With two—soon to be three—trucks and a brick-and-mortar location, it’s an understatement to say that Carlos Serrano has his hands full. Serrano, better known as the Empanada Guy, began his tasty business as a bit of a side project, but side project it was not—people want those empanadas! Dig into Veronique Deblois’s spotlight on this up-and-coming face on the New Jersey food scene.
JERSEY BITES: What is your earliest food memory?
CARLOS SERRANO: I’m not sure how old I was or who I was with but I always remember being around food. There were always big spreads and big pots. There was the typical yellow rice, pernil (roasted pork) and there was always Funche (cornmeal boiled into a porridge) available for breakfast. Of course, there was always a fried ‘something’ with the dishes, whether it was pork chop, alcapurria or empanadas.
When did you realize you wanted to make cooking a career? Was there an “a-ha” moment?
I’ve always had a passion for cooking. But eleven years ago I brought empanadas to work to share with my boss, and that’s when I had my a-ha moment. My boss mentioned how we need empanadas in the suburbs and that’s when it hit me, I can be the one to bring it to all cultures.
Any interesting stories about where and with whom you started cooking professionally?
I’m not a chef, nor have I claimed to be one. I have no professional training. Everything I know is from what I’ve witnessed growing, self-taught and influenced by others around me.
What is your cooking style?
It’s always been really difficult for me to follow a recipe, I love to improvise and make recipes my own. I’ve only been able to stick to a specific recipe with my empanada business, once I nailed the taste I wanted, I’ve stuck to it. My empanadas are a traditional food but I give them the “EG” twist.
What is the greatest opportunity that has come from cooking?
It has to be that I’ve been able to make it the main source of income for my family. My goal was only make an extra $300 to $400 a month, and now it’s become something bigger than me.
Describe your most memorable meal.
I remember eating at this Polynesian restaurant when I was young; this was food totally different from what I grew up eating. I remember the tender meat would practically melt in my mouth and it had this delicious brown sauce to it. And on the side we would have the pu-pu platter.
It’s your last day on earth. What’s your final meal?
The biggest filet mignon you can find, medium-well, wrapped in bacon with a mushroom sauce, lobster tail, rice and French fries. Cooked in a Spanish—from Spain—or Portuguese style.
What is the best advice you have to share with young folks interested in becoming chefs?
Cook with passion, cook with heart, and don’t treat it like a manual [or] book. Have fun with it. Cooking is about emotion and creativity. I see people worry about recipes and that can interfere with the experience and the emotions.
If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
That’s funny. I’d have to be a big fat steak.
What is the one “staple” food you always have in your cupboard at home?
Garlic, onions, cilantro and olive oil. With those items I can make anything.
What is your beverage of choice?
I love coconut water.
What is your favorite comfort food?
I like hearty soups, you know that soup that you eat and then it makes you want to nap. And I love Yodels, if that counts as a food.
What New Jersey restaurant do you enjoy dining at, besides your own?
Hands down my favorite is Seabra’s Marisqueira in the Ironbound section of Newark. Whenever I can get to that area, that’s where you’ll find me.
If you could have dinner with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
Jesus, Iron Man and my grandmother. Because they’ve all impacted me in my life. Jesus was an amazing man who taught by example, my grandmother instilled work ethics and taught me to serve and Iron Man is a hero who doesn’t care what people think.
Are you working on any upcoming projects our readers would be interested in learning about?
If you know me, you know I’ve always got something up my sleeve. Right now we’re about to launch our third food truck and it will cover from Parsippany to Hoboken. The opening of the first Empanada Guy Restaurant in Freehold [is on February 22]. We’re gearing up for Season two of Food Truck Heroes and a new web series giving insight into the Empanada Guy Empire. And there are a few other things in the works that I can’t talk about just yet. My followers know that as soon as I can talk about it, it’ll be all over Facebook and Twitter!
Empanada Guy GRAND OPENING ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22!
568 Park Avenue Plaza
Veronique Deblois, Food & Wine Chickie: Veronique is a food and wine writer based in Morris County. As the author of the popular blog, Food & Wine Chickie Insider, Veronique shares recipes, wine and restaurant reviews and insight into the travel industry of which she’s a 15-year veteran. Follow Veronique on Twitter or like her Facebook page.