Sourcing for quality ingredients posed his greatest challenge.
Daniel Shemtob, chef and co-founder of The Lime Truck in Los Angeles, had a chance meeting with the owners of PasarBella this past February. Merely half a year later, his Suntec City stall is up and running. We caught up with him when he was in town and learnt about his unswerving passions and standards.
[Read our full review of The Lime Truck here.]
How did your love for cooking begin?
I come from a mostly Persian family and in Middle Eastern cultures food is what you do with the family. It’s what brings the family together. My parents are both great cooks, and I started cooking when I was five years old.
How did The Lime Truck come about?
I started The Lime Truck with a friend. He was going to be the chef and I was going to be in charge of the business end. But because we didn’t have any employees, every day we cooked together, doing a brand-new menu of seven items every day. That really reignited my passion for cooking. I realised I didn’t even enjoy the business side; I really only enjoyed the food side. I got to explore and play with different proteins and ingredients, and because I never worked in a professional kitchen prior or went to a culinary school, I didn’t have any restrictions.
What was the food like back then?
We started out doing New American cuisine, but we always had tacos. Our first taco was a Heart and Seoul taco—beef heart with a Korean marinade. We also did a Persian-inspired chicken fesenjan taco, which is a pomegranate walnut stew that’s really rich but very tasty.
Which are your favourite food trucks?
We were part of the first wave of gourmet food trucks in LA—right now, I would say there have been like ten waves. Before then, food trucks were mostly on movie sets and at construction sites. So I know and love the OGs: Kogi (which started the whole scene), The NoMad Truck, Free Range LA, Guerilla Tacos, Komodo, and my favourite—The Burnt Truck.
Is it easier to run a food truck or restaurant?
Tough question. It’s harder to be able to afford a restaurant. A food truck is easier to get into, but harder to operate. One thing is site scouting, because if you go to a bad site, then you don’t make any money that day. You have to find your customers, so that already creates a really big challenge. The second is: it’s a kitchen on wheels, so you have the challenge of the elements and things that aren’t consistent. You need to have great chefs who can adjust when this or that doesn’t work, which happens a lot on a food truck.
What makes The Lime Truck stand out from other taco trucks?
We care a lot about our food. We make everything from scratch, and we’re always looking to improve it. Even the standard recipe that we started seven years ago has been tweaked now 15 times to make it better. That pursuit of excellence really puts you a step ahead.
What were the challenges in bringing The Lime Truck to Singapore?
The produce and meat here aren’t exactly the same. Back home, I’ve had five years to develop relationships with my purveyors. I got things exactly how I wanted and it took a long time. My biggest challenge here has been really getting what I want from our suppliers and making sure the quality’s the same, because I know my flavours are good, but in food, as much as a chef wants to take credit, 70% of it is the raw ingredient. The avocados are OK, but they’re really not as good. Neither is the fresh lime juice, which we use a lot of, so we have to squeeze our limes by hand, which is a lot of work.
Tell us about the decision to make tortillas from scratch here.
We don’t do tortillas from scratch in LA. I have a really great tortilla guy. He’s Mexican, doesn’t speak any English, delivers us tortillas every day. It’s a lot more work to make them. I think there are OK tortillas here, but they’re not good. A good tortilla should be soft and taste of corn.
Developing the tortilla recipe took 60 days of experimentation. Every day you sit there and you play with different proteins, fats, flavours, salt. One day I was just testing fats: vegetable shortening, ghee, palm oil, lard, blended oil. Pork lard tastes way better than anything in the world but vegetable shortening is really close and it’s healthier so we went with that. Also I don’t want people who don’t eat pork to not be able to eat my food.
Will we see a mobile Lime Truck in Singapore?
A mobile food truck is definitely in the pipeline. It’s my brand, we’re a food truck, so I think it’s important to have one and represent food truck culture. Even if it’s difficult, I want it.