The friends behind the Pico House food truck, whose culinary pedigree runs the gamut from Bestia to the world-renowned Blue Hill, are not just changing up the scene with their seriously good gourmet grain bowls. They've also done something we wish we could do with our childhood best friends: move in together under the same roof as adults.
"It's like a frat house for cooks," jokes co-owner and chef Chris Chi about the three-bedroom home in Mid-City that the team shares.
Chi and his high school buddies Phil Moses and Qudoe Lee used to throw parties at Chi's family's property, which they dubbed "Pico House." After high school, they had gone their separate ways, with Chi ending up at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, Moses at local Ray's and Stark Bar and Qudoe in Oregon doing graphic design at Nike. It was serendipitous that they would all come to live together. Chi convinced his Blue Hill colleagues Gemma Matsuyama and Mavis J. Sanders to make the cross-country move to Los Angeles. Lee coincidentally returned to L.A. Everything came full circle when they started trickling back into the empty Pico House to live together, something that has happened over the course of the last year and a half.
Matsuyama says that the idea for the food truck stemmed from a night when Chi woke up from a dream and mumbled something about how they should make a business out of whole grains and braised meats.
"It’s just the way I’d eat when I came home from working at Bestia," Chi says. "After I would come home from the kitchen, I'd always have rice at home just because I’m Korean. So I would just get whatever was in the refrigerator and put it on top of the rice and then kind of eat it like that. I think for me that’s where the idea came from."
The base for Pico House's bowls is a special one. Chi didn't want white rice — just a "filler," he says — in his bowls. He wanted grains that are "more filling, way more nutritious, way more protein-dense," he says. Their mixture contains the more familiar grains like farro, barley and rye, but also includes ancient ones that you normally don't see in their whole, natural form — like glenn wheat berries and red winter wheat — stuff that often gets ground into flour before hitting the shelves. Most of the grains separately take about three to four hours to cook, and then the team mixes them together.
"It is a lot of work," Sanders says. "It takes dedication, patience and skill, and it’s thoughtful and it’s day in and day out. It’s not something you can call someone else to do for you. A lot of care goes into it, and it’s really important and it shows."
As for the flavors of the bowls, they're each so different that you wouldn't be able to label the food truck's dishes as just one type of cuisine. It's a love letter to all the foods and neighborhoods of L.A. Take the Crenshaw Meatballs: The juicy pork and chicken creations are laced with Thai flavors. The grains sit in a shallow pool of creamy chickpea and coconut curry and are topped with a fish sauce–dressed cucumber salad and decorated with a smattering of honey-roasted peanuts. The Union Lamb channels Greek cuisine, with succulent chunks of harissa-braised lamb accompanied by a carrot puree and Mediterranean tomato and cucumber salad. Even the fried onion rings are unique, consisting of rice wine vinegar–pickled onions, and served with a luscious herbed quark dip. The plating of their dishes is also like a work of art, with colorful garnishes and purees circling each bowl.
It's surprising that with the caliber of ingredients — everything is fresh and the meat is never frozen — they're charging around $10 for their filling, gourmet bowls. But there's a philosophy behind the cooking: It's important to the crew is that their food is accessible to the masses, not just the rich.
"We can’t do what we love and feed a lot of people by just doing fine dining," Matsuyama says. "The price point for eating at a fine-dining restaurant can be so expensive, and we really want a lot of people to experience good food. I think the whole food-truck thing is a tenth of the cost of starting a restaurant, but it’s also a good vehicle to give better food to more people and make it more accessible."
They do hope to expand their business to brick-and-mortar locations in the future, so they can attain an even bigger reach with their creations. But right now, they're just focusing on perfecting what they've got going on with their truck; after all, Pico House launched less than two months ago.
Matsuyama is also making high-end desserts more accessible to the masses with her Heavy Cream line, which she serves at Pico House. One day you might find an expertly crafted tart covered with colorful fig wedges and flower petals, a decadent sponge cake rolled with peanut butter cream and blueberry jam, or delicate carrot macarons. She says it's the convergence of her Italian and Japanese heritage that causes her to not only experiment with flavors but also to keep tinkering with simple sweets. Matsuyuma also makes a refreshing fruit-filled soda called Ugly Fruit Drink, in which she uses the dented or scarred fruits and vegetables from farmers markets that consumers often overlook, as a way to be a part of the solution with our country's food waste.
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As for living under the same roof and working together, Moses says it's been "mostly good." Some of them even share the same rooms in their living situation. Matsuyama says they'll fight every now and then, just like a tight-knit family, but they make sure communication is key. She says they can't afford to just "let things go" when it comes to their friendship and as business partners.
"I feel we jell together really well," Sanders says. "I’ve never felt like I’ve made more sense with another group of people. I’m really fortunate to get to work with these guys."