Talking with Chef Andrew Gruel

SF

Real Talk with Chef Andrew Gruel

IMG 7794Founder of SlapFish talks about his journey.

All Photography by Alan De Herrera

Chefs are not merely the people wearing the cute white hat, or these days, a fashionable Chef’s Coat. Chefs are artisans of culinary delights. Some train at the finest schools and some train by simply doing and experimenting. Regardless of how they get where they are, it takes tremendous courage to stand in front of any food and create a masterpiece. To all of the Chefs that continue to impress me, this page is devoted to you. The third Featured Chef in this series is Chef Andrew Gruel.

Chef Andrew Gruel is nothing short of unique and his preparation of food is not only thoughtful and inviting, it is affordable and surprisingly tasty. So while this month’s Featured Chef is a little more unconventional, the vision and passion emitted by Chef Andrew Gruel, his ingenuity, creativity, and culinary background make him a worthy Chef for my “Featured Chef” Series.

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Before I begin, I should mention that the words “Food Truck” and “Gourmet” were never two words I considered synonymous. HOWEVER – there is one Gourmet Food Truck; One that has me wanting to follow it around and eat every menu item. Yes, I’m serious. The Food Truck I’m referring to is SlapFish created by Chef Andrew Gruel and Jethro Naude. Thus began my knowledge of Chef Gruel and SlapFish.

I met Chef Gruel one fine Friday night when I ventured to engage in a Wine Tasting at Julie Lim’s OC Wine Mart. The Event was one that was featuring none other than SlapFish. The Truck was parked out front serving a menu that boasted a “lobsticle”, “Lobster Grinder”, and the “Major Crunchy” to name a few. The real surprise about this particular Food Truck, is that all of the fish served is sustainable fish. (For those that don’t know what sustainable fish is, it is fish that is caught responsibly without polluting or overfishing our oceans.) I approached the Truck with hesitance but a healthy dose of curiosity to scan the menu. SlapFish. What in the world is that all about? I had only just heard about them earlier that day and had corresponded briefly with Chef Gruel after visiting his “SlapFish Facebook” page.

One could say, my curiosity was peaked before I even saw the menu. Or met the Chef. Needless to say, I did approach the truck and almost ordered but upon realizing Chef Gruel was there, instead introduced myself. To my surprise, he not only took a moment to say hello but came out to shake my hand and ask me what I liked. (Not a bad first impression.) This only began my newfound relationship with SlapFish AND my new-found admiration and respect for Chef Gruel. I ordered one item and instead was served three – each with it’s own personal twist. The grinder has since become my favorite thing and I always ask that he turns up the heat on it (adding some chile) and he kindly obliges.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited by Chef as the “Food Personality” to taste and comment on SlapFish for the Food Network’s, “Eat St.”. To say it was fun is an understatement. I was given a chance to experience SlapFish in an entirely new way. And by new way I mean, I was lucky enough to be hand-fed by the very handsome and charming Chef! Now that doesn’t happen every day. Needless to say, the food was fantastic and I was able to try menu items I hadn’t before. Everything that Chef creates has a healhy dose of passion, texture, flavor, and heart. Once in a while he even throws in a surprise like the “Garden State”.

It’s safe to say that Andrew Gruel is not the typical Chef. Like every Chef from Chef McCabe and on, each Chef is given a series of questions by me. Each question is answered in their own words and I believe it allows us to get a much more personal look into who they are. Before reading on, here is a brief Bio on Andrew Gruel:

Chef Gruel is well known in Southern California for his advocacy and evangelism of seasonal and sustainable cuisine. A celebrated chef and experienced restaurateur, Andrew’s colorful culinary career reads like an Anthony Bourdain book. Chef Gruel learned his craft and perfected his cooking artistry working at top restaurants across the country to eventually become an executive chef and general manager. He’s far from bashful, too. Chef Gruel has appeared on numerous national television cooking shows and hosted his own radio program on cooking.

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Where did your passion for food begin?

I can answer this with a little history: I grew up in a household with at least 6 microwaves.  We would burn through them at a rate of 1 a year, and at times they would pile up in the garage like used tires.  On Christmas morning I was always awakened to that sexy scent of frozen Sara Lee pastries rolling around on a crusted Lazy Susan, inside our newest microwave (we called it the sonic steamer).  That little nugget of breakfast ecstasy went from frozen to foxy in 35 seconds. And eggs? F*ing forget it,  I didn’t realize that eggs actually came from a shell until my first mischief night.

I don’t blame this culinary ignorance on my parents at all, they loved these delicacies as much as I did and only meant the best.  We used to fight over that last drop of margarine or frozen pot pie. We were the family in the old “Leggo my Eggo” commercials.  But what was I missing?  I didn’t eat fish until I was 20 years old.  The idea of cooking or eating food outside the fast food norm was a joke.  I thought that ketchup was a daring novelty (This is probably my favorite statement from Chef Gruel). I was 18 years old ordering pasta with butter off the kid’s menu during Easter Brunch.

When I was 19 years old, 2 nights before Thanksgiving, my mom told me to take out the garbage.  We had an old refrigerator outside that we would put food into before it was thrown away to avoid having it rot in the garage.  I reached into the hunk of shit, grabbed an unassuming bag of scraps, and tossed it out.  Two days later, Thanksgiving morning, I awoke to a scream from the kitchen.  Turns out my mother was going to surprise us all this year and cook a turkey.  Me, having no knowledge of what real food looked like, apparently threw the bag out 2 nights before, not recognizing that it was shaped like a turkey.  Had I grown up knowing the slightest thing about food, and what a turkey looked like, maybe we wouldn’t have eaten Chinese food that year.

It was at this point I realized that I wanted to be a chef.

Don’t get me wrong, I always loved food. I was (and am) the little guy who can “out eat” anyone. All I ever think about is my next meal. Seriously that is not a lie. Sometimes I feel like a dog.

So, my passion for food came from years of wonder built up about what real food is really all about.

 

What enticed you to incorporate the subtle art of using sustainable fish?

I love the ocean. My fantasy career growing up was to be a marine biologist, yet, I am afraid of the ocean. It is a good fear. In actuality, I need the ocean near me.

This forced me as a chef to learn more about seafood: how it is caught, where it comes from, how to handle it, and the culture of fishing communities as well. In doing this and learning about these things, I started to come across more and more evidence that the oceans are in peril, thus forcing me to question my love to serve seafood. This is when I learned about sustainable seafood and how we can eat healthier seafood AND help the ocean at the same time. We can support sustainable fishing communities and economies by making the responsible choices and purchasing decisions.

I was given the opportunity to head chef-driven a sustainable seafood program (Seafood for the Future) at the Aquarium of the Pacific back in 2008 and I jumped on the opportunity, quickly finding myself on the west coast.

 

What is your absolute favorite thing to make?

Any braised meat. Braising is an event. It takes time and incorporates every element of cooking: The perfect sear, perfect caramelization of supporting mirepoix, temperature control, patience, and sauce execution. Even thinking about the smell of braising meat makes my mouth water. Plus, this is how you make cheap and under-utilzed meat (or vegetables) valuable and crave-worthy. Anyone can sear a $45 a pound filet, but it takes time and know-how to make $.99 a pound oxtail taste amazing.

When you’re at home, what is your guilty pleasure?

Sandwiches. It may not sound too guilty or pleasurable to many, but something about putting ingredients and condiments between fresh or hot pressed bread that make me crazy. I am not just talking just meats and cheeses, but pasta, potatoes, beans, chips, fries, cereal… I can eat it all as a sandwich or panini.

If you were asked to make one meal to appeal to everyone for an important dinner, what would it be and why?

Surf and Turf. I think deep down everyone loves contrast. What a better way to play on this then to serve two items of such opposite worlds? Perfectly pairing meat and fish requires one sauce that fits both perfectly. This is the fun part.

How did the concept of SlapFish arise?

My business partner (Jethro Naude) and I have been developing SlapFish as a fast casual sustainable seafood restaurant for the past 2 years. We currently own a seafood wholesaler as well (status seafood) and purchase our seafood directly from the source giving us a significant cost advantage. We decided that it would be amazing to take our idea of fresh, simply prepared sustainable seafood and make it affordable to the masses by creating a fully integrated business model in which we cut out the middlemen. Thus SlapFish was born.

The name is fun and playful and reflects our desire not to take anything (including food) too seriously.

What city would you most want to visit to indulge in culinary-wise?

Hanoi in Vietnam. I love Vietnamese food for it’s flawless fusion of multiple cultures and flavors.

What is your favorite cocktail? Favorite wine? Favorite Beer? (If you have one!)

My favorite cocktail is Campari and Soda. I love bitter flavors. My favorite wine is any Pinot from Oregon. My favorite beer is Longtrail from New Hampshire, but any IPA will work.

What is your favorite smell?

Basil, raw or mid cooking (in transit).

What does your Sous Chef call you?

Crazy.

What is your vision for SlapFish?

Our goal for SlapFish is to grow into a multi-unit restaurant group, spreading from coast to coast. We want to teach people about how simple it is to eat sustainable high quality seafood.  We want to use SlapFish as an entry point to educate people on sustainable seafood and ultimately our relationship with the ocean.

More on SlapFish:

The concept

SlapFish Test Kitchen will combine the characteristics of a fast casual modern seafood shack, an oyster bar and a pop-up cafe with a constantly changing menu serving both beer and wine. SlapFish Test Kitchen is the perfect hybrid of fast casual and pop-up full service café dining. Combining the quality of fine dining with the cost and convenience of fast food, SlapFish can tap into an underserved market of foodies looking for quick, fresh, responsible and affordable seafood.

The existing restaurant space will allow for us to also introduce weekly events such as Sunday Suppers, Brunch, Beer and Wine Dinners in an effort to capitalize on the expertise of both partners as well as a growing demand for fun, surprising, crave-worthy and constantly changing menus.

 

The Food and Drink

The menu will focus on trademarked signature items and a variety of value-oriented, ala carte items.

 

SlapFish Test Kitchen Sample Menu

Fried Clams | house made tarter. cherry pepper.

Lobster Grinder | brioche. green apple. toasted garlic.

Clobster Cake | curried coconut sauce. slaw. mango.

Perfect Fish and Chips | hake. fried parsley. lemon. brown bag fries.

Shrimp Pops | pepperoni. sweet chili. smokey aioli.

Spicy Pulled Pork | english muffin. banyuls vinegar. cabbage.

New England Style Clam Chowder | double smoked pork belly. jersey cracker.

Lobster Fries | spice dust. chives. awesome sauce.

Major Crunchy | seared sea brea. let. tom. pickle. champagne vin. Lobsticle | half a lobster tail. awesome sauce. slaw.

Oysters on the Half | tequila cocktail.

NJ Style Taylor Ham, Egg, and Cheese | the garden state.

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I want to thank Chef Gruel for taking the time to answer my interview questions so thoroughly and for creating fare that is both delicious and environmentally conscious.

SlapFish and Chef Gruel are also an active part of “SEAFOOD FOR THE FUTURE” – a Project promoting sustainable fish, healthy practices, and responsible fishing in our oceans.

For more on SlapFish and Chef Gruel, please visit their Site and Facebook Page.



Executive Chef | Partner, SlapFish (Food Truck turned Brick N’Mortar)

All Photography by Alan De Herrera

Chefs are not merely the people wearing the cute white hat, or these days, a fashionable Chef’s Coat. Chefs are artisans of culinary delights. Some train at the finest schools and some train by simply doing and experimenting. Regardless of how they get where they are, it takes tremendous courage to stand in front of any food and create a masterpiece. To all of the Chefs that continue to impress me, this page is devoted to you. The third Featured Chef in this series is Chef Andrew Gruel.

Chef Andrew Gruel is nothing short of unique and his preparation of food is not only thoughtful and inviting, it is affordable and surprisingly tasty. So while this month’s Featured Chef is a little more unconventional, the vision and passion emitted by Chef Andrew Gruel, his ingenuity, creativity, and culinary background make him a worthy Chef for my “Featured Chef” Series.

Before I begin, I should mention that the words “Food Truck” and “Gourmet” were never two words I considered synonymous. HOWEVER – there is one Gourmet Food Truck; One that has me wanting to follow it around and eat every menu item. Yes, I’m serious. The Food Truck I’m referring to is SlapFish created by Chef Andrew Gruel and Jethro Naude. Thus began my knowledge of Chef Gruel and SlapFish.

I met Chef Gruel one fine Friday night when I ventured to engage in a Wine Tasting at Julie Lim’s OC Wine Mart. The Event was one that was featuring none other than SlapFish. The Truck was parked out front serving a menu that boasted a “lobsticle”, “Lobster Grinder”, and the “Major Crunchy” to name a few. The real surprise about this particular Food Truck, is that all of the fish served is sustainable fish. (For those that don’t know what sustainable fish is, it is fish that is caught responsibly without polluting or overfishing our oceans.) I approached the Truck with hesitance but a healthy dose of curiosity to scan the menu. SlapFish. What in the world is that all about? I had only just heard about them earlier that day and had corresponded briefly with Chef Gruel after visiting his “SlapFish Facebook” page.

One could say, my curiosity was peaked before I even saw the menu. Or met the Chef. Needless to say, I did approach the truck and almost ordered but upon realizing Chef Gruel was there, instead introduced myself. To my surprise, he not only took a moment to say hello but came out to shake my hand and ask me what I liked. (Not a bad first impression.) This only began my newfound relationship with SlapFish AND my new-found admiration and respect for Chef Gruel. I ordered one item and instead was served three – each with it’s own personal twist. The grinder has since become my favorite thing and I always ask that he turns up the heat on it (adding some chile) and he kindly obliges.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited by Chef as the “Food Personality” to taste and comment on SlapFish for the Food Network’s, “Eat St.”. To say it was fun is an understatement. I was given a chance to experience SlapFish in an entirely new way. And by new way I mean, I was lucky enough to be hand-fed by the very handsome and charming Chef! Now that doesn’t happen every day. Needless to say, the food was fantastic and I was able to try menu items I hadn’t before. Everything that Chef creates has a healhy dose of passion, texture, flavor, and heart. Once in a while he even throws in a surprise like the “Garden State”.

It’s safe to say that Andrew Gruel is not the typical Chef. Like every Chef from Chef McCabe and on, each Chef is given a series of questions by me. Each question is answered in their own words and I believe it allows us to get a much more personal look into who they are. Before reading on, here is a brief Bio on Andrew Gruel:

Chef Gruel is well known in Southern California for his advocacy and evangelism of seasonal and sustainable cuisine. A celebrated chef and experienced restaurateur, Andrew’s colorful culinary career reads like an Anthony Bourdain book. Chef Gruel learned his craft and perfected his cooking artistry working at top restaurants across the country to eventually become an executive chef and general manager. He’s far from bashful, too. Chef Gruel has appeared on numerous national television cooking shows and hosted his own radio program on cooking.

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NOTE: This article was written prior to SlapFish becoming a Brick N’Mortar.

SlapFish Test Kitchen will combine the characteristics of a fast casual modern seafood shack, an oyster bar and a pop-up cafe with a constantly changing menu serving both beer and wine. SlapFish Test Kitchen is the perfect hybrid of fast casual and pop-up full service café dining. Combining the quality of fine dining with the cost and convenience of fast food, SlapFish can tap into an underserved market of foodies looking for quick, fresh, responsible and affordable seafood.

The existing restaurant space will allow for us to also introduce weekly events such as Sunday Suppers, Brunch, Beer and Wine Dinners in an effort to capitalize on the expertise of both partners as well as a growing demand for fun, surprising, crave-worthy and constantly changing menus.