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Interview: Food Truck Boot Camp With "The Great Food Truck Race" Finalist, Nonna's Kitchenette

Tanaya Ghosh |
November 30, 2012 | 1:58 p.m. PST

Food Editor

 Jaclyn Kolsby, Lisa Nativo and Jessica Stambach (left to right). (FoodNetwork.com)
Jaclyn Kolsby, Lisa Nativo and Jessica Stambach (left to right). (FoodNetwork.com)
Lisa Nativo of Nonna's Kitchenette is bright and bubbly. She is passionate and is living her dream of owning and operating a food truck. Most people may know her from Food Network's third season of "The Great Food Truck Race," but there is much more to the young entrepreneur than what television viewers got to see.

Nativo is on a mission to bring her grandmother's home cooking with a twist to the streets of Southern California via her recently launched food truck, Nonna's Kitchenette, with her childhood friend.

We sat down with Nativo to chat about how she fell in love with cooking, how they stuck out the competition to reach the show's final round, and what the entire journey was like. We also gained insight as to what fans can expect from Nonna's Kitchenette, now and in the years to come:


TG: When did you start cooking?

LN: If you were to watch my audition video, it shows me cooking at the age of three. I'm standing on a little stool flipping pancakes with my dad. My mom passed away when I was 3 so that I think that triggered me loving to be in the kitchen. My dad would come home from work and I'd have dinner cooked. So I would say as soon as I was tall enough to reach the counter I was making pancakes. I've always loved cooking, it's always been a passion of mine. My two friends from the show and I, we all grew up in big Italian families where there was food everywhere. I think when you're surrounded by good food all the time, it triggers your passion even more.

Do you still cook those same foods you did back then, like the pancakes?

(laughs) Yeah, but a little bit more modern, at a little higher level.

How did you decide you wanted to be on "The Great Food Truck Race"?

Me and my friend Jessica, whom I've known since I was three years old, were online looking at food trucks for sale and we were like, "we should get a food truck and drive around New York City!" It has nothing to do with what we're doing right now but it would be really fun. Then I remembered there's a show, "The Great Food Truck Race," on The Food Network, and I wondered if they're casting. And that day, I happened to just Google it, and that day the casting (information) came out for it. It was meant to be I think, because casting came out that day and the past two seasons were (only open to) people who had a food truck, so you couldn't apply unless you already had a food truck. This season was for dreamers, for people who wanted a food truck but had never owned a food truck or knew how to operate one. So I was like okay, I think it's meant to be, so we literally spent the next 24 hours putting together an audition video.

What did you include in the audition video?

Well, we knew Jersey was really popular, so we pitched that we were from Jersey because we were. The second thing was that we needed to build credibility, but we didn't have a restaurant. But we come from big Italian families, and we've always cooked with our grandmas and everything is homemade. So we wanted to do a modern twist on grandma's recipes. So I don't want to start spaghetti and meatballs out of my truck, so I'd do deep fried spaghetti and meatballs or something more fun, something that kind of gives Italian food a little bit of a modern twist. So we put together the audition video and sent it in, and the called the next day and were like, "we love you." And then it was a few months of more interviews and auditions, and then we had like three days' notice and you're in L.A. So my life completely changed overnight.

What were you doing before "The Great Food Truck Race" called?

I was running my marketing company for two and a half years and I started in New York. Before that, I'd been in event marketing for about ten years.

Did you like what you were doing before your life changed as a result of the show?

I loved it, and I think what's fun about what I'm doing now is that I can blend the two . So once I get a food truck off the ground, there's a way to start producing some really cool events around L.A. That's kind of the next step where we're headed. So first, I have to get my truck. Once I get the truck rolling, I can look into these other things.

So you already had the business savvy, which I imagine helped you a lot on the show as well.

That's why I think we did really well on the show. We weren't afraid to pick up the phone and get to work, and we weren't afraid to introduce ourselves (to network during challenges in new cities around the country). All the other teams had restaurant experience, so that was our weak point, but our strong point was that we were really good at networking.

All the teams used the phone quite a bit on the show. Were there any restrictions on whom you could call?

You could call anyone in the cities but you had to buy at fair market price. You couldn't get deals from restaurants. And you couldn't say that you were on the Food Network. You could just say, "I'm in a food truck competition and we're coming to your city." Everyone was like "okay, but we don't get it" and we had to say, "I promise, it's really cool! Just let us in!" But there's a big following for the show, so once you say, "food truck competition," people start Googling and it gets on Twitter so even though you can't say it, it gets out that the show's coming, and the cities are so welcoming.

What was one of your favorite cities during the race?

The cities were so welcoming. One of the coolest cities was Fayetteville, Arkansas. It's this little tiny city-- we knew nothing about it-- and the people were just the most welcoming. When you go to a small city, they're not expecting something like this to come through, so they're so supportive. All of the cities we went to were great. That was one of the highlights was just the people you meet along the way. You meet owners of other food trucks, but you don't see much of that on the show. It can only show a certain amount in sixty minutes . But some of the food truck owners we met out in the cities were incredible, and so were the people that came out to support us. 

But I would say Fayetteville, Arkansas was our number one city probably because we won the food challenge in that city and we won this big hog called the razorback. It's the University of Arkansas' mascot. It was also memorable because we had to do a midnight shift in that city, when Tyler (Florence) shut us down so we had to open back up at midnight. You can't sleep because you have to open up again, and we're driving down the road at midnight, you don't think anyone is going to be there, it's going to be empty, and all of a sudden, it's like you're a celebrity and there's like a parade with thousands of people who all came out at midnight. All the trucks got mobbed and it was really cool! It's just so cool how supportive they were.

Speaking of sleeping, how was it sleeping while on the road during the show?

It's hard because you're always stressed out because you never know what's going to happen. Everyone asks if the show is really that hard, and my answer is that it's ten times harder. We are actually driving the trucks, which a lot of people don't realize. We do drive the trucks from city to city. They don't have air conditioning or windows, so it's like over a hundred degrees out and you run on production schedule. But if I had to do it tomorrow I would do it all over again because it was the best experience of my life.

How long did it take to film the whole race?

It was two months. Each city is basically a week. You usually have two to three days to sell on the weekends and during the week you're traveling. But it's not free time, because if it's a six hour drive in a car, it's like a fifteen hour drive in a food truck because you have to fuel up every hour, you have to stop the trucks so they don't overheat, and they don't go that fast; only about fifty miles per hour.

Are you still in touch with the other food truck race contestants?

Yeah. Chris from Seoul Sausage was one of my best friends. We just clicked like the first day of the show. We're just really good friends, and all the teams; Pizza Mike's is great, the Barbie Babes are in L.A., and Under the Crust is in San Diego. What was cool about this show I think, is that we're all dreamers and we're all trying to do the same thing, so it's hard because it's a competition, but at the end of the day you're trying to do the same thing and you want to support each other. But I think that's what made it sadder too, because we loved Under the Crust but she goes home the first week and it's sad because you really want everybody to win. But I've said it a million times: you win just by getting on the show. We went through food truck boot camp, so if you can survive a food truck on this show, you can survive. I was looking forward to real life!

Are your friends going to stay involved with your food truck, Nonna's Kitchenette?

One of the girls will be (staying involved). Jaclyn will be involved. Another thing you don't see on the show is that Jessica actually has two kids and a husband back home. She has a family but you don't see that part of her life at all. So she's back at home with the family, but she's going to come out to L.A. for some big events and we're going to try to launch a second truck in New Jersey in the Spring . It's winter there right now, so it's hard enough to launch a truck in L.A. in the winter, so we thought we'll start here. I'll permanently be in L.A. and Jaclyn and Jessica will probably launch the food truck in New Jersey in Spring.

So you're actually not new to L.A. as many people would think, right?

What you don't see on the show is that most of my adult life I've been in L.A., so I probably have more friends out here than in New Jersey at this point. I was actually born in New Jersey and then I moved out here after college. My sister called me and said to move to L.A., and I'm very spontaneous and I love to travel and do things out of the norm. So I packed up my stuff and drove across the country and stayed here for five years. Then I had an opportunity to start a marketing company back in New York about a year and a half before the show, so I moved back to New York. I came back out here for the show, then, as soon as the show finished, I moved back out to L.A. I knew that if I was going to launch this business, this was where I want it to be.

What are the differences between the food scenes in New Jersey and L.A?

They're completely different. New Jersey has really good food, but it's more like classic dishes. There's a pizza joint on every single block and there's a hundred delis. There's not a big foodie scene in New Jersey in particular, but we're right outside New York so if you go thirty miles to New York City, you have the food trucks there. Here, it's completely different. On my way here I saw The Grilled Cheese Truck, I saw The Lime Truck, and now that you're in the industry you notice them even more and can't get them out of my head!

Now when you meet these food truck owners, do they know who you are, and if so do they treat you any differently from other food truck owners?

The food truck culture is really great. I'm sure it's not always great, but from my experience it's been great. Everyone's a young entrepreneur, so they're all supportive and down-to-earth and looking to help each other out. When we drove across the country (on the show), there were great owners from different food trucks who were happy to help us find a location and support us. I think that's just the culture and I think that's what draws people to become food truck owners because it's really welcoming.

What made you want to own a food truck in the first place?

It was a lot of things. I like to cook and I like to travel, so with a food truck, you get a perfect balance of the two. I get to cook and I also get to go to the events that I want to be at anyways. I'm going to Stagecoach, and I want to go to all the fun things I'd want to go to anyway. I'm going to try to move into a management role in a little bit because I can't do everything; I can't manage and cook and do marketing so we have all our recipes set and we've trained some chefs.

What is the hiring process like for your food truck?

Some chefs we know, and we've found some people with the right experience and the right fit for the team in L.A. So that's an important part. People have to be quick but they have to care about the food you're putting out because that's the most important thing to us.

Why did you decide to do the launch in Vegas instead of L.A. when you're going to be based in L.A?

We happened to get invited to a really cool event that was on the day that our food truck was going to be ready, and they had us headline the event. I think people were drawn to us because we're not only home cooks but we're the underdogs, and I think we've gotten a lot of support because of that. It's also hard to launch in Los Angeles during this time because it is winter, and there aren't as many events going on. So I got a call from Vegas asking, "what can I do to get you down here," so we just figured, in the spirit of "The Great Food Truck Race," we're traveling anyways, so why not travel to Vegas to launch?

How did you develop the menu and how do you separate yourselves from the other Italian food out there?

I think our inspiration is taking the flavors that I've loved growing up but finding new ways to make them more unique and fun and different. I've been in L.A. for so long that I know the food truck and foodie scene. We'll be doing risotto balls and meatballs, but they're not your typical meatballs. They have chunks of fontina cheese, (served) on a toasted brioche bun. Everything we do is homemade, and every single sauce is homemade. My grandma also makes these really good Italian waffle cookies called pizzelles that we serve on the truck.

We tried your maple French toast with prosciutto at "Taste of Italy" in downtown L.A. and it was so delicious and different. How did you come up with such a modern twist?

We launched that at L.A. Street Food Fest and we've gotten the best reviews on the French toast. It's not that I don't like classic Italian food, it's that I like a modern version of it better.

Go here for a roundup review of the 2012 "Taste of Italy."

Have you gotten any criticism for changing the classics?

When we launched the French toast, fortunately nothing went wrong and we actually got the best press articles at that time for it. I think that's going to be one of our signature desserts. We have a bunch of versions, like ten different versions. We'll have three on the truck all the time, like seasonal versions. If we were launching in October we'd do a cinnamon pumpkin version, but that'll have to wait until next year. We're thinking gingerbread for Christmas, though. French toast is so fun, and there's no French toast truck out here so we thought it would be a huge part of our menu. Same with the risotto balls, we'll have different versions of that as well. You have to give people reasons to keep coming back to the truck.

How do you gauge feedback on what dishes work?

In the moment, at the events I think we get a lot of feedback, and people coming back for seconds or sending friends to the truck. We've also gotten a lot of emails and people who reach out via social media. It's scary for us because we came into this as home cooks. We know how to cook but it's still scary since we don't have the professional experience. To have everyone be so welcoming so far has been great.

How do you decide where to go?

It's tough because there are so many trucks in L.A., but we're working on that right now and want to think outside of the box and get into different venues instead of parking where there's fifteen other trucks. We're looking into venues that haven't been tapped yet and we're doing a lot of private gigs. We want to get into farmer's markets since the French toast is a good breakfast item, and also catering. It's kind of hard to start because a lot of people don't know we're here yet. Not only do they think we didn't win the truck, but they think we're in New Jersey. So it's a hurdle for us.

Does traffic play a factor to get from L.A. to Orange County between lunch and dinner, for example?

We're starting small and plan on spanning larger soon after.

How do you source your products?

A lot of testing. For my French toast, I had to try six different bakeries in L.A. and I sat in my kitchen for a week and I tested my batter and finally I found this organic bread from a bakery in Los Angeles and they're my favorite and hopefully they're around forever. It's hard because even when you're making sandwiches, the bread is one of the most important elements of it. But it's a lot of "Nonna's test kitchen" making sure everything works.

What is your favorite Italian place to eat at in L.A. and in Jersey?

I don't think I could give you a good Italian place in L.A. but the Bay Cities had great sandwiches and meats. In Jersey, there's so many. There's a little place called La Cucina. It's a family-run restaurant, and some of the best Italian food you can find. It's easy to find a great Italian place in Jersey, but it's not so easy out here, which is why we're bringing to L.A.

What is your favorite non-Italian food?

Thai. I'm obsessed with Thai food. Pad See Ew with beef and Thai iced tea I could have every single day. I tell Seoul all the time that I should be Asian because I love Italian food but I'm also obsessed with Korean barbecue and anything Thai I love.

Are you thinking of teaming up with Seoul Sausage or any of the other food trucks at some point?

Yeah, absolutely. We were going to do something with Seoul but our truck wasn't ready in time. But we'll definitely doing something together. My house is a couple blocks away from their store! They're really good guys. They're smart and Chris is a really good chef. I think a lot of the teams on the show were deserving, but I'm happy that they won. They're good guys.

What's the difference between dreaming of running a food truck and the reality once you were on the show?

The first ten seconds were really surreal and amazing, and then you actually get in the truck and you realize that you can't reach the gas pedal because you're too short and you need to stand up to reach it! Driving it, you have to hold the wheel so tightly or the thing goes off the road. The first few moments were the coolest thing. Then you don't have time to think on the show once you're cast. You're packing your bags and you don't know, "am I going away for a week or two months?" For us it was two months, but everything just goes so quickly. You get cast, you get to L.A., and next thing you know, we're looking at our food truck. To watch the show and to actually see my truck out there is probably one of the coolest moments. And then to be doing it with my best friend, who I've always talked about starting a business with-- the whole thing was just so surreal.

Now that you have this buzz, how do you plan on capitalizing on this momentum?

There's so much momentum now that it really is all or nothing. This is what I've dedicated my life to this past year. I left my job to do this and we're just literally diving into it.

What's your favorite part of L.A?

Manhattan Beach. I'm a beach bum! If I'm not working, it's beach volleyball, or I'm surfing or I'm riding my beach cruiser.

How do you stay fit, being around such tasty food all the time?

I realized that I haven't been to the grocery store in a long time because all I'm doing is cooking for my business! Your whole thought process totally changes. L.A. is a very easy place to stay active. You can hike and snowboard, there's so many things to do. I don't like going to the gym as much as doing outdoor activities.

What's your ultimate dream in the future?

We're actually working on a cookbook right now, which I had hoped to finish when the show had finished, but no-- it was on my list but I got halfway through it. I'm putting together an Italian cookbook that's focused on entertaining, hors d'oeuvres style. I hosted every Christmas and Thanksgiving when I lived in Manhattan Beach, so I'm used to entertaining. I put the recipes I used then into this book. Beyond the food truck I want to launch in New Jersey, I want to open a bakery in Manhattan Beach, or somewhere in the South Bay. That's where I want to end up.

Follow Nonna's Kitchenette on Twitter to find out where they'll be next.

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes sneak peeks and deal updates from Nonna's Kitchenette here at Neon Tommy Food.

Reach Tanaya Ghosh here or follow her on Twitter.



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