Restaurant Concept Award: Chef Joshua Henderson
Skillet Street Food | Seattle
At the age of 15, Joshua Henderson attempted to get his first job in the industry. There was only one problem: he wasn’t old enough to work. Undeterred (and finally legal), after graduating from music school in Bellingham, Washington, he went to the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, where he graduated with honors (and was even the valedictorian in 1998). From Hyde Park, he went on a circuitous route of working for big food companies, hotels, and restaurants, trying to find out not what he wanted to do, but how.
In 2004, Joshua was living in Los Angeles and began a company that provided private chefs for photographers on photo shoots on multiple locations throughout the country. It was during this time in Los Angeles that his vision and food really began to take focus—specifically mobile food. For Henderson that meant food that was rooted in classic cuisine, but had the passion and approachability of street food.
And so, Skillet Street Food was born. Joshua returned to Seattle, acquired an Airstream trailer, retrofitted it (with the help of former partner Danny Sizemore), and began serving from-scratch farm-to-table bistro food to the lines of hungry office workers (often 30-deep) outside the trailer’s service window.
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Heather Sperling: How did Skillet come about?
Joshua Henderson: I was working with [former partner] Danny Sizemore’s company—he represented foodservice equipment. We had a tailgate unit, and we wanted to do stuff off that. We found that a covered cart would be easier, legally, to sell food. I had been thinking about a trailer for about a year, and we ended up finding an Airstream on Craigslist. We bought it in February/March and got it quasi-rolling in August. Both of us were fried…burnt out. We wanted to do something where you had freedom, fun, and flexibility. Now I do this full-time!
HS: What do you have in there?
JH: A four-burner Wolf countertop range, a Vulcan fryer, a drop-in pan chiller, custom-made worktop refrigerator, custom tank. We’re 100% self-contained (waste water goes to a grey water tank). We can pull up anywhere and start cooking.
HS: What is the culinary philosophy behind it?
JH: We call it Modern American comfort food. We stress simplicity. We have five to six items each day; we keep the risotto simple, but we just got some chanterelles from the farm, so those go with the risotto. The chopped salad is just a whole bunch of stuff we got from Full Circle Farm. There are some things that stay constant and we change some other things. We’ll always have our burger and our poutine—we use Beecher’s aged white cheddar, local herbs, and a jus instead of gravy, and hand-cut fries.
HS: How or when does the menu change?
JH: We change the menu every week and a half. Dungeness crab just started, so we’ll be doing a crabcake po’ boy next week.
HS: How many people work for Skillet?
JH: We have eight employees on payroll, and that will probably triple in the next two months.
HS: Who do you hire?
JH: I taught at the Art Institute for a year here in Seattle, and most of our employees were students of mine. I wish I could do that for everyone! I tend to like hiring people fresh out of culinary school because they know just enough and they’re not jaded. The food that we do and the techniques that we use are closely aligned to what they just learned. Basic stocks, knife skills…our food isn’t very finesse-driven; it’s simple and pretty straightforward. I think what we do can stand up to what other people do and put on plates. But we’re not doing finished sauces; that’s where a student might not be as advantageous. But we’re just asking them to use their basic skills. I’m going to continue hiring young culinary grads as long as they have a good attitude and want to learn.
HS: What are the basic business details?
JH: We do about 200 people per day, during 11am to 2pm. Check average is $10 to $15. We have so little overhead: no service, rent. The shift is 7am to 4pm. We do about $50,000 a month doing three-hour lunches.
We used to do breakfast out of the cart. When we did it, it was 20% of our sales. We did maple-braised pork belly with a fried egg and a waffle, breakfast sandwiches, breakfast tacos, fingerling hash.
Antoinette Bruno: This would be a good business for women chefs.
JH: We have a pregnant woman working the cart! I think it would be great for them—you can pick your kids up from school!
HS: What are some challenges?
JH: Sometimes I struggle with the food—trying to stop it from getting too complex or adorned. I get sick of it at times—I’m so sick of our burger! I try really hard to keep it homey, simple, and good, but sometimes I want to mix it up.
HS: Are there plans to expand?
JH: We’re opening a walk-up counter in a space that will act as a commis kitchen for the cart(s). “Skillet Squared” is in the works—it’s more rectangular, not a trailer. We’re trying to grow organically; we’re trying to avoid getting investors, so there are some compromises, including getting a trailer that’s not exactly what we want… The main issue for us is keeping what goes in our food box the same.
HS: What about expanding beyond Seattle?
JH: Ultimately, we’d like to expand down the West Coast. If we can immerse ourselves in Seattle and Portland, we’d be happy. We could sell it and franchise it (we’ve been offered that), but that’s not what we’re here for. I like this concept so far, and we’ve only been open a year.
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