Justin Phillips knows a famished customer when he sees one. And he’s not about to deny a man his lunch.
Recently, he had just gotten to work when a truck from the Tahlequah Streets Department rolled up to his food truck, LeGrub’s Catering, which wasn’t yet open for lunch. A tall, lanky man in a trucker’s cap slid out of the driver’s seat, looking politely curious and antsy?the telltale signs of a man in search of food.
“Hey man, you open? We’re hungry,” he asked, pointing over his shoulder at his co-worker in the truck, who waved back. “This is our first time here.”
“Naw, man,” said Phillips, shaking his new customer’s hand. “But it’s all good. Just tell me what you want—I’ll hook you up. No worries.” With that, the man and his friend began going over LeGrub’s chalkboard menu while Phillips, 35, pulled on his black chef’s coat and went to work.
As the truck sprang to life, Phillips simultaneously began chopping onions and discussing the menu with his co-worker and best friend, B.J. Whitekiller, as hand-cut french fries begin to sizzle on the grill. Knowing customers were waiting, Whitekiller, who had already been at work prepping meat and frybread dough for the day, picked up the pace as he and Phillips exchange directions in the focused, clipped shorthand of restaurant veterans.
Justin Phillips preps food on the LeGrub truck.
Phillips and Whitekiller, both members of the Cherokee Nation from Hulbert, Oklahoma, have their system down to an art and science, working side-by-side with sharp objects and hot surfaces in compact space equivalent to a walk-in closet, the temp already hovering at 95 degrees inside the truck. One of the customers orders an Indian taco, the other opts for a meat pie, which they’ve never eaten before. And they have questions.
“An Indian taco is kind of like a giant taco with frybread, only it’s better,” he tells them, the smell of cooking food only making them shift back and forth in their work boots. “And the meat pie is like a potpie, only it’s fried. You’ll like it. Give it a try.” They nod in agreement, peeling off five’s and one’s to pay their tab. As their food is served, the hungry duo finish their lunch in the 10 steps it takes to get back to their truck before they realize they need a trash can for their used paper wraps and napkins. “Just give it to me,” he tells them. “I’ll throw it away.”
It’s a micro-moment of cultural exchange, which Phillips takes in stride, knowing that not everyone understands the vernacular of Native comfort food. “They didn’t order what was familiar to them,” he says, smiling. “They took a chance on the golden love of frybread and meat pies. That’s what it’s about?trying something outside your comfort zone.”
And yet, as a classically trained chef and budding entrepreneur, he also loves the fact that he has the professional chops to offer whatever he decides to put on his menu from any cuisine around the world.
“My specialty is fusion food,” says Phillips. “I like to mix it up and challenge the palette with Asian, Indian, German, Irish, Italian, Creole, I’m always experimenting. Always.”
The menu at LeGrub varies from traditional Native fare to an around-the-world adventure.
Moreover, the flexibility to take his act on the road in his own food truck is the culmination of a dream that took two decades of hard work and sacrifice.
Phillips, who started at 16 as a dishwasher at El Chico’s in Muskogee, Oklahoma, worked his way up the ladder in the restaurant industry with stints in every part of the kitchen, including saucier, pantry chef, grill cook, et al, eventually realizing that if he wanted his own kitchen, he’d have to go all the way. So he enrolled in the School of Culinary Arts at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee to sharpen his skills.
Afterwards, Phillips and his classmates were cooking at upscale restaurants and country clubs in Tulsa for people like B.J. Singh and Tiger Woods. But in the end, “We just decided that it wasn’t enough,” he says. “We wanted our own gig.”
“I didn’t spend $20,000 at OSU to become a chef to make $10 an hour, right?” he asks matter-of-factly. “I wanted to do something that made it worth my time, because if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it 100 percent.”
Phillips had decided that the world of high cuisine came with its own limits and headaches. “You’re working for the man and living someone else’s dreams,” he says. “You’re cooking their menus and getting paid what they want to pay you. That’s not what I envisioned for myself.”
Around that time he and his fellow culinary school friends would watch the Food Network and dream about busting out on their own, brainstorming ideas, reading books and thinking about how to launch their own businesses. Working multiple cooking jobs, managing a nightclub and a side gig as a fireman for the Choctaw Nation, Phillips saved every penny he could get his hands on, waiting and planning for the right opportunity.
Eventually, opportunity presented itself in the unlikely form of a used Wonder Bread truck he found on Craigslist, the irony of which isn’t lost on Phillips. Gutting and redesigning every aspect of the truck to his own specifications, Phillips’ foodie sensibilities and creative aesthetic ran toward skulls, tatts and rock and roll, including a tricked out smoker that he made out of a converted beer keg from his college days. “You just have to use what you got, you know? But it works, so that’s all I care about.”
The LeGrub food truck began with Wonder Bread.
“I even designed the logo,” he says, smiling. “It’s just a rogue image and it represents everything I’m trying to do with this business. I rebuilt the whole thing from the inside out, piece by piece, until I had exactly what I wanted. Everything you see is what I envisioned.”
Phillips says the name “LeGrubs” is an inside joke. “I had a friend we called ‘Leg,’ and we joked about ‘leg rubs,’ which eventually became ‘Le’Grubs,’” he laughs. “It just kind of stuck, so we kept it.”
After his original business partner bailed on him early on, Whitekiller, who is Phillips’ childhood friend, came to work for him. Together, the two hit the road, with a menu inspired by traditional Native fare and new offerings created by Phillips.
Phillips designed the logo for his LeGrub food truck.
Phillips acknowledges that food trucks are a fairly new sight in this region of the country. Outside of county fairs and outdoor events, they are a rarity in cities throughout the central time zone. But, like the rest of his career, he only knows how to go forward. In the future, Phillips says his long-term goal is to open his own “speakeasy” in Tahlequah featuring food paired with signature drinks and a unique atmosphere.
“I’m doing this right now, but I want Native kids to know that they don’t have to go by someone else’s template?make your own template,” he says. “It’s time for a food revolution here. And I’m just the man to do it.”