Detroit's food truck scene is in the throes of a major expansion. From Marc Bogoff of Stockyard, to Brad Greenhill's Katoi, many chefs are finding their breaks peddling street food recipes from retrofitted vans. As they multiply, Detroit continues to lag behind in its debate about how best to adapt current licensing and health code laws to the needs of these entrepreneurs.
One recent recruit to the ranks of roaming chefs is Royal Oak resident Lester Gouvia, who began serving under the names Demitart Gourmet and Norma G's Fine Caribbean Cuisine last spring. Gouvia spent the past 19 years working for Sprint, before dropping everything to focus on his cooking. Just last week he traveled to Tennessee and purchased a van that will eventually become a mobile restaurant. Here, he discusses Caribbean food, his new truck, what it's like popping up at St. Cece's.
When did you decide to start Norma G's and your catering business, Demitart Gourmet? Why did you decide to get into the restaurant pop up business?
Lester Gouvia: I got separated from my job in March of this year…I knew it was coming. It was just one of those things where I just raised my hand and I said you know what? I can't do it anymore…And it was one of those things where, "What do I do?" I don't know where to go with this or what I felt like. My wife just said you know the one thing you do is you cook really well.
I had done private catering. I would donate dinners to my kids' school auction and people would come to the house and I literally would cook for 8-10 people, do a sit-down dinner—the full course, wines, everything. I believed it went over well, but you always doubt whether or not you know you really have what it takes. I kept cooking and everybody kept looking at me saying "You should be putting it out there." So I said "Ok. I'm going to try this."
Where did you learn to cook and what influences your cooking?
LG: My background is from Trinidad. I was born in the Caribbean many, many years ago. I haven't been back in a while, but that culture maintains itself. And that's my mom's name [Norma G]…She was an awesome cook and a lot of what I learned was from her—especially when she made me cook for her.
What do you like best about Caribbean food?
LG: Everybody thinks Caribbean is jerk. And that's one piece of it. But it's a very small piece. It's such an eclectic blend of cultures, because in Trinidad we were owned by the Spanish, the French, the English, and god knows who else…But the food is not just a this blend of flavors; it's a feeling. There's music. When I cook I play music because it kind of keeps me in the mood you really get the juices flowing. To me that's what needs to come out…I think people will start to realize what Caribbean cuisine really could be.
You live in Royal Oak. What got you excited about working in Detroit?
LG: I've lived in New York, I've lived in Vermont, I've lived in Houston, I've lived in Maryland. I've been to some different cities and I think I always saw resurgence in those—especially in New York. So I see something happening here and I really enjoy downtown Detroit. Honestly, Royal Oak is nice but it's too cookie-cutter, but you want to go somewhere where it's kind of raw.
You've said you're ultimately interested in opening a restaurant, but I understand you have a food truck in the works too. What made you decide to focus on the mobile food business?
LG: The problem with doing a restaurant in Detroit was that if the city decides to package itself differently and change their architectural makeup and how they do services, you don't know what the right area is. If you pick the wrong spot, you're in trouble two years from now…When you look at the food truck, there are a lot of food trucks in a lot of different cities but there are not a lot here. But people are starting to talk about it and I think that's why foodies are really saying, "If I want to try something different, I'm going to go find a food truck."
You've been doing a regular pop up at St. Cece's. How did you get your start there?
LG: FoodLab has a monthly meeting and they decided to do it at St. Cece's. They asked me to bring food so they could try it. And I said, "Well, OK. I'll bring food," and they loved it. And out comes the owner of St. Cece's, Celeste [Belanger]. She gives me a big hug. She says, "Yeah, we do pop ups." She goes, "You want to do one?" I say, "Yeah, I could give it a shot." She goes, "OK. You've got it next week." I'm like "What?" She's like, "Yeah. It's yours. Be ready," because she had an opening.
I'd never worked in a commercial kitchen, but I said, "You know what? Go do it." And I did it, and it was really good. It was positive.
What was different about working in the St. Cece's kitchen for the first time?
LG: I felt like I belonged. When I walked in for the first time, you know I wore my little chef top and everything and my daughter was with me. My family helped me, which has really been important. My family has been very supportive, but when I walked in that kitchen I felt an energy. I felt like I belonged. I felt like it was natural.
What have been some of the challenges to starting your food truck business?
LG: Detroit doesn't have a process [for licensing food trucks]. They don't know what to do with us. When you look at food trucks like El Guapo and the Mac Shack…it took them 60 visits, if you read the article, to actually get the license in Detroit and it wasn't even a long term license. So they're the first ones to really be officially licensed in the city.
Have you ever prepared food in a truck before? How is it different?
LG: I've never driven a truck, so that one's going to be new. I think what's going to be different is I'm going to get my food, how I see it, get the food out to people. I mean go to different places at different times. I mean what happens inside the food truck isn't really going to be different because a lot of it is prepped prior to that. Based on health department standards I have to cook in a licensed kitchen.
When you're not at St. Cece's, what kitchen do you use?
LG: At this point in time, I use Matrix, but I'm part of Detroit Kitchen Connect, so through that I hope to have other opportunities to use other kitchens. But that's really the only way right now. You have to have a licensed commissary that you work from, so really a lot of the stuff your serving is already prepped. There will be a hothold [in the truck], so when I get it out there it's already prepared so it's really just a quick serve. I think there's a benefit where I'll be able to serve people faster. However, I will be able to do actual food preparation on the truck. So, things like fried goods—I'll be able to do those right there, because you don't want to do those ahead of time if you can help it.
How soon could we expect to see the Norma G's food truck?
LG: The way I've been going and the way I've been pushing people: October. Honestly, I close my bank loan next week. I put my funding in next week. I'm going to send money to the guy who's building my truck at the end of next week. And he said 40 days so getting the truck is one thing. Being able to put it out there is another…I can have a truck and I can have a license and I can be ready to go. But do I have a place and a permit to go somewhere?
What's one thing that you can say you've taken away from this journey?
LG: Honestly, faith. Just having the faith to just get up everyday and take it to the next level.
Correction: This article mistakenly referred to Josh Stockton as the owner of Stockyard and the forthcoming Gold Cash Gold. Marc Bogoff is the owner of Stockyard.