chef interview: Collin Cormier
chef Collin Cormier
Viva La Waffle (*updated Pop's PoBoys)
Sunday, September 29, 2013
interview by Katie Culbert with photography by Denny Culbert
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN VOL. 2 of RUNAWAY DISH MAGAZINE)
We sat with Collin on a Sunday afternoon just two weeks after his first son, Jack, was born. We chatted about being a father, bringing a food truck to a non-food truck town, and gravy……lots of gravy.
In my family, the men were always the cooks. They liked to drink and cook, so they made a lot of stuff that took a long time. It was more of a social event than just knocking out a recipe. A lot of gravies, a lot of smothered stuff – that sort of thing. Because all the men in my family were cooks, I always knew, at the very least, that would be my role in family.
There was so much rice and gravy and smothered stuff growing up. We ate rice and gravy so much that something like a hamburger was a whole different thing, a special thing. One time in particular I got mad and complained that we always had rice and gravy and threw a hissy fit. Of course as I got older, left home, and went to college, rice and gravy was all I wanted. I started asking my dad to make rice and gravy. He would look at me and say mockingly, “You want rice and gravy, but wealways have rice and gravy.” He still rags me.
I was always a terrible math student, barely passing in elementary school, high school, and college. In culinary school, we had to take “culinary math”, and I totally got it. It all made sense to me when you put it in the application of food. I got an A in math which was like the craziest thing that ever happened. That was when I started thinking that I was doing the right thing. It all clicked for me at that point.
I did a stage at Commander’s Palace while in school. You just go in and they throw you into the fire. That was the first time I was in a commercial kitchen. It was crazy…. scary…. but in a good way. With culinary school, everything is sort of idealistic. They teach the way things should be. Commander’s was much more of a pirate ship than the classic French situation.
When I came back from culinary school I got my first real kitchen job at Tsunami. I started out on the grill and then I just sort of learned everything. I learned how to make sushi, but I could never be as good as a lot of those guys.
The sous chef position was opening up at Blue Dog Cafe. Owner, Steve Santillo, reached out to me to interview for that job and I got it. Two weeks later the executive chef left to go to City Club. Steve was like, hey it’s been two weeks, how are you liking it so far, do want to give it a try as executive chef?
Of course I said sure. So I got my first sous chef job and two weeks later I got my first executive chef job.
The first time I ever realized that there was tourism in Lafayette was while working at Blue Dog. I mean, I guess I always knew that, but I didn’t realize it was as big as it was. Every night we would have international tourists and people from all over the country. I was creating Louisiana “specials” and serving it to people who had never experienced this kind of food. It was really fun.
I always thought the food truck thing was cool. I knew eventually it would come here just because we are such a food centric community. The more I started seeing it happen nationally, the more I thought someone’s going to do it. So I sort of felt pressure to be the one who did it.
I was really of the mindset that because the truck idea was new to Lafayette, it was important that the concept be new as well. A lot of people think, “Oh, you’re a truck. That’s different enough.” No. You have to make sure you offer something that you can only get at one place, so people will go find you. That’s the beauty of a food truck.
The day before the truck was supposed to arrive in Lafayette, I got a call from the trucker saying he was in Panama City and his transport truck had jack-knifed. Our truck was fine, but we he was stuck and didn’t know how long it would be before he could get on the road again. Within 20 minutes of that call, I packed a bag, got in a car, and took off with my wife Jasmyne to Florida. The first time I ever got in my truck, I drove it seven straight hours. It was all white knuckle the whole way home. I was too afraid to even turn the radio on.
Looking back on how we were doing things when we first opened is sort of laughable now. It takes three minutes to make a waffle. We thought it would be this thing where someone comes to the window, places an order, and we put the waffle down, cook it for three minutes, make the other stuff, then make the sandwich with the waffle. We quickly realized, no, this is not working because people walk up and order five or six at time. So we added toaster ovens and racks and made adjustments. It was a huge learning curve. And still everyday we figure out something that makes it a little faster and more efficient.
A typical food truck day for me is 5:30am to 7pm. There have been times when it rained for a week and we just couldn’t go out. Or we have had generator problems that kept us down for a day. There were a lot of times I thought if I went back to a restaurant, it wouldn’t matter what the weather was like or if the generator was working. There have definitely been those moments where I thought it’s more trouble than it’s worth to be on a truck. But in the end, when everything is running the way it’s supposed to be running, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What’s cool about it is you are literally interacting with every person that is coming to buy food. Jasmyne is taking their orders, and I’m physically handing them out. Plus a lot of people eat outside by the truck so you get to see them and talk to them. You feel part of the experience, in a way, more so than when you are in the back of a restaurant serving nameless whoever.
Another good thing about the Viva La Waffle concept that I really didn’t anticipate is that the only requirement is it has to be on the waffle. There’s no ethnic requirement, it can be sweet, it can be savory, it can be anything. The entire food universe is open to me. All I have to do is figure out which ingredients work together and get them in the waffle. The waffle is the vessel for anything.
The Roscoe out the gate was our most popular sandwich, and it probably always will be. It’s fried chicken in a waffle with spicy sriracha honey. Bleu cheese coleslaw is optional….but you need it. It became a signature item by accident.
We originally thought we would have a mostly young crowd, but we really get all ages and all walks of life. There is no particular type of person that is a Viva La Waffle regular. We have guys in suits, firemen, students, nurses. It’s been a nice surprise that we are not a niche concept. We thought young people were the only people who would get on social media and come find us.
I don’t think you are ever prepared for parenthood. It’s been two weeks and it’s still weird. You realize over and over again that you have a child. Oh my god there’s a kid at my house and it’s mine! That continuously happens.
My friend Randy put it best. Right before Jack was born he said it’s probably weird that there’s this person and you haven’t met him yet, but he’s already your favorite person. And that’s totally how it is. It is weird to be immediately in love and protective and that it all happens in one day.