Pensacola executive chef Rusty Strain is trading his life in fine dining for food trucks, opening up a casual, but elevated, option for Pensacola this Friday.
Strain will be temporarily operating out of the Emerald Republic food truck — 1414 W. Government St. — stationed outside of the brewery until Strain opens up his own truck.
The food truck will take on the name of Strain’s former catering business, A Rustyc Spoon, and will serve different styles of food with a culinary twist. The truck will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with plans to launch a breakfast menu.
“Believe it or not, A Rustyc Spoon was created for my best friend at the time,” Strain said. “She was getting married and she wanted me to do the catering. And I said, ‘Well, I gotta do it the correct way,’ so I opened up A Rustyc Spoon. It started as a joke so we could do the catering, and then we started getting booked almost instantly.”
After that first experience, Strain and his sous chef, Zeke Campbell, began catering everything from five-course meals and weddings to Super Bowl Sundays and office parties. Each menu was created fresh for a unique purpose.
For the past three years, Strain had placed A Rustyc Spoon on the backburner to head the kitchen at Alice’s Restaurant in Pensacola, exercising his own take on French fine dining. Though he enjoyed playing around with the elegance and precision laced into that style of cooking, Strain said his joy was still anchored in eating all the Americana favorites.
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“I’ve been doing fine dining food for a long time. I’ve always loved doing it, but it’s not been my passion,” Strain said. “My passion has been fun food. I love the Instagram style, blown-out food that’s like, the chicken sandwich that’s dripping with ranch dressing and you’re just like, ‘I have to eat this.’ You may not even like buffalo, but you’re going to eat it because it just looks so damn good.”
Alice’s fans may find traces of Strain’s flavors in his recipes, just in a different style to fit the more laid-back fare that the food truck will offer, as Strain has maintained a collection of over 400 recipes over the years.
In order to give guests a new culinary experience each time, Strain said he plans to rotate the truck’s menu about every two weeks. As an introduction, he is going to start off with a menu built on the American classics, including Strain’s take on a classic burger, which will consist of a wild boar Wagyu patty, smashed with roasted garlic aioli, scratch Thousand Island, shredded lettuce, tomato and caramelized onions on an everything bun for $14.
Other notable menu items include Strain’s sous vie styled Irish egg rolls made with brine cooked corn beef, sauerkraut slaw, served with scratch Thousand Island and garlic aioli for $10, or the honey blackened chicken Caesar salad made with roasted honey blackened chicken tenders, black garlic Greek yogurt Caesar dressing, Parmesan crisp, aged Parmesan cheese and heirloom cherry tomato for $12.
He plans to incorporate Asian, Italian, Tex-Mex, pub-style flavors and eventually a crowd favorites menu where customers vote on which items they enjoyed the most from the previous weeks to compile the menu.
Eventually, Strain plans to add a few fast and fresh breakfast items to the menu, such as egg white and spinach breakfast burritos and fruit smoothies.
Why he’s making the switch
Strain said the opportunity to run the food truck will give him more of an opportunity to be the family man he has always wanted to be, but couldn’t before because of the demanding schedule of an executive chef.
“I missed my kid’s birthdays. … I know that’s what you sign up for. But I built a staff that, we were self-sufficient. You never needed to check on us, we were always good. We were always working, always sustaining. People pay millions of dollars for that,” Strain said.
“I don’t want to continue living my life missing soccer games, birthdays, holidays when I can control my life and make a living doing what I need to do,” Strain added. “Working 70 hours a week, I felt like it was time to move forward.”
He said professional chefs are usually encouraged to keep their careers in the limelight, but he wants to model how it is possible to nurture both a family and your passions.
“There (are) a lot of people that would say I’m a fool for stepping away from something at its peak,” Strain said. “I will never be more grateful for the people that have supported me, pushed me and built who I am currently. But at the end of the day, my ‘team’ is my wife, my son, my parents, my sister, my nephew and my staff.”
After making the announcement online that he would be running the food truck, an influx of support came in from chefs around the community, and he said he knows that excitement will carry over when he has a traditional restaurant.
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Eventually, Strain said he knows the community will support a physical restaurant that will carry over the same theme of fun, exciting foods — but with a more elegant, tapas-style twist.
The staff he trained in the kitchen was also not all in vain, as he plans to hire them back on once he has a place of his own.
The mentorship carried over further than just technique, but he remembers nights of helping one of his staff prepare to take his GED. The culture in the kitchen was pivotal in performing as a cohesive team. Currently, Strain has space for two of his former employees on the food truck, who he said undoubtedly will adapt to the food truck concept right away.
For Strain’s mentee, 23-year-old Javon Havens, head pastry chef and chef de cuisine at Alice’s Restaurant, the experience has been invaluable.
“Seeing that in your leader, it’s contagious. It makes you want to keep up with him, like let me take up my game up a notch,” Havens said. “Just seeing him in the trenches with us, battling with us, in here early at crack of dawn, prepping, leaving late at night, mopping the floors with us, stuff that he’s done a million times. It just makes you want to give that extra effort.”
Strain said his goal for Havens is to prepare him for his future and help him feel confident and equipped to lead his own kitchen one day.
More information can be found on the A Rustyc Spoon Facebook page.