At 25, with no culinary school training and only a few real years of cooking under her belt, Sami Udell might seem an unlikely food truck owner. Yet this month, she and business partner Rose Kai launched WholeSam, a food truck with a laser focus on health-oriented meals.
Udell hasn’t always been a nutrition geek — just four years ago, she was in college eating a steady diet of ramen, pizza, candy and bacon. She studied advertising in school, and she didn’t even start cooking until she was 21 and in her senior year.
Her interest in health came on suddenly. Back at home on a college break, Udell met up with an old friend she hadn’t seen in years.
“He’d lost 200 pounds, his skin looked better,” Udell explains. “I remember asking him — it’s funny — I asked him what supplements he was taking, because I couldn’t believe it. He told me he’d just started eating healthy.”
Immediately, she went out and bought a book on nutrition. Fast-forward a year and she was ditching an advertising job a month after graduation and on her way to become a certified health coach.
She got her first in-the-kitchen gig from her brother Jake, the founder of L.A.-based music management company Th3rd Brain. But she wasn’t cooking just for him. Instead, Udell was thrust into situations that ranged from intimate dinners to large networking events. Sometimes she’d be cooking for as many as 50 people, all by herself. Because her brother was a vegetarian (as she was too, at the time), Udell practiced preparing vegetable-based dishes more than anything else. But at her brother’s events, all bets were off, and she could regularly be found Googling how to bake, broil or grill the meat she was about to serve to dozens of people.
Luckily, she has a knack for it. So much so that working one of her brother’s events got her on the radar of rapper Ludacris’ former personal assistant, who gave her his number and asked her to call if she was interested in cooking for the star.
“I probably called or texted him once a week for the next four months,” Udell laughs.
She kept calling; kept getting no response. Then one night at a concert her phone started ringing with an unrecognized caller ID. In the middle of the crowd, Udell answered. “I picked up and on the other end I heard, ‘Hey, what’s up Sami? It’s Luda!’” she says.
She ended up cooking for him that weekend. And then another. And then another, until she became his go-to personal chef in L.A. But Ludacris had a habit of hanging out in the kitchen with her while she cooked. “It made me really nervous,” she explains, “because I was self-taught and my knife skills weren’t great.”
She decided to take a part-time cooking job at a vegan restaurant called Sun Cafe Organic Cuisine, where she could get some practice. That’s where she met Kai.
“Rose became my mentor in the kitchen,” Udell explains. After six months, when Kai left the restaurant, Udell followed.
Suddenly aimless again, Udell found direction serendipitously, at a Clippers game. “I remember sitting the next night at the game, and Assia Grazioli came up to me and asked me what I want to do with my life,” she recalls. She shrugged, explained her situation, and Grazioli, a media executive who also advises businesses, suggested a food truck. The two spent the rest of the game fantasizing about a tricked-out version of WholeSam, including a souped-up kitchen and a rooftop garden.
The next morning, Udell called Kai and asked if she wanted to go in as partners on a more practical version of the idea. “Rose didn’t even hesitate. She just said, ‘Yes!’” Udell says. Kai had worked as the executive chef of the Godfather Truck in the past, so she knew the ropes. What Udell lacked in experience she made up for in drive, and Kai brought with her not only food-truck experience but also experience cooking with chefs such as Gordon Ramsey and Wolfgang Puck.
From there, the process took six months — not long, seemingly, to start a business, but pretty long by food-truck standards. The two women put up a Kickstarter campaign and raised the $10,000 they needed to lease a truck for a few months in just one day. It took many multiples of that (about four months, to be exact) for the duo to find the perfect truck to spend that money on.
Meanwhile, Udell and Kai saved the majority of their attention for the most important aspect of their business: the food.
The WholeSam cooking style is unique in the food world: Kai went to culinary school, but Udell did not, and neither is terribly concerned with the rules of cooking.
“Neither of us will say, 'oh, you can’t put this with that.' In the restaurant business people are really strict
Not that they want their food to taste healthy. “The base of every meal is us trying to figure out how we could make something that tastes extremely decadent be healthy,” says Udell. One such example? WholeSam’s Bowl O Goodness, which combines bulgur wheat, sauteed spinach and garlic, Mediterranean spiced chicken, avocado, tzatziki sauce, and — for a cut of sweetness — carrots that have been caramelized in coconut sugar and maple sugar.
There’s also the Pass Da Eggplant Bowl (linguine or zucchini noodles doused in marinara), the WholeSam Salad (a salad that’s proven to be a favorite of even the least veggie-friendly eaters) and the WholeSam Drink (orange, grapefruit, spinach, cayenne, honey and sparkling water), plus a couple sandwiches and other extras.
Already, celebrities are lining up to endorse the two chefs’ creations, and WholeSam Food Truck has advance bookings through November. But Udell is quick to defend WholeSam against the celebrity health cult stereotype — really, the food truck’s goal is far more suited for the Everyman, someone who wants to have their kale and eat their cake, too. “You don’t have to be coming straight from a yoga class to eat here,” Udell jokes. “Health should be about balance. It’s not about following every single rule. It’s more like, drink a beer and have some good food.”