A vegan at the helm.
A vegan at the helm.
Photo by Kelli Elizabeth Photography

Chef Chat: Stephanie Hoban on Food Truck Life and the Ripening of Her Business

Move over image of Teva-wearing, almond butter brandishing vegan and make way for designer pumps and jackfruit carnitas. Stephanie Hoban, the 30-year-old owner of Ripe Cuisine, graces the winter cover of Houston City Book fiercely chomping into one of her signature iced vegan donuts. Certainly, veganism never looked that good before.

To call Stephanie Hoban qualified would be an understatement. Along with holding a bachelor of science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from New York University, a master of sciences degree in Nutrition from Texas Women’s University, a degree from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City, she did her time on the line at Haven, the now shuttered farm-to-table restaurant from Randy Evans, as well as a stint at El Chaflan, the Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant.

Since 2013, she’s been serving up seasonal, “plant-based” creative concoctions and making our mouths water in the process, while at the same time ponder, could we go vegan?

In a phone call interview with Stephanie, we talked about her future plans for Ripe Cuisine, wearing the boss pants, and what she would do with a night off…

EOW: How the hell do you survive Houston summers in a food truck?

SH: You kind of just have to know what it is and accept it. It is hard, I mean when it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s 114 degrees in front of the grill. You bring a lot of water and you aren’t wearing a lot of clothes, you know like chef jackets, and such.

We have a fan in the truck, the window and back door are always open and you’re constantly chugging water, but it’s brutal, there’s no way around it. The food truck is very seasonal though, it does slow down in the summer, you know, people don’t want to stand out in a parking lot somewhere when it’s 100 degrees outside.

EOW: What made you just say no to meats and fish?

SH: At this point, I’ve been vegan for ten years and I was vegetarian before that for about two-ish years. When I went vegetarian, honestly, I did it kind of on a whim, I was working at a summer camp volunteering in their kitchen and I was seeing a lot of food waste. I was especially grossed out by these sheet trays of overcooked grilled chicken we had to throw away.

I had this aha moment that someone had to pay for this chicken, raise this chicken, slaughter this chicken, someone had to buy the chicken, get the chicken to the store, cook the chicken and then it ended up in the garbage. One of the other girls I was working with suggested we go vegetarian for the week to see how we felt. The end of that week rolled around and I realized I could eat whatever I wanted, but I didn’t feel like doing that, so I kept it up. Fast forward, and half of my life I’ve been vegetarian or vegan.

I researched the pro-argument for the vegetarian lifestyle and it started to make a lot of sense to me. In 2005, nobody knew the word vegan, if you were a vegetarian you knew, but no one else really knew about it. I thought about vegans and wondered why they felt they needed to take it one step further. I did more research and I really didn’t want to give up cheese, but it was on my conscience, so I decided to be vegan for a week, and just kept going.

EOW: Have you ever converted anyone to the vegan diet?

SH: I don’t know. I know that people will come up to me on the truck and say they’ve never tried vegan food before and that they had one of our items and loved it and were surprised. I hope. That would be pretty cool, I think, if someone ate my food and wanted to adopt the diet moving forward. Ultimately that’s my goal, I don’t think I’m pushy, I really try to lead by example when it comes to the diet, and at the end of the day, who am I to say how you live your life? But the more people I can expose to it, that’s my goal.

EOW: What dish or technique are you most proud of?

SH: There are a few things I’ve thought of, like putting beets in our falafel. I wanted to find a way to make falafel a little more nutritious. Our cashew cheeses that I make, I think are pretty cool, but if I had to pick the one I am most proud of, it would be our jackfruit carnitas.

I treat the jackfruit the same way any chef would if it were a cut of meat. I smoke it over cherry wood chips, I season it with the same seasonings and the outcome is something that’s really surprising for people. It’s probably one of my most requested items.

When in season, the Jackfruit Carnitas are a hot item.
When in season, the Jackfruit Carnitas are a hot item.
Photo by Stephanie Hoban

EOW: You’re very credentialed, what challenges have you faced that you didn’t expect?

SH: Umm, I don’t know, like every single challenge (laughs), I mean I knew it was going to be difficult, a lot of hard work, working all the time, but I didn’t fully grasp it was going to be my life.

Your personal life and your work life sort of blend together when you’re working 16-18 hours almost every day during our busy time. You have to really set aside time to take care of yourself and that’s been something that I’ve struggled with because I’ve always been really motivated. I didn’t really know the work-life balance would be a challenge.

EOW: What can you spill about your future plans?

SH: My dream has always been to have a restaurant, even when I started with a table at the farmers market. I can tell you that, it has been three years of running the food truck successfully and the business grows from year to year. I’ve been actively looking for a restaurant space for the past year, in the Heights, in Montrose and the upper Kirby areas. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you about signing the lease, but I can say that in 2018 I absolutely anticipate to open a restaurant.

EOW: As an owner, how are men different to manage than women?

SH: In the beginning, I would notice myself, say, if I would hire a girl that was more petite versus hiring a guy, I would never ask her to take the trash off the truck, even though I’m a petite female and I would do it myself. But at this point, I don’t feel uncomfortable asking because it’s just a part of the job description.

EOW: How have you seen your management style grow since you’ve opened?

SH: I’ve learned to manage people with different skill sets. Now I ask myself, is this someone with a little more experience? Have I hired them as a [food truck] counter help person to take the orders and do light food prep? Or, do they have the background experience to really be by my side doing all the food prep and checking orders.

EOW: How do you motivate your employees?

SH: We try to play music on the truck, and I try to tell them what’s going on with our customers, what they liked, if there is positive feedback about something specific. Or, to call out something positive that an employee did on the truck. I try to notice those things. (laughs) And I make them birthday cakes on their birthdays.

EOW: At the farmers market, who are your fellow food truck buddies?

SH: Oddball Eats was next to me before I had the food truck. El Topo is also with us at the farmers market on Saturday mornings. The food truck community is actually pretty friendly. Food truck owners know how hard this business is, so, I’ve never experienced anything but respect from other owners. We all try to help each other out.

EOW: Say, in theory, you have a night off with no obligations to your business, what do you do?

SH: I either stay home and relax, because I never get to do that, or I go out to dinner with my best girlfriends.

EOW: Chocolate or chips, which would you prefer?

SH: Oh, (pauses) chips, or French fries really.

EOW: Favorite bar or club in Houston?

SH: I sit at the bar at Uchi and get the vegetarian tasting and that’s my favorite.

EOW: If there were a Houston chef calendar, which month would you be?

SH: November, my birthday month.

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