Interviews

THE GRILL ‘EM ALL BURGER TRUCK’S CHEF RYAN HARKINS SPEAKS WITH METALSUCKS!

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A little under a year ago we started hearing about a start-up food truck in Los Angeles called “Grill ‘Em All” that served gourmet metal-themed burgers. Between then and now Grill ‘Em All’s mythos and popularity have exploded beyond the grimey streets of L.A. where they serve up burgers daily to the rest of the U.S. and even the world. Their latest adventures saw them face off against another L.A. burger truck on The Travel Channel’s Food Wars and endure a 6-week cross-country marathon to come out victorious on the The Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race. It’s safe to say that the duo of Chef Ryan Harkins and Matt Chernus are now burger — and metal — royalty, right up there with Kuma’s Korner in Chicago.

To celebrate their recent victory on The Great Food Truck Race, the Grill ‘Em All dudes are taking a “Victory Lap” in New York City this coming week, where they’ll be taking over the kitchens of various area restaurants and serving limited numbers of their patented metal burgers. You can get details about each of those events at Grill ‘Em All’s official website, right on the front page.

What’s this crazy whirlwind of burgers and metal and cross-country journeys in the name of both been like for Chef Ryan? Ryan indulged me with a leisurely phone chat this past Saturday; he spoke about the experiences of both shows, the brotherhood of metal, the brotherhood of food, and told us about the mouth-watering
“Pantera” burger he’ll be serving up this week in NYC. A Grill ‘Em All brick-and-mortar restaurant on the horizon?? A Grill ‘Em All fan club?? Could be in the very near future. Our chat, along with Grill ‘Em All manager and Burger Conquest maestro The Rev, after the bite.

…We’re greeted by our intrepid burgerteer with a mouth full of… something:

What were you eating?

Uh… chicken sandwich.

The Rev: Not a burger?

Can’t get enough burgers. My life is engulfed in burgers. I go and buy them even when I’m not on the truck.

Are you super stoked for this Victory Lap Tour?

Yeah, man. It’s fucking crazy. It seems surreal that I’m going to be there [New York City] in a couple of days. It was kind of a weird little thing that we were talking about, and now it’s actually happening. The reservations are booked, and it’s like the wildest thing ever.

How did all this come together?

The Rev, man. It’s all Dave. He kind of started it. We were like “maybe we can do something like this” and we were kind of like “yeah, you know, whatever” and were kind of focused in our daily grind of L.A. He started talking about it more and more, and then it was like “oh shit. Maybe we can really do this. Alright.”

The Rev: The Grill ‘Em All email, you know the one that goes on the website to E-mail the dudes? I get a copy of every E-mail that comes in. I’m not joking, one out of four E-mails was “when are you coming back to New York City?” It was like “maybe we should.”

Wow. That’s so awesome. Ryan, this is not the first time for you to be traveling for the great Grill ‘Em All truck. What was it like to be a part of the Great Food Truck Race?

Looking back, hindsight is always 20/20, it was one of the best times of my entire life. Realistically, while we were in it, it was insanely brutal. It all comes out really nice and whatever on television, but that was, honest to god, one of the most stressful and horrific 6 weeks of my life. I seriously had nightmares for weeks afterwards. I wake up in cold sweats like “oh shit! Do we have a meat purveyor? Do we have this and this?” We had to essentially open our truck in 6 different cities. We had to find meat purveyors, bakers, wholesalers, and we had to find spots. It was intense, man. It probably shaved a good 5 years off my life.

[Laughs] How did you do that stuff? How does one find a meat purveyor in a city they’ve never been to? I’d imagine there’d be a lot of Googling involved.

Yeah, there was a lot of Googling involved (it actually sounds pretty dirty). On our way we would use our phones because none of us were smart enough to bring laptops. We would go on our phone and look up meat purveyors, call them, talk to them about their product and kind of feel them out. We would choose the ones that we thought were the best. The one that we were actually allowed to sell, too. It was crazy. We really lucked out actually because we had a lot of awesome product on that road trip.

What are some characteristics you would look for in just talking to a guy on a phone and feeling him out to make your decision about which meat purveyor you would go with?

Well we wanted to make sure that everything was USDA certified, all local farm-raised beef and stuff. We would never use frozen products. We wanted to make it the same standards that we have here in L.A. but on the road. To be honest, we didn’t expect to last the whole show. I told the guys that it was the most important thing for us to make sure that our product was represented well on television and we didn’t look like a bunch of douchebags buying shitty stuff just for the sake of pushing food out. We wanted to make sure that we actually used all fresh ingredients and all good local products.

Yeah. Well I still haven’t had one of your burgers, but I’m really hoping to have one this week.

Oh yeah, dude. You should come back in the kitchen and hang out for a little bit.

Oh hells yeah, man. Absolutely. I haven’t figured out which event I’m going to come to yet, but I’m definitely excited. Is there a particular event this week that you’re more stoked about than the other one?

I’m equally as stoked for all of them. It’s crazy. I do have to say that I’m really excited for the Rub event because we’re launching an exclusive, limited to 25, burger at the Rub BBQ called the Pantera Burger. It’s only going to be available in New York City for one time only, and it’s limited to 25 burgers. We’re going to use Rub’s macaroni and cheese and their BBQ pulled pork which is going to be on a burger with deep fried cornbread crumbles. That’s going to be a sweet, hot mess of a burger. [Laughs] I’m kind of stoked on that one, that should be pretty insane.

Wow. Have you experimented with that recipe before or is it just something that you cooked up in your brain and you hope it works out?

It’s funny because the Rev and the guys at Rub, we’ve been E-mailing, and the second I saw that, I was like “oh shit, it’s a BBQ place. This is going to work, this is going to work and this is going to work.” I didn’t even need to taste it. I know that it’s going to be a fucking epic burger. That’s a flavor combination that you really can’t go wrong with.

That’s pretty intense. There’s a lot going on.

Yeah. We were joking around and saying that it’s a full-on meat boner.

[Laughter]

It’s so ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous burger. You got a pulled pork sandwich, you got your fried macaroni and cheese, and you got your burger but it’s all in one sandwich.

I’m sure it’s going to be a total shit show. I don’t know what the foodie scene is like in L.A., but in New York there will be people who don’t even give a shit about the heavy metal thing who are just into food and will be all over that.

That’s awesome. The heavy metal thing is a lifestyle. That’s kind of who we are and what we love, but there’s the food thing. Obviously it’s huge for me being a professional cook for over 10 years. First and foremost the food has to be good. That’s what I’m excited about. I have a love/hate relationship with the food nerds. I am a food nerd, and I love them when they like my shit and I really hate them when they don’t.

[Laughter]

Do you feel like your food nerdery, so to speak, that you convey through what you guys do on the truck, do you feel like it gets lost on some metal heads who don’t have that same appreciation?

I really don’t because I think metal heads in general tend to be very open-minded and just kick-ass people. We do have weird shit like this burger that we have right now, the Helloween Burger. It’s a pumpkin and sage polenta cake with black truffle emulsion and fried spinach. For someone who doesn’t know anything about food, it sounds weird and you probably don’t know what the hell it is, but we take the time and explain everything if someone is curious about it. The main thing about our truck is not to make people in any way shape or form feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to come off as too pretentious. I just like to make good food. If someone has a question about what truffle emulsion is, I’ll explain it to them every step of the way like how we make it and what it is and what it tastes like. If they want to get it then they can get it. It’s not a fine dining restaurant. We’re a shitty, black heavy metal truck that serves food. We make it as cool as possible for everybody.

So in addition to the Food Truck Race, there was the Food Wars show where you squared off against your former boss. What was that experience like filming that?

To be honest it was really awesome. The finale part where they did the judging, there’s a local brewery called Bootleggers that my buddy is one of the head brewers at. We made sure he got us 2 kegs of beer, and we had the kegs of beer on the truck. I don’t remember what it was, but it was a weird coil cooling system that was attached to them where it was actual taps, like each of the kegs had taps. We were just partying the whole time at like 10 in the morning at Santa Monica Pier. We got all these metal heads hanging out and getting wasted on the truck. That was like a real-life very literal heavy metal parking lot experience. It was awesome.

What was the actual filming of the show like? Was it as stressful as the Food Truck Race?

Not at all. Camille Ford was one of the coolest ladies ever. She was super awesome. We were nervous and it was our first time on camera and stuff. We’re doing this interview on the truck, and I’m doing this interview with Camille and the camera had to stop for something and she goes “by the way, I fucking love burgers and I love heavy metal.” I was like “dude, you’re awesome.” It was like hanging out with a friend. She was super cool. Camille actually made the whole process very easy. All the producers are really cool. It was a fun experience. It was a really good way to break into our first television experience. It was really cool.

The Rev: She showed up at Idle Hands [awesome New York bourbon and beer bar] when we watched it on TV, and I was like “so are you throwing a party for every episode?” And she goes “no this is the first one I didn’t watch at home. I was excited about it so I wanted to come down for this.”

Yeah, she was super cool. I worked on that truck [his former boss’s burger truck] for like maybe 2 weeks, and it was before I opened Grill ‘Em All. It was kind of something to do to get a feel for the whole food truck and how everything works. They really made it seem like it was the culmination of my culinary career, fucking working on that shitty truck.

Yeah they really did. I was wondering how much of that was framed.

The thing was the only thing I learned working on that truck was exactly what not to do. [Laughs] It was really weird because they were like “we’re not going to focus so much on the fact that you worked for them. It’s not really going to be a big part of the show.” Then it was all it was about. It was like me working on the fact that I worked on that truck. It was like you got to be shitting me. How about the fact that I worked in dozens of fine dining restaurants and worked in all these amazing places? They made it seem like the only culinary experience that I’ve ever had in my entire life was on a fucking shitty burger truck.

Welcome to TV, bro.

[Laughter]

The Rev: Don’t get Ryan started on what really happened on the Great Food Truck Race because we’ll be on the phone for a couple of hours.

Uh-oh.

[Laughs]

It really seems like you guys are like burger rock stars at this point. Is it just totally crazy beyond what you ever could have imagined?

Yeah, I’m not going to lie, we’ve been open for a year and people are waiting in lines for 2 hours, 300 people deep just to get one of my burgers. It’s like one of the most flattering things in the entire universe and it’s awesome. The one downfall is that we’re cooking out of a truck. I would love to be able to push out burger after burger and see everybody [personally] and not make them have to wait. When it comes down to it, we’re cooking on a 3 foot by 2 foot countertop. I’d love to be able to please everybody, but it’s hard to.

It sucks that people have to wait. I wish they didn’t have to wait. I think it’s also that a lot of people really like it because it’s also part of the experience like going to a food truck. When you’re waiting in line, I noticed some of my friends and stuff wait in line too. People just talk about things like, “oh what burger have you had this time? What burgers have you had before? What can you recommend? I’ve had this burger, I’ve had that burger. I can’t wait to try this one.” It is part of the whole experience. The waiting in line is part of the experience. I wish I had a huge full kitchen on wheels so I can really bang out my product and feed everybody. As a cook, all I want is everybody in the entire universe to try what I make and came up with. You know?

Do you think one day maybe you will make the switch from truck to restaurant or a vendor at an arena or stadium or something like that?

We are casually searching for restaurants. The main goal of the truck was not to get on television. It wasn’t to do the Great Food Truck Race. It wasn’t to get on Food Wars. It was to make enough money so that we can open up a restaurant. That’s still the main goal for Matt and myself. The eye is definitely on the prize. We want a really kick ass restaurant.

If we get 2 kick ass restaurants, that would be even cooler. [Laughs]

That would be amazing. Has that been your goal pretty much all along? You say you’ve been working in the industry for 10 years. Is that the holy grail to have your own restaurant even before any of this Grill ‘Em All stuff started?

Yeah, absolutely. Matt and I didn’t even think about a truck. We’ve been talking about this for years — opening up a restaurant. The brass tax is that we had no fucking credit and no money. “What can we do here? What can we really realistically work with?” Then this food truck phenomenon started and we’re like “that’s not going to be nearly as expensive as opening up a brick and mortar restaurant, and there’s a lot less risk. It’s a really awesome way to test our product.” It’s gone over quite well. It’s working out really well for us. Hopefully in the very near future we’ll have our nice brick and mortar Grill ‘Em All restaurant.

The Rev: Part of the motivation behind coming to New York is so we can do it in a real kitchen and a real restaurant.

Right. That’ll be a real trial by fire being thrown into a kitchen. I know if I go to cook at my friend’s house and I don’t know where the knife is, I fucking freak out.

Oh yeah. That’s a perfect word. It’s definitely going to be a trial by fire. Not only are we in a different kitchen, we’re in 4 or 5 different kitchens that we’ve never been to and never seen before. It’s going to be a lot like the show in a sense that we don’t know what we’re getting into. The thing is that we got to make it work, and we will make it work. It’s going to be awesome. I’m insanely excited for it.

Cool. Is there anything else coming up that you want to promote?

Promote the fact that we’re going to be in New York City and let’s promote the fact that Matt, the Rev and I are totally fucking awesome and that Metalsucks.net is totally awesome. [Laughs] Even though so many of those guys hated when we took “Mosh Pitt BBQ Sauce” [as the name of their new BBQ sauce, as chosen from a contest we held]. They were so pissed. [Laughs] It was so funny because a lot of those choices were fucking hilarious. We just couldn’t use them. When we did that, it was like a 100 people just hating on us. I was like “damn”. [Laughs]

I know. I know. Is the sauce ready? When’s it rolling out?

The Rev: We’re having a release party. The very first event on the Victory Lap is the BBQ release sauce party along with the Mosh Potatoes book party at Idle Hands [this coming Thursday].

Will it be available online or in stores? Where can people get it?

The Rev: Definitely online. I’m waiting for the phone call back, but I’m pretty sure that we got picked up by Sysco for national distribution. They’re literally the biggest and #1 food distributor in all of America.

Sure, you see their trucks all over the place.

That’s honestly something I would never have thought of. That’s huge. Sysco picking it up, that’s crazy.

Yeah that is crazy. Wow! Congratulations.

The Rev: It’s like being signed to a major label.

[Laughter]

The funny thing is we can’t use some of the ones like “Addicted to Grandma’s Vaginal BBQ Sauce”. It was like “okay, that’s very hilarious and I appreciate the reference” but if you’re a 40 year old man shopping at the grocery store, I don’t think you’re going to pick that one up and bring it home to your family. [Laughs]

I know. It’s like “come on people, come on.”

The Rev: One thing I want to throw in there for the sake of proper story telling that Ryan left out and would be something of interest for the MetalSucks audience: The Food Wars episode was filmed in 2 different locations. The battle was at Santa Monica Pier, but the interview was actually in the Century Media parking lot.

We were actually there at Century Media all the time because those guys there are fucking awesome and were a very integral part of our truck surviving the first few desperate months. Those guys really helped us out. We filmed the park segment in the Century Media offices.

Yeah, I love those guys. Do you think there’ll be a Century Media Grill ‘Em All compilation or something?

We actually talked about that. I talked to Gerardo yesterday and we were batting a lot of really kick ass ideas back and forth. There’s going to be some really cool shit coming out with us and Century Media in the very near future.

The Rev: We’re launching a Grill ‘Em All fan club where for one price, you get a Grill ‘Em All hat, a Grill ‘Em All t-shirt, coupons for free sodas and free sides, you get a 3D laminate that allows you to get free drinks anytime you go to the truck. You get a bottle of the BBQ sauce. There’s a bunch of stuff in it that even if you’re never going to be in L.A. or you’re never going to be where we have trucks, it’s just a cool collector’s thing. One of the things that we’re going to do along with it is that it’s going to have a subscription paid service where once a month we’ll be putting out new songs from metal bands. Once a month we’re going to send out a digital compilation of new metal songs. We’re going to work with all our friends at metal labels to accumulate a new single or whatever. It’ll be a subscription service to help new bands to break them into the community.

That’s awesome. How much is it going to cost?

The Rev: We’re still working that out. It’ll probably be 40 or 50 bucks. Not a whole lot really to be honest.

Yeah, that’s going to be super sweet. It’s keeping the music scene associated with our truck. You get the laminate which is pretty bad ass. It’s like a tour laminate. It’s like 3D and it’s super kick-ass looking. You get free drinks with it for life. It’s really cool. The newsletter is going to be awesome.

Also, I know this is going to be a little bit of a question, I should also mention (I think it’s Monday) right Dave? There’s this fucking unreal band out of Pasadena, CA called Holy Grail. They rip so hard. They are so kick-ass. They signed with Prosthetic and we’re going to be streaming their full album on our website.

The Rev: Yeah the first place that people are going to be able to hear it is a stream on Grill ‘Em All’s website.

Hell yeah. That album rips. It’s so good.

I know. Hopefully I get it today. I can’t wait to hear it man because that EP fucking melted my face. That band kicks ass.

Oh yeah. The album is better than the EP, man. Take my word for it. It’s super good. You’re going to like it.

That’s insane because that EP is fucking kick ass. That dude’s vocal range is just incredible, man. When he does the Priest cover and the Accept cover; it’s fucking unreal dude.

[Laughs]

Thanks for taking the time guys. I look forward to eating burgers with you this week.

Yeah that’ll be kick ass. You got to make sure that you stop in the kitchen and shit. Hang out and have some beers with us in the kitchen. It’ll be fun.

-VN

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