Since starting his food cart operation Fatboi Slims in the Berdoll Farms neighborhood of Del Valle, Joseph Vega has received a lot of compliments. But so far none tops the praise he got on his fried catfish from a customer who hated seafood.
“His girlfriend's like, ‘Try it, OK?’” Vega says. “[He says] ‘Dude, you should open a restaurant!’ and she's like, ‘That's exactly what he's doing right now.’”
Today, it’s a food trailer, but the eventual dream is one, perhaps two, brick-and-mortar restaurants. While it may not have always been his professional pursuit, food has been a throughline in Vega’s life, providing comfort, support and a means to give back, even when he had next to nothing. Now, he’s hoping to leverage cooking to help others on a larger scale.
“Food has always come back to help me out in one way or another,” he says.
Vega started learning how to cook like so many other chefs – at the elbows of his elders, around kitchen counters and barbeque grills. His older sister Alicia Jaimes says he loved cooking from a young age.
“We used to pull up a little stool and watch my mom make homemade tortillas,” Jaimes says. “I think that’s what got him into it.”
Despite a few burned pans and singed hands, Vega began realizing he had a unique skill.
“I realized that I could taste food whenever I smelled it,” Vega says. “I started playing different things. … I've had a couple of things that didn't work, but you know, more often than not they do.”
Vega went on to pursue jobs in other fields, but he continued to find joy in experimenting with and giving out food. It wasn’t until the economy turned sour and he lost his job at a body shop in 2014 that he looked to cooking as a potential means of income.
“So whenever we needed to pay the rent … [I] made plates on food,” he says.
While this time gave him a preview of making food his main source of income, it wasn’t enough to keep him in his home after his landlord sold the property. Vega says he and his son lost everything and found themselves staying with family and friends.
“It kind of humbled me just a little more and showed me that … when times do get rough, everybody's going to come together,” he says.
Vega and his son eventually moved in with his older sister, Jaimes. She recalls that he wanted to do something to repay her for her kindness. He would text in the afternoon, offering to cook dinner for everyone. She was always delighted with the offer.
“That was a relief for me,” Jaimes says. “My kids loved it. They absolutely loved it when he made dinner. He went all out.”
Vega found himself once again experimenting with recipes. When they stayed at a new friend or relatives’ home, he was excited to see what he could put together with the cooking equipment and pantry staples unique to that house. But he was also excited to see how a good meal could pull a group of people together around a dinner table.
“Not only because I was contributing to those helping me, but it just made me feel good to see them enjoying and … just watching all of them come together because of the food,” Vega says.
After two years, Vega landed a new job working on cars at Dana Safety Supply. It’s a job that he enjoys. But he couldn’t get rid of the tantalizing thought of spending his days perfecting recipes and bringing people joy by the plateful by opening a food trailer.
“I was like, let's try something a little smaller to see if this is just a fad or phase, or is it something I really want to do?” Vega says.
Since January, Vega has experienced a sharp learning curve in budgets, advertising, what sells well and what doesn’t. But every weekend, weather permitting, he and his family unload the trailer at his sister’s house in Berdoll Farms and set up shop. Neighbors have come to look forward to the weekly recipes.
“Honestly, I didn't expect the response I got,” Vega says. “It makes me feel like a million bucks because like, man, I did it. I'm doing something positive.”
It also has become another means of connection with his son Ramon Vega. Side by side in the kitchen or at the food trailer, Ramon started to pick up some culinary skills from his father, an echo of Vega’s own introduction to cooking.
“Me and him would figure out different recipes, and we would just try to do new things,” Ramon says. “I try to give him little ideas.”
But Vega doesn’t want the positivity to stop there. While he’s experimenting with recipes, he’s also tinkering with the idea of a different kind of restaurant, one that would cater to the homeless. Vega envisions a dine-in experience serving up quality food regardless of whether the customer can pay for it or not.
“I'm not where I used to be because somebody gave me a hand,” Vega says. “And so I want to be able to do that to somebody else. Even if it's one person whose life I can change like that, then why not?”
Jaimes isn’t surprised her little brother’s ultimate goal involves helping other people through food.
“This is who he really wants to cook for,” Jaimes says. “We don’t come from a lot … but for you to give that to someone else to make sure they don’t go hungry, it broke my heart because it's touching.”
In the meantime, Vega is looking at upgrading from the trailer to a food truck. He’s continuing to tinker with the menu and adding items that neighbors ask for, even pulling an all-nighter to perfect a funnel cake recipe for a patron. Ramon has ideas to expand the family business by setting up a lemonade stand next to the food trailer, though Vega says he’s waiting on his son to show him a business model before he starts construction. But more than anything he wants to help bring his community together, one plate at a time.
“When you put a lot of love and emotion to what you do and you give it to somebody that energy transfers. That's what food does to people, makes them feel good,” Vega says. “It's more than just giving somebody a burger or fries.”
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