Thursday, September 3, 2015

Guerrilla Street Food's Joel Crespo on Going from Funerals to Filipino Food

Posted By on Thu, Sep 3, 2015 at 7:30 AM

Joel Crespo (left) with Brian Hardesty, his partner in Guerilla Street Food. - PHOTO BY JOHNNY FUGITT
  • Photo by Johnny Fugitt
  • Joel Crespo (left) with Brian Hardesty, his partner in Guerilla Street Food.

Joel Crespo was toiling in the funeral industry when he and pal Brian Hardesty first hatched the plan for Guerrilla Street Food (3559 Arsenal Street; 314-529-1328).

"I started working at the funeral home as an in-between things sort of job after I moved home to take care of my mother," Crespo recalls. "The next thing I knew,  I had been there for seven years. I was comfortable with the nine to five hours, benefits and vacation, but I was sleepwalking through the job to pay the bills."


The restaurant business may seem like an unlikely leap for someone coming from the mortuary business — especially one who had no professional culinary background. Crespo, however, saw it as a natural fit. A self described "fat kid" growing up, Crespo has always been passionate about food. "I've always loved to eat and have identified my memories with food," he recalls. "I'm also a total nerd, and when I love something, I really geek out about it. I've been nerding out about food all my life."

In Hardesty, Crespo found a fellow food nerd to obsess with. The pair have been friends for years and would get together to talk about cooking, gardening and what was going on in other cities. One things they noticed was the rise of the food truck scene and how St. Louis (at the time) had yet to embrace the new way of getting food to people. "We said to each other, "We can do that," Crespo recalls. "We talked about it for two or three years."

Eventually, their talk turned into action after Crespo has finally had enough with his gig at the funeral home.

"I went to film school and worked in film and television out in L.A. For several years," Crespo explains. "I needed to do something with my degree so I told Brian that I was either going to leave town to get back into the industry or that we could start the food truck."

Hardesty, who was working at Terrene at  the time, promptly put in his two weeks notice and the pair bought an old laundry truck off of Craigslist for $2000. "One day there was an article in the paper saying how Brian had quit Terrene to open a food truck," Crespo remembers. "We knew at that point that there was no turning back.

As for the Guerrilla Street Food concept, Crespo credits Hardesty with pushing him to serve Filipino food. "I'm first-generation Filipino. My parents' generation — at least here in St. Louis — wasn't good about teaching its kids about their culture, so I really didn't know that much about my heritage. All I knew was the food I grew up eating," explains Crespo. "Brian and I wanted to do food that people couldn't get anywhere else, and he asked me why we shouldn't consider Filipino food. No one else was doing it."

"Brian is the instigator," Crespo laughs. "I was too shy to say 'Let's do Filipino food. This has given me a way to reconnect with my heritage.'"

Crespo took a break from Guerrilla Steeet Food's month-old brick and mortar restaurant to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the guilty pleasure that is probably killing him and why you should never call his food "pan-Asian."

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?

One of my pet peeves is the term “fusion,” especially when used to describe Asian styles of cooking. All Asian food is fusion by nature. Filipinos, for example, use Chinese noodles in their traditional dishes. They bake bread derived from Spanish recipes. They eat American Spam for breakfast. I think it’s a misnomer that is outdated.


What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?

Hitting up the Asian food stores and perusing the aisles for new ingredients to play with. Walking my dog after I get home from work no matter how long of a day it’s been.


If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Teleportation. I seem to never have enough time to travel, and since most of my traveling revolves around what I want to eat, it would be ideal to just pop over to another city or country for a meal and then pop back.


What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?

I am constantly and pleasantly surprised with how people in St. Louis are becoming more and more adventurous and sophisticated with their food choices. My business partner, Brian Hardesty, is always the one pushing to do more challenging dishes, like dinuguan (a traditional Filipino pork blood stew). I’m always the voice of caution and skepticism, and pretty much every time I’m proven wrong.


Who is your St. Louis food crush? 

Rick Lewis [of Southern]. Comfort food is my jam and that dude hits all the right notes. He also has a great smile.


Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?

Derek Roe at Dressel’s Public House. He’s consistently putting out great food, doing new specials and using local ingredients. He’s also just a great down-to-earth guy.


Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?

Fish sauce. When you taste it or smell it, it might not seem like something you would instinctively think of as delicious, but it is actually crucial in giving a dish that extra special something. It’s sort of magical. A total underdog of an ingredient. It’s also funky.


If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ culinary climate, what would you say?

Exciting. There are so many great restaurants and chefs in this town. It has probably become cliché to say at this point, but I really feel like with all the new restaurants opening and all the new chefs emerging, St. Louis proves itself more and more to be just as good as any other city when it comes to great food.


Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.

There are no rules as far as ingredients go. Anything can be made into a delicious dish if the concept is good and it’s executed right. I don’t like to think of food in terms of boundaries.


What is your after-work hangout?

I don’t go out that much after work, but when I do it’s often at a dive bar like Iowa Buffet. You can’t go wrong with cheap drinks, an unpretentious crowd and tasty burgers.


What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?

Diet soda. I can’t defend it, I’m not proud of it and it’s probably slowly killing me, but I’m addicted.


What would be your last meal on earth? 

Kare Kare. It’s a traditional Filipino dish of oxtails braised in peanut sauce, with eggplant, green beans and bok choy. I would want my mom’s version with a big side of shrimp paste to cut the richness of each bite.


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