When Mary J. Blige dubs your homemade tortilla chips “crack chips,” (because they're so addictive they're like… well, you get it), you don't think twice about putting them on the menu. Chef Brian Hill's Comfort Truck (Twitter: @comforttruck) rolls out today, serving seven kinds of fried or sautéed sliders (barbecue, spicy and jerk), two kinds of wraps, jumbo chicken wings (another MJB favorite) and the aforementioned “crack chips.”
It's a somewhat misleading look at Hill's food. He's known as much for his lighter California-inspired fare as for his comfort food. Still, Hill, a voluble, friendly guy overflowing with personality and superlatives (mostly about himself), is nothing if not a people-pleaser. “My lane is not just comfort food,” he says (it's a basketball reference), “but you've got to give people what they love.”
The term “celebrity chef” is thrown around, but Hill, who has worked as a private chef for Blige, Eddie Murphy and P. Diddy among others, has actually earned the title. Soon he might become food celebrity in his own right. He was already a contestant on the first season of Top Chef, and he returns to the Food Network on April 9 in the Private Chefs of Beverly Hills.
Raised in northwest Washington D.C. by a single mother who was such a bad cook “she burned hardboiled eggs,” Hill took over cooking for his family at age 13. “We weren't poor,” he says. “We were 'po.' We had to save up to afford to be poor.”
Cooking within his limited means forced him to be creative with what he did have. “I thought spinach was fictitious,” Hill says. “I thought it was just for Popeye. When you're poor and have no car and live in the ghetto, where are you going to get spinach?”
At15 he started a part-time job making sandwiches at a corner market. From then on, he worked in hotels, restaurants, cafes and sandwich shops, trying nearly every job in the restaurant industry, both in the front and back of the house. At age 28, Hill officially decided to make it his career.
Hill moved to South Beach, Florida, in 1996 and soon landed a job as the chef and catering director for Gloria Estefan's newly opened Cardozo Hotel. He loved the job but not the city. He eventually returned to D.C. and worked at a catering company and a nightclub.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Hill was in a high-rise across from the Pentagon, catering a breakfast for Alexis Herman, who had been the Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. Hill remembers hearing a piercing buzz. He turned around and looked up just in time to see American Airlines Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon.
Hill, who had been to Los Angeles for a visit, pulled up stakes and moved west. “I've never had a problem making money since I got here,” he says.
His career as a private chef took off. “People kept asking me, 'Where can I get your food?' But I don't want to do a restaurant right now,” Hill says. Partnering with John Kang and Hanri Marderos, he turned to Road Stoves, the company that gave Kogi their first truck.
The bright red Comfort Truck truck, festooned with an image of a bubbling pot, rolls out today–but you'll have to be quick to catch it. Hill plans to take the Comfort Truck to private events rather than parking it on the street. But if you do make it, rest assured that Hill will be frying chicken all day long. “I'm going to please my regular customers the same way I'm going to please Mary J. Blige.”