of stuff, but I really just wanted to cook food I like. And the idea is that a taco is so informal and unpretentious that you can do just about anything and people won't take you too seriously. If you go to a fine dining restaurant and pay $25 a plate people will have certain expectations and it's often hard to exceed those expectations. Whereas with a $4-$5 taco people don't necessarily have the same preconceived notions and you can do almost anything and have it be unpretentious.
4. Can you tell us about the style of tacos you have?
A lot of people, when they think of a taco, think of Tex-Mex style tacos with a lot of sour cream, lettuce and fillers. That's not our style. We use a little bit of shredded cabbage and cilantro, but otherwise we're striving for clean, interesting flavors, without fillers. If people come with an open mind and give our style of tacos a try, I think they'll like them.
5. Is your menu strictly tacos or do you have other things?
We've become pretty well known for our salads. I have a small specialty foods company called Corner Natural Foods that produces fresh thyme vinaigrette. It's available on Amazon and stocked at some local stores like Fresh Market, Native Sun and Grassroots. We use it on all our salads and to marinate all our meat and seafood.
In addition to tacos and salads we also do all natural nachos with brie and white cheddar. They're made like a fondue and quite a few folks order them.
6. How long has Corner Taco been around?
It's been around for nearly two years. We started at the Lemon Bar in Neptune Beach. We weren't a food truck originally. They built the kitchen and were a great help in getting it started. It was a win-win for both of us. I was at the Lemon Bar for about 8 months, then went mobile last January 14th (2012).
7. Are you the owner?
Yes. My dear friend Heather Douglas helped me start the truck, and I couldn't have done it without her.
8. Do you have a set menu of tacos or do you rotate them?
We have a core menu of our tried and true items and then we do at least one special a week and rotate in things depending on seasonality and what's fresh. For example we had mahi mahi tacos on the menu and we switched to grouper because it's more available. We work closely with our purveyors, who are really great. We buy from the same people who are supplying some of the most expensive and well known restaurants in town. We try to source the best stuff that we possibly can and buy locally as much as possible.
9. If someone is trying Corner Taco for the first time, what would you recommend?
The carnitas is probably our most popular taco. It's pork that's braised for 8 hours in orange juice, cloves, cinnamon, a lot of peppers and chiles. I get special chile powder from Santa Fe from this area called Chimayo. That's a real favorite. It's braised, then seared on the flat top so the edges get crispy.
I'd say our signature taco is one with fried Mayport shrimp, white corn puree, and asparagus. It's fried lightly with rice so you really taste the shrimp. There's not a lot of breading. That's one of my favorites.
10. What are some of your other favorites?
I really like the Dijon-buttermilk fried chicken. I think it goes really well with our fresh corn tortilla.
I also like our fish tacos, particularly our espresso blackened grouper. It's really wine friendly, like most of our tacos.
11. You don't serve wine, do you?
We don't, but on Friday nights we've started going to the wine tasting at Wine Warehouse on Atlantic Beach. The ultimate goal is to find a bricks and mortar spot where we can park the truck and serve beer, wine, and hopefully tequila.
12. Are you looking to move from your location on Riverside?
No. I want to keep the counterculture vibe of the food truck and incorporate that into a physical location. But my ultimate plan has always been to have a little lot somewhere with a physical structure and have multiple Airstreams serving different concepts. For example, wood burning pizza, rotisserie chicken -- make it really interactive so people can see the rotisserie chicken spinning. They'll see the tortillas being made fresh. They can see the wood burning pizza oven, and that sort of thing. I'm looking for the right spot now.
13. Will you run the multiple trucks, or how will that work?
Yes, if I could do it in one area or a few closely located places within a few blocks. I'd run them myself but have some key people help. But the idea is that I'd always have my hand in the cooking - that's my passion.
14. Where do you get your recipes?
I travel a lot. I've spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico, different parts of South America and Europe. I don't believe there are any really unique, original ideas. There are really just permutations on other people's ideas. And maybe those other ideas are combined. I go out to eat a lot and get ideas. I'll get a seed of an idea from one dish I've had and I'll change it around to make it my own. I read a lot and get ideas that way. I also get ideas that don't directly come from food. For example I was in Oaxaca, Mexico and had a margarita I really loved with papaya, vanilla, lime and smoky mezcal so I've been trying to incorporate that into a taco but using smoked salmon to get the smoky flavor. So it's just combining and smooshing together other ideas.
15. Where did you learn to cook? Did you go to culinary school?
Yes I did. I went to Wake Forest for undergrad and I studied communications, which is obviously not related to cooking. I'd always loved the restaurant industry - the fast pace and the people, and I loved working with my senses - cooking is one of the things that allows you to do that. After college I was looking around and the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island had a chef's apprenticeship program at the time. It was very select and they only took a few people a year. It was a three year program and I applied and ended up getting accepted. So I did a formal apprenticeship - I got a degree and they sent me to culinary school to get a basic culinary education. So that was my formal training.
16. Did you go into the program having a strong point of view about cooking? What made you want to become a chef?
It's funny because I never really chopped an onion before I got accepted. I was the only one accepted without a lot of experience. A lot of the guys in the program had already gone to culinary school and they were doing the apprenticeship to refine their skills. But they accepted me based on my passion for food. My mother owns Le Clos on Amelia Island. At age 50 she had never worked a day in her life. Then she moved to Paris and went to culinary school and worked at the Hotel Ritz. She started cooking about two years before me, and that's probably when a light clicked that it was something I'd like to do too. My mother and I are quite close and are a lot alike. She's probably one of my driving influences.
17. Besides your mother, did you have other influences?
I really enjoyed working at Nobu. The thing I took from there was a love for clean food. For me, dining is not only about how food tastes but how you feel while eating it and after having eaten it. I like to feel satisfied --- not stuffed. I also like to think of food as not only a way to fill your stomach but as nutrition and energy, so I try to incorporate that into my food.
18. How did you go from school to amazing restaurants like Nobu? Did you just apply or did you have a mentor help with introductions?
The Executive Chef at The Cloister was Franz Buck and I really would call him my mentor. We had a great relationship and he really pushed me; we became quite close. He gave me quite a few introductions within the tiny 5-star network. Through those introductions I would get invited to cook with top-notch chefs for special events. I got invited to cook with the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, which was quite an honor. I also got to cook with James Beard award winner George Mahaffey. He ended up inviting me to cook for him at The Little Nell in Aspen.
19. How long were you doing 5-star cooking?
About four years. I got burned out on the formality, the pretense, the white coats and the high hats. I took a little time off but I wanted to remain in food. I moved to Washington, DC where a lot of my friends from college had moved to, and worked for a wholesale food distributor supplying food to restaurants. I learned a lot about the business end and was financially successful but didn't feel truly successful because I wasn't using my passion. I decided to leave DC in November of 2008 and went to South America for several months. The longer I was there and the further I was from my passion, the more I realized that cooking was what I needed to be doing. That's when I decided to move back to Jacksonville, where I'd grown up, to get some sort of restaurant going.
20. What made you choose a food truck? Why not a brick and mortar restaurant?
I was originally planning to do a brick and mortar restaurant and had saved quite a bit of money. But I still needed financing and banks just weren't lending at that time, particularly to startups and especially to restaurants. I was looking for a small place when I was introduced to the late David Cole who owned The Lemon Bar. I always thought a food truck would be a good way to market a restaurant, and so when the Lemon Bar ended, it was a natural next step.
21. What have been some of the surprises or challenges in running a food truck?
It's like camping every day! In a restaurant you take for granted that the steam trays and equipment are always on the counter, but in the food truck we have to load and unload every day. We have to light the pilot lights every day - in a restaurant they're always on. We have to supply our fresh water and empty our dish water every day. There's an incredible amount of work before we even start to cook.
22. Do you do all the cooking?
I do 90% of the cooking. Heather has been in the business for a long time but never cooked previously. She has helped cook.
23. Did you work in a food truck before Corner Taco or did you go straight from the Lemon Bar to owning your own truck?
I started on my own. There's no manual - and I looked! That's part of the fun - just figuring things out. Every day there's a new challenge you have to overcome - the generator doesn't work, the propane doesn't light, the hot water heater needs to be adjusted. If you forget something on the truck you can't just walk to the back to get it - you have to figure something out. Sometimes those mistakes end up creating opportunities. For example, one day I forgot the butter, which is what I used to use in the tortillas. The only thing I had was extra virgin olive oil so I used that instead, and ended up creating a better, softer tortilla. You have to embrace the unknowns and enjoy problem solving. I think that's the biggest thing. A food truck isn't for someone who's uncomfortable with uncertainty. You have to deal with that every day and you have to overcome it.
24. What's the biggest lesson you've taken away from running a food truck?
To be able to adapt and think on the fly. If something doesn't go as planned you can't just pack up and leave because we only have a two hour service period. If you have a delay you could miss half your lunch. You have to think on the fly and open your mind to possible solutions.
25. Is your focus mostly lunch service?
It's lunch now, but I'd love to be able to do dinner. I think the food lends itself to pairing with wine. Right now there's not a viable place to go. That's one of the reasons I want the bricks and mortar - to have a fixed location. Right now we're mostly at office parks. Maybe when the Beach opens there'll be more opportunity for dinner. I'd love to have more opportunities to serve more food to more people, particularly on weekends and at night.
26. What has been the reception to food trucks? Have you seen that changing?
Overall the reception has been very good. It's definitely in its nascent phase in Jacksonville. There's still a lot of people who remember the roach coaches of 20 years ago. When we opened a year ago many of our initial customers were people who watched Food Network or were aware of the skill level coming from the modern food trucks nationwide. Those early customers were adventurous. Now I'd say there's a wide mix of people who visit us. Many of them had negative views of food trucks from the past but have changed their mind and now come regularly. It's definitely catching on. I think it's still in its early stage and is being adopted by more and more people in Jacksonville. As more trained chefs start operating food trucks I think they'll pick up even more.
27. Are you seeing a trend to more highly trained chefs working on food trucks?
Yes. It makes a lot of sense. It's still difficult to get funding for a restaurant. For me, I don't want partners - I only want to answer to myself. The cost of a food truck is not as inexpensive as many people think but it's still much less than building out a full restaurant, so it makes sense for me, and for a lot of other chefs too, I think. If you look worldwide - Paris, London, New York - food is becoming more casual. One of the things that came out of the financial crisis is that people are sick of living a lie - they're sick of living on an equity line. Food trucks offer cuisine that's stripped down and real. We don't use excessive adjectives, and I think that really resonates with people.
28. Do you do a lot of catering?
We do cater and we want to do more. We're really well suited to mingling type events where people walk around and come to us to get something to eat. We're not set up to have 100 people line up at once ready to eat. We have a small staff and high standards, which works well when people are relaxed and enjoying themselves and not in such a hurry. We did a Cinco de Mayo party that was really fun. We also do wedding receptions and late night parties where people are dancing and come to the truck for a taco when they're taking a break. That works well and people enjoy it as something that's really different from a lot of standard catering.
29. When you're not eating at Corner Taco, where do you like to eat?
I really like Orsay, Palm Valley Fish Camp and Pom's. I'd say those are probably my 3 favorites.
30. What's next for you?
I always plan on operating the truck but when I find the right bricks and mortar spot I'll probably operate the truck twice a week instead of 5 or 6 times a week. Then I'll park the truck somewhere like an old gas station where I can have multiple bays with multiple trucks serving different things. That's what I'm looking for now.