Behind The Culinary Creation
Jamburritos Cajun Grille Is Not Just A Great Hybrid Creation From Chef Michael Brown That Combines Southwest, Southern And Cajun Styles But Also Capitalizes On The Metropolitan Food Truck Craze
Devoured Phoenix. Image by Wayne Schutsky.
By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine
March 25, 2013 — Michael Brown is chef and proprietor at Jamburritos Cajun Grille, a cajun-burrito fusion food truck operating in the Phoenix Metro area. The Jamburritos truck can be found at multiple locations throughout the week, including the Phoenix Public Market, Food Truck Fridays, and Roosevelt Row.
Modern Times: Burrito/Cajun fusion is unique. How did that come about?
Michael Brown: In 1988, I went to Louisiana. I had been a chef for a while with a background in French and Italian, and (influence from) my Southern father and Caribbean mother. So, when I decided what my first restaurant would be, I decided it would be Cajun food. The only way to find out about Cajun food is to go to Louisiana, so I took a trip in 1988, and came back and opened up the tri-state area’s first full-service Cajun-Creole restaurant.
We had three of the same type, three duplicate restaurants over a period of six years. We got written up by the New York Times and the Zagat Guide. We got to the point in two years that it took about two weeks to get a reservation. At the time, I was really contemplating — we had a 50-seat restaurant — expanding to a 100-seat restaurant.
But I wanted to do something in more of the fast and casual market. We were doing jambalaya in the cast iron pots, like the ones you use to cook paella. It was the kind of thing where you brought it to the table, opened up the lid, and all the steam and beautiful aromas came out. I started to look at the Chipotle model and the Baja Fresh model and the Boston Market model and started thinking ‘what could I do fast and casual with the same type of food?’
So, I came to Arizona about 16 years ago and was the executive chef at Cajun House. It was my first time ever on the West Coast and I became fascinated with the tortilla. So, I thought about what would happen—a lot times burritos consist of rice and meat. So I thought about how I could make a Cajun burrito.
I did a lot of testing and testing and testing. And then I thought ‘what do you call it?” I took part of the name Jambalaya and part of the name burrito, and you have a Jamburrito.
Things just started to fall into place. And then, after some testing, people were liking it and so forth. Initially, it was going to be more of a fusion in terms of the inner ingredients, too, with cilantro and things like that. But it became really apparent quickly that the fusion part of it had to stay with the outer shell, the tortilla part. But the innards had to be authentic Cajun-Creole, with that down home flavor.
MTM: How did you decide to start a food truck as opposed to a traditional restaurant?
MB: Well, the food truck came about because when I put together the business plan for a traditional restaurant — a 2,000 square foot setup like a Chipotle with cobblestone floors, wrought-iron fencing along the walls and the dining room looks like the French Quarter — I had it all laid out.
But, to do it right it was going to cost about $400,000. Needless to say, I didn’t have that kind of money.
One day I was driving along and I stumbled upon a yard full of food trucks, and I talked a guy that owned a lot of them and told him what I wanted to do. He helped me out with getting started, got me a truck, and put me on the direction towards success, basically.
MTM: What are some of the unique challenges that go into running a food truck?
MB: Number one is the space. You have to be very organized, especially when you have as many ingredients as I have. After doing this for two years, I am still learning new things I have to be more organized about.
For example, the trays we serve the food on in the restaurant. In a restaurant, you could have a whole sleeve lying there because there is a lot of shelf space. But we have to take that sleeve and break it down into four parts and compact it into zip-lock bags.
Obviously, when the vehicle is in motion and food is cooking, you have to be careful. There are certain things you can’t just cook and drive at the same time. But a lot of cooking does go on while driving, so you have to pay attention to what is going on the stove.
And, of course, there is the set up and break down that you have to do every day. It is like starting up a new restaurant every day.
MTM: Are there any unique benefits that you wouldn’t see at a permanent location?
MB: The benefits are mostly in the area of marketing. You are able to go wherever you want to go, for the most part, and introduce your food into a new market. You can go from Scottsdale to Chandler to Phoenix. It’s a huge marketing tool.
Other benefits are if I go shopping for food and then I am out of something, I can still keep cooking. Once I get it, I can be at the store in the parking lot cooking. Say I was just about to get to an event, but I need to get prepped before I get there, so I pull off into a neighborhood and keep on going.
MTM: You have been doing this for a couple of years now and the food truck culture in Phoenix has definitely grown. What do you think makes Phoenix so accessible to the food truck culture?
MB: The population itself is so metropolitan, with people coming from areas that are very food-truck friendly like California, New York, and Austin. So, they are looking for the types of services they would get normally and it makes them feel right at home.
I think that we have a lot of strong lobbying done by people who have led food truck coalitions and gotten in front of some of the mayors and constituents and tried to ask for better business environment for the food trucks.
MTM: When you were first getting started, what was the craziest thing you had to overcome in the food truck?
MB: Well, that is a good question. I think that when it comes to cooking and you are really seasoned at it, you can cook just about anywhere. You could be thrown in the middle of the woods and cook for a hundred people.
But the biggest overall challenge I’ve had is when you’re doing an event far away from your base, like I did an event in Prescott. So, you’re way out there and far away from your sources, purveyors, and suppliers.
There was one event where I got so busy the first day that I ran out of product. Luckily, there was a friend of mine who was willing to make that two-and-a-half hour trip from Phoenix and supply me with the things that I needed.
Another challenge would be gauging how much to bring, so you don’t waste food but also don’t run out of product.
MTM: When did you learn to cook and who taught you?
MB: My cooking started when I was 14-years-old. I had never worked before, but my Mom had told me that, having seven kids, she couldn’t afford to buy me new clothes for school. That prompted me to say ‘Okay, Mom, I’ll go get a job.”
I pretty much, that Saturday, walked downtown with a buddy and saw a guy sweeping his own restaurant storefront and said ‘Hey, I can do that for you.’ And he said, ‘Really? Come see me Monday.’
And it turned into multiple Mondays. I worked there for my whole four years of high school and he taught me how to wash dishes, peel potatoes, and eventually he trusted me with cooking and opening and closing the store.
So, that was the impetus for me wanting to get into this for the long term.
The proudest moment I had was when my mother stopped by the storefront and saw me mopping the floor, and she got to see me working for the first time in my life. It was at that moment, it was like an angel from Heaven came down, and told me this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Once I heard that, I said okay fine. I am going to stay in this business and learn everything about this business.
MTM: In your opinion, what is the perfect meal?
MB: The perfect meal is...it’s actually more than one. It’s a few courses.
It would start with — I love sweet bread — so it would start with pan-fried sweet bread and maybe some quenelles and pike, with some lightly fried onion rings. And then I would go into a squash soup.
Then I would take a roast duckling — that’s my favorite — with an apple brandy sauce topped with Cajun carrots with some garlic-mashed potatoes. And a side of maybe Brussels sprouts, or something like that.
And then the pièce de résistance would be crème brûlée, to finish it off, with raspberries.
Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine.
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