Blowtorches and welding goggles aren’t typically what you envision when you think of food, but Fill ‘R Up Gastro Garage is changing that image one industrially crafted dish at a time. With its so-called “gastro mechanics” serving gourmet sandwiches and desserts (called “tanks”) while wielding work gloves and active blowtorches, this crew may literally be L.A.’s hottest food sensation.
Fill 'R Up is the brainchild of Stewart Levine, an Atlanta native and L.A. resident for the past 20 years, who served as operations manager for Wolfgang Puck for seven years, opened SLS Hotel's Beverly Hills location as banquet director and ran all of the Bazaar's high-profile events. He says his lifelong obsession with motorcycles, cars and old gas stations in Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains laid the foundation for his company's central theme.
“1930s and '40s garage culture has always stuck in my mind,” he says. “I would see these old gas stations and wonder what was going on inside of them, and I was comparing them to what happens in the kitchen, which is completely an assembly shop.”
Fill 'R Up deconstructs gourmet dishes only to rebuild them into bite-size miniature delicacies. “Reconstructing is what we do,” Levine says. “We don’t have chefs. We have ‘gastro mechanics.’ We use a ‘gastro tank,’ which is a brioche-style doughnut that is savory and not sweet, we fill it with a foam and then blowtorch ingredients and put them on top.”
Levine first hatched his idea while witnessing diners’ enthusiastic reactions to a dish concocted by chef José Andrés. Levine describes Andrés’ version of a Philly cheese steak — thinly sliced meat infused with cheese foam with blowtorched toppings — as “magic fairy dust.”
Inspired by Andrés’ dish, Levine emailed him requesting permission to proceed with his own, similarly themed business venture. (Levine tacked Andrés’ email, in an envelope marked “very important” in red paint, to his toolbox, where it remains to this day.) Andrés gave his blessing, and Levine brought in partners Adam Manacker and James Campbell.
Ranging in price from $5 to $12, these so-called tanks come in a variety of flavor combos. On the savory side, there is the Cubano (torched-slow, 12-hour roasted pork, Gruyère foam, Applewood smoked ham, mustard caviar and dill plank), while on the sweet side, there is the s’mores-like Campfire (double chocolate foam, torched marshmallow pillow, graham cracker powder, milk chocolate chunk). The Rolls Royce had béarnaise foam, garlic-poached lobster tail, crème fraîche and caviar.
Though serving high-quality food is the priority, Levine says the overall experience is equally important. “It’s not just about putting something in your mouth. We’re taking something you’d get at the finest restaurants in L.A. and putting it in front of people so they can experience that magic in a way that it can be accessible to people, even for a moment, where they are not spending their entire paychecks on an expensive dinner.”
Manacker adds: “We’re creating a high-end, fast-casual experience that isn’t costly. It’s hard to see a food thing nowadays that you haven't seen before — burgers, slider, skewers, whatever. This is a doughnut, but we've taken apart the doughnut and made something new out of it.”
Their official launch party was in November and the trio was signed to Creative Artists Agency several weeks later. Currently, they are negotiating their own TV show.
On the day of our interview, the crew had just met with Imagine Entertainment (they had impressed director Ron Howard after demonstrating their blowtorch method at his company's Christmas party). After they did a sample tasting on the Warner Bros. lot, they received a phone call (before they had even left the studio’s grounds) from Warner Bros. for a five-day booking to serve 500 people a day.
With a staff of approximately 20 gastro mechanics, Fill ‘R Up Gastro Garage has been keeping busy with a Monday night residency at Los Feliz bar Harvard & Stone and regular appearances at Tastemade studios events (they created special NoLa tanks for a recent Mardi Gras event). And they are soon to feed the crowd at the upcoming Beyond Wonderland electronic dance festival, in addition to traveling in the past three weeks to Sundance, Las Vegas and Atlanta.
Ultimately, their goal is to create franchises using L.A. as the official blueprint for outposts in cities including Chicago, New York, Miami and Seattle. Manacker says that ultimately they'll open a multifaceted garage in Los Angeles that will serve as a catering “hub,” which services locations ranging from the ocean to the desert while also serving food on its premises.
In the meantime, their dream is for everyone in Los Angeles to abide by their official slogan: “Get your tank torched.”
For a full schedule of Fill 'R Up's whereabouts, visit fillrupla.com