This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Parts two and three will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.
Korean food is full of flavor and texture, its tastiness so addictive that it brought national attention to LA's @kogibbq truck, whose claim to fame was Korean barbecue-stuffed tacos. In Houston, we have our own Koagie truck, only it's not serving Korean barbecue tacos. The brainchild of chef Matt Pak, Koagie Hots is doing Korean barbecue (bulgogi) hoagies, Korean barbecue-topped hot dogs, and kimchi fries, and as far as addictions go, I'm seriously hooked. I find myself craving it late at night, which is exactly when Koagie Hots is available to serve.
The bright red truck is open six days a week -- Tuesday through Sunday -- and you'll usually see it parked across the street from Anvil in the Boondocks lot, serving piping hot, super tasty food until 3 a.m. Its sister truck, The Golden Grill, is also on the food truck circuit, though it's more often out on catering gigs.
This week, we sat down for a chat with Pak to find out how he ended up choosing the food truck path and what it's like to own not just one but two different food truck concepts in Houston.
EOW: Tell me a bit about yourself.
MP: I grew up in New York, moved, lived in Vegas for a while, Arizona, and then I came to Houston and worked at Benjy's -- both in the Village and on Washington -- for about four years as a sous chef under Mike Potowski.
EOW: You said you grew up in New York. When did you start your culinary career?
MP: Well, I grew up working in kitchens. That's the only type of job I ever really had. I worked in a couple of country clubs in upstate New York, a couple of different diners, a pizzeria when I was younger. Moved to Vegas and worked for a large catering company for a year and a half. After that, moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, and worked under Aaron May at Sol y Sambra. I worked there for a couple of years. I like moving around. And then I came to Houston.
EOW: What brought you to Houston?
MP: I had a friend that I grew up with that was here. I came down to visit, met my wife, then decided to look for a job, did a couple of tastings. I did one for Benjy's and they called me in a week later, and then I ended up moving here.
EOW: You said you worked at a country club. Talk a little about your culinary repertoire -- what you're used to doing, what inspired you to do what you do now.
MP: Well, I started dishwashing, prep cook, did bar food at the country club. Just worked under different chefs. I even worked at Outback Steakhouse for a while. I moved up the chain from fryer station to sautée to grill.
EOW: So, no culinary school.
MP: No culinary school. Pretty much just jumped around and learned from different chefs and taught myself and learned from other cooks, other chefs. I did think about going to culinary school when I was younger, but a chef that I was working under at the time, he didn't exactly talk me out of it, but he was kinda like, "You're going to have to learn in the field either way. Why go to school for two years when you can be learning in the field, which is going to benefit you in the future?" Which I agreed with him 100 percent. Not that I'm against culinary school; I'm against the money for culinary school, I think. What it costs and what they do teach you, and then when you get out of culinary school, you have to go out and work in the field. Most restaurants will take culinary students and start them from the bottom anyway.
EOW: So, Benjy's, you worked there for four years. What made you decide to open a food truck?
MP: Well, after working a year or two years at Benjy's -- he was by far the best boss, the best company I'd ever worked for -- he takes care of his employees really really well. It was just kinda like, obviously every chef wants to open up their own restaurant.
EOW: So, you always had aspirations to open your own restaurant?
MP: I think that working in the kitchens, I always treated it as a job when I was younger. But when I moved to Phoenix -- Scottsdale, Arizona -- that's when I started to get more passionate about it. I started caring more about food, was more interested, read more books, taught myself more, paid attention more.
EOW: How old were you?
MP: I'm 28 right now. My first cooking job was when I was 15. I moved to Arizona when I was 22 -- that's probably when I started to think, "Okay, this is what I want to do." I told myself after the first year of working at Benjy's, I was like, "I can't work for anybody else. When I leave here, I'm going to do my own thing." Just because -- he treats his employees so good.
EOW: What do you mean "he treats his employees so good"?
MP: For one thing, I respect the guy so much because I think the restaurants are just his hobby. He works just as hard as anyone else. He's very fair with pay. Full benefits, for instance. It's very rare that chefs get full benefits. He even had it to where we could go eat once a month and he'd reimburse us up to $100 to check out other places. The first three years I was there, I got a decent raise every year. Anyways, I told myself that I'd stay there however long until I was ready to open my own place. And then the opportunity came about. I met Sean Bermudez -- he owns Royal Oak, Boondocks and Pistolero's -- a friend of a friend introduced us. I helped him out with the menu at Royal Oak. And I wrote a business plan. It was originally for a restaurant that had nothing to do with the food trucks. But we decided to do the food trucks together as partners.
EOW: What would it have been if it had opened?
MP: It was going to be a place for Korean tapas, Korean small plates. I mean, maybe I'll do it one day. I had a concept, menus and all kinds of stuff. What inspired me was a place called Danji in New York.
EOW: Tell me more about these Korean tapas -- I hope you are still planning to do it.
MP: It was based on traditional Korean food. So all small portions, like maybe kalbi (Korean short ribs), jap chae (noodles). I wanted it to be like you sit at big tables; everybody shares food. I had a lot of different dishes planned. I would've brought in local seafood for fish dishes.
EOW: For people who don't know, you're half Korean, right?
MP: Yes, my dad was Korean, my mom was born in New York, so she was American.
EOW: So you grew up eating...
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MP: I grew up eating Korean food. My grandmother taught my mom a lot. She would cook traditional Korean food. It was pretty much rice with every meal, kimchi and then whatever meat we had, is what I would eat when I was young. All my dad's side of the family was in New York, so a lot of family meals. I ate 80 percent Korean growing up.
EOW: I know about Korean barbecue but not much else -- can you describe some more Korean dishes?
MP: There's soups, there's Korean barbecue, there's a lot. I went to Korea for the first time last year, and I was amazed how many different things there were. There's kim-bap places -- like the cooked sushi rolls-looking things -- there's places just on that. Picture a sushi roll -- kim-bap are things wrapped in rice -- so, for instance, one of them will have Korean beef, pickled vegetables or a cooked egg inside. And then there's places called dduk ssam, which are places where they serve the traditional barbecue meats that you cook in front, and then ssam means wrap in Korean, so they'll serve you a rice paper with sesame leaves and lettuce, so you cook your meat, or cook anything, and you wrap it and eat it.
Check back with us tomorrow as Matt Pak tells us more about life as a food truck owner.