King of California Cuisine: Daniel Shemtob

With humble beginnings as the chef of the Original Lime Truck, Daniel Shemtob has since become a household name, first winning Season Two of the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” and now as the co-founder and visionary behind TLT Food. Fusing award-winning taste and quality ingredients with soulful enthusiasm, Shemtob’s eclectic fare is indeed pushing culinary boundaries … having just visited the Newport Beach location, we can personally attest to his artful presentation of exceptional flavors. We recently caught up with the young chef to get a peek inside his delectable domain.

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Chef Daniel Shemtob

You came from the streets (literally). How did you make the jump to brick-and-mortar locations?
After winning the “The Great Food Truck Race” I assumed it was the next step. I was lucky that I got to meet my partner, and when we met the consensus was mutual—we needed to open a brick and mortar together. We converted a restaurant in Westwood and the rest is history.

How would you define your cuisine?
Our food is definitely challenging to define in one box … sort of like myself. There are a few common threads with our menu, which is exactly how I like to explain our menu. We use unique ingredients harmoniously, bold flavors, and are inspired by street food.

What’s your secret ingredient that no one would ever suspect?
Love. I know, cheesy (no pun intended). Every one of our chefs is super dedicated to the food and the brand. We can tell in our first day who will be sticking around and who will be leaving. Our menu and techniques are very expansive for a fast casual restaurant and if our chefs aren’t passionate about each step then we wouldn’t be able to provide high-quality, consistent food daily.

You have locations in Westwood, Pasadena, Irvine, and Newport Beach. Does your menu differ by location?
We try to keep each store very consistent, but we are launching what we call a “store special” at each location. One thing you do notice is that each store does have its own trends, especially when it comes to menu selection. For instance, we sell a lot more of our wild caught Ahi in Newport than we do in Westwood, and Westwood sells a lot more pork belly and short rib. So I think there is a lot to consider when it comes to each store’s demographics and what they will receive well.

How did you select your locations?
In restaurants it’s all about real estate opportunities, especially in today’s market. Restaurants are opening everywhere and it’s driving up the price of retail. So for our team, we are always looking for a competitive property and when the opportunity strikes itself, we move. My partner, Murray Wishengrad, does a great job at vetting those as well.

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What was the first thing you ever cooked?
The first meal I can recall cooking was a matzah pizza. I made a tomato sauce, took canned olives, shredded cheese, and made a pizza. Obviously a funny one, but during Passover we couldn’t eat bread so I made this matzah pizza for myself. My brother saw it and requested one, after that my father did the same, and I ended up making them for everyone. I was very young and it was a pretty fun experience. I continued to play around in my childhood with cooking, but didn’t pick it back up till I started the food truck.

What do you cook at home?
Cooking at home is a bazaar one. Sometimes I feel inspired and I go all out and make my own stock, risotto, pasta, ice cream, etc. Other times it’s just eggs and steak. Most times I use it for development though, a kitchen loses its home feel as you work in them professionally. Even my kitchen at home feels partially like a work environment as I’m constantly doing new R +D.

What would be your “last meal?”
I would be too stressed knowing it’s my last meal to eat, but if I had to pick one last meal I would go with a traditional Korean soup meal. Sides of pickled vegetables, stone pot rice, sweet potatoes in sesame oil, fermented cabbage, and an extra helping of Ghochujang (Korean chili paste). Korean food is my ultimate comfort food.

We’re still obsessed with the original Lime Truck. Is it still out and about?
Yeah, I could never let go of the truck; it’s what built the whole brand. I actually still work on the truck almost every week. We did switch up the style of service. The truck now does mostly catering events, weddings, corporate events, etc. The restaurant is now the vessel we use to feed the public.

What’s next for TLT?
We definitely have some set goals in mind for where TLT will go in the future, but the immediate plan is simple—continue to work and develop the brand to be the best it can be. We are constantly working on tweaking the menu, aesthetics, customer service, and how it feels when you go from store to store. The restaurant industry is always evolving and if you aren’t constantly looking for ways to make your brand better, you’ll fall behind.

Taste the fusion-style menu for yourself. Visit tltfood.com for more information.