As a formally trained chef graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California with vast experience abroad, specifically in Southeast Asia, Noel Corwin was ready to settle down in his career when the Great Recession hit in 2008. “A lot of pastry chefs and sommeliers were the first heads to roll in fine dining, especially in a big hotel company. So, I looked at the industry and tried to figure out the next steps.”
While a student, Noel recalls food trucks visiting campus and offering an array of cuisine which gave him an idea. As a Southwest Michigan native with an entrepreneurial spirit, Noel headed home to Michigan to try his luck with Gorilla Gourmet.
“If you would ask me in 2008, if I’d be operating a food truck in Michigan, I probably would have said ‘no.’ But I saw the business model as something that really was accessible and affordable to me,” said Noel. “I just was looking for a place to cook and try to tread water and figure out what the next step was going to be.”
In the beginning, every day after Noel closed shop at Gorilla Gourmet, he would take his earnings to the grocery store to buy product for the next day of cooking. “I figured worst case scenario I could sell the truck for a little bit to another market if I needed to. Yeah. So, it’s been 10 years now,” said Noel.
Throughout the years, Noel has continued to develop the menu including a fusion of culinary flavors from around the world like his killer tacos and banh mi. He can be found around town at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, food truck rallies, and other events. While his menu has changed, his love for the ability to interact with his customers and use his talents as a chef continue to hold true.
“There were a lot of cooks behind walls that hid the space of food production,” said Noel. “The opportunity in the truck to have an engagement piece is one of the things that I find the most fulfilling day-to-day. I love the fact that my customers tell me that if something doesn’t work, then I can have that kind of dialogue with them. That’s one of the things that I really do value about the experience of cooking in the truck versus coming from a structured, beautiful kitchen with a gorgeous dining room.”
In 2012, Noel was instrumental in working with the city of Kalamazoo to develop the code permitting food trucks to park and sell from public streets. While Noel dates food truck culture back to apple carts, it’s clear, that at least in Kalamazoo, many can connect their origin story to Noel’s efforts. “To me, it’s creating an opportunity for people to showcase their product and to be creative—to take a chance,” said Noel. “It’s great to see some of the other entrepreneurial minded individuals thinking that this business model is something that’s viable.”