I traverse pans of puffs headed for the oven and tubs of freshly squeezed fruits and veggies from Charlie and Ben Gulick of Juice To You in search of my subject, chef Ryan Scott. I ask the Gulick brothers where I might find him, and they point to the back of the kitchen. As I get closer to Scott’s station, I see a gigantic beast of a truck, bearing the logo 3-SUM EATS, parked outside. There’s a guy in a pair of jeans and a striped sweater crouched down, diligently working on the truck’s backed-up drain – it’s Scott, who, contrary to his Top Chef pretty-boy image, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. After he cleans up, Scott starts making the dough for his Kitchen Sink Cookies (Blue Bottle coffee, pretzels, Lay’s potato chips, chocolate and butterscotch chunks, and coconut) and helping his sous chef, Thomas Romine, develop flavors for a poblano-goat cheese soup, both of which must be ready for delivery to private clients of Scott’s catering company, Ryan Scott 2 Go, by 10:30 a.m.
“When I worked for Gary Danko, I remember walking in one day and seeing him on his hands and knees touching up the paint on the baseboard near the bathrooms. I asked him why he was doing it, and he said, ‘I shouldn’t expect anyone else to do it if I wouldn’t.’ I realized then why Gary was so successful – he did everything and anything that needed to be done,” Scott says as he drops spoonsful of batter onto a baking sheet. “I didn’t have to learn from anyone else. What Gary taught me – as a chef, as an entrepreneur, as a man – is all I need to know.”
Growing up in California’s Central Valley, Scott’s interest in cooking started at an early age – when he was nine, his Christmas list included a wok and a food dehydrator – but it was getting suspended from school for a fight that started his culinary career. “I was sent to my parents’ restaurant, and my dad made me work the grill. I thought, ‘I should get suspended every day.’ I started working there after school – we’d do over a hundred covers; I was on eggs and I’d go through 10 or 11 cases,” Scott says. “I got paid $20 a week in quarters, and I’d go to Pizza Hut and play my favorite video game, Street Fighter. I thought my parents were paying me really well, but, based on what the line cooks were making, they were actually getting me for negative three cents an hour,” he laughs. “I loved it; I loved food,” he says. “I had a Mohawk with a pony tail and cheeks the size of The Chipmunks ... actually, I looked like I ate Alvin, Theodore and Simon.”
His sophomore year of high school, Scott spent the summer working on his step-uncle’s sun-dried tomato farm. “I was the basket bitch,” he explains. “The Latino workers would scrape the skins off the tomatoes along a thousand feet of wire. They got paid for every hundred feet they did. They’d yell to me, ‘Huero!’ – which means ‘white guy’ – and I’d have to run and get all the tomatoes they’d scraped into this bag tied around their waist, dump the basket into a big container, and run to the next guy who was calling me.”
Scott graduated from the California Culinary Academy in 2001, which led to stages under renowned chefs including Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter, Suzanne Goin, and Alan Wong. When he returned to San Francisco, Scott worked as a line cook for Gary Danko’s highly regarded, critically acclaimed eponymous restaurant and, in 2005, he took his first executive chef position at Myth Café, where he quickly gained a name for himself by elevating common lunch staples likes soups, salads and sandwiches. It was a unique concept and it worked – nearly a decade later, upscale sandwich shops run by highly skilled chefs are popping up all over the City.
In 2007, Scott entered the living rooms of millions of viewers as a contestant on Bravo television’s seventh season of Top Chef, filmed in Chicago. He parlayed his time on the show and model good looks into appearances on NBC’s Today, HSN (demonstrating Top Chef-branded knives), and the premiere episode of TLC’s Food Buddha. He has also used his Top Chef fame to help numerous charities including Meals on Wheels, Make-A-Wish Foundation, The American Heart Association, and the Guardsman Association (where he regularly brought in the top bid at their annual bachelor auctions), as well as the charity he started, Harvest from the Heart, which delivers a bag lunch and a new pair of socks to the needy on Thanksgiving.
His loyal prep cook, Pedro Ramirez, who has worked with Scott since Myth Café, knows firsthand about his boss’s generosity: when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, Scott donated all of his appearance fees and enlisted his Top Chef co-stars to appear at benefits, where they raised money to pay Ramirez’s medical bills. “When I came to Myth Café, I didn’t even know how to cook,” Ramirez says as he whips up poppy seed dressing for a batch of carrot slaw. “I had worked in fast food, throwing frozen stuff into fryers, but Chef asked me, ‘Do you want to learn?’ and he took me under his wing and taught me to listen and open my eyes.”
As Ramirez explains the subtle differences between making a sweet versus a tangy slaw (“Cider vinegar and sugar will make it sweeter; rice vinegar and some Tabasco give it a little tang ...”), Scott smiles proudly as he prepares and then packs the bag lunches – a concept he started at Myth Café – for his food truck. Today it’s a chicken Cobb sandwich (blue cheese, bacon, scallions, and chicken breast with his “secret seasoning”); a Brussels sprouts, asparagus and caper salad; and a brownie. “These are perfect for people who work at the office park in Brisbane – sometimes they only have 15 minutes to eat, but they want to eat something good, and they love what we do.”
By now Scott has been working since 4:30 a.m. “I hit the farmers’ market and then I pick up the fresh-baked bread from the French Italian Bakery in North Beach,” he explains. Santos Ramirez, lead prep cook for Ryan Scott 2 Go, who worked with Scott at Gary Danko before following him to Myth Café, goes over the list of dietary restrictions for their catering clients, and it’s daunting: two vegans, one gluten intolerant, a pescetarian CEO, and one person who is allergic to onions (but also avoids Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bread, pasta, rice, and dairy).
Executive assistant Jonathan Panday arrives to let Scott know that the day’s menu for 3-SUM EATS has been Tweeted. “Jonathan’s the G.M.; he’s my right-hand, fingers and toes,” Scott says. The food truck business is definitely not for the faint of heart, or wallet – it costs thousands of dollars and takes hundreds of pages of paperwork just to get started in San Francisco. “I borrowed $20,000 from my step-dad’s credit line. I found the truck in Vegas – the guy wanted $17,000, and it didn’t even run. I said ‘I have 10 grand in my pocket and I’ll have it towed to California tomorrow.’ It took nine months to outfit the truck and get it out.” In fact, almost everything about the cooking and catering business is expensive. “That industrial immersion blender is 700 bucks,” he says, pointing to the blender Romine is using to purée the poblano-goat cheese soup. “You could ride around the ocean on that thing.”
Steven Legette, 3-SUM EATS “concierge,” has his order pad in hand as he boards the truck along with Ramirez and Scott, who beckons me from the driver’s seat. “You’re going out in this storm?” I ask. Scott nods emphatically, “Rain or shine, we’re out there all the time,” he and 3-SUM team say in unison. I take a seat up front, and next thing I know we’re barreling down Highway 101, Scott wiping the foggy window with a kitchen towel; I can’t see a foot in front of us, and raindrops fall on my head from a leak in the roof. “You’ve sat in the courtyard of The French Laundry with Thomas Keller, plucked radishes from Manresa’s farm with David Kinch, and cruised down a rainy freeway behind a garbage truck with Ryan Scott at the wheel of his ’88 Chevy taco truck,” Scott says in his usual self-deprecating style. Ramirez chimes in, “How can a huero and a Mexican pull this off? Stay tuned!” We all laugh as the truck pulls into the flooded parking lot of the Brisbane office park. A number of food trucks canceled because of the rain, but by 11:30 a.m. two more trucks – Curry Up Now and IZ IT Fresh Grill – pull up.
Scott and Ramirez bring samples for me to try, including the famous Myth Café deviled eggs made with chives, paprika, a drizzle of sweet Lucero Arbequina olive oil, and caper juice that adds a wonderful brininess. They’re every bit as good as I remembered. The mac and cheese spring roll is all kinds of wrong but terribly addictive – a wrapper filled with gooey mac and cheese, deep fried, and served with a five-cheese fondue dipping sauce. A soft, toasted bun cradles the sweet tea-brined, cornflake-crusted fried chicken breast slathered in Ramirez’s carrot slaw and homemade pickles with a little heat from Old Bay Seasoning that sneaks up rather than smacks you; the brisket sandwich is like a Sloppy Joe on steroids – a sourdough ciabatta generously piled with meat and topped with crispy shallots; Blue Bottle coffee-rubbed, slow-cooked pulled pork is mouth-wateringly tender topped with plantain spread, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and jalapeño aioli. And there’s always a vegetarian option – today it’s a portobello mushroom stuffed with Gouda, breaded in panko crumbs and fried. Served on brioche with alfalfa sprouts and homemade Thousand Island dressing, the molten cheese oozes out on the first bite. Even on a food truck Scott manages to make sandwiches as creative as they are comforting. Dessert shows Scott’s whimsical side – a bright yellow homemade “Twinkie” filled with butterscotch cream.
Fifteen minutes after we arrive, the first customer wades up in a hooded raincoat and orders two pork sandwiches from concierge Legette, who stands in front of the truck under the awning, a wet but cheerful waiter. Over the course of an hour, more than 40 people line up in the downpour, most shielded by umbrellas; Legette calls out the orders as Ramirez and Scott take turns repeating them back for accuracy: “One brisket, three porks, two macs all day ...” (“All day” is a kitchen term for “all together.”) The orders fly out of the window, and 3-SUM EATS is a well-oiled, if not glamorous, machine.
As he drops a portobello burger in the fryer, Scott excitedly talks about his girlfriend, Ali, whom he plans to propose to soon (“By the time this article comes out, I’ll be officially off the market …”) and about his new restaurant, opening in June at Mission Street and 20th in the old Bruno’s space. “I want to cook something I crave, and that’s brunch.” The 130-seat restaurant, called Brunch Drunk Love, will have a full bar and be open Saturdays and Sundays only, from morning to afternoon. Scott envisions something like New York City’s Coffee Bar – a friendly “Cheers” kind of place where people can gather over good food and linger over cocktails. He also plans to teach cooking classes at the restaurant. “We have a stage, and I want people to have fun – a kind of rock-’n’-roll show meets cooking school.”
After the last customer heads back to the office, the 3-SUM team members clean up their respective stations and prepare the truck for take-off. Outside, the rain tapers off ever so slightly. “Should we head over to Townsend Street after this?” Scott asks. “Yes Chef,” Ramirez responds. “Why not?”
For 3-SUM EATS menus, locations and Twitter updates, visit www.3-sumeats.com. For more information on Ryan Scott 2 Go, visit www.ryanscott2go.com. To learn more about Scott’s charity, Harvest from the Heart, visit www.harvestfromtheheart.com. For recipes, check out www.cookingwithryanscott.com.