After working in the food industry since the age of 13, Chef Wade Simpson decided to take his culinary skills on the road and opened a food truck and catering business, which many may know as Chef Wade’s Mac-n-Cheese. From food truck nights at the Shemer to packing to-go meals for the community, Chef Wade has become a staple in the Valley and beyond.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Denver and moved here with my mother and brother when I was six. I primarily grew up in Sunnyslope and the west Greenway area. I feel as native as a native.
How did you get into the food truck business?
It seemed a viable alternative to the restaurant industry norm and the ability to take my kitchen anywhere, especially for catering. It’s more cost-effective in some ways.
What is the Bistro on Wheels?
Bistro on Wheels was a concept for me, with French-American bistro-style street food. It did not translate well to the food truck scene, so now it is more of the catering side of my business.
Did you go to culinary school?
I went to California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in April of 1984 and graduated in September of 1985. It was a small school then – but vibrant and a trade school, which was perfect for me as I was never scholastically inclined.
What sort of food can people find in your food trucks/catering business?
People can find anything when it comes to catering. I work best when I can meet with a client and find out a little about their food likes and dislikes, and when I can customize a menu around what they enjoy is the best for me.
The food truck right now is mac-n-cheese-based, so we have come up with over 40 variations of macs. We only run seven to nine at a time, but there are many to choose from. We can make anything off the food truck as well.
Were you originally part of the restaurant industry?
I started as a dishwasher when I was 13 in downtown Phoenix at a restaurant called L’Continental. They had a speakeasy at night! I worked my entire life in the restaurant and hotel industry, and I love the work. I only know of four food truck owners (in the city) that have been chefs.
Who first taught you how to cook?
In the beginning, my mother and grandmother. My grandmother spent ten years in the Orient, and she was an incredible cook. Later in life, I learned and still learn from everyone around me. Many of my most excellent teachers were ones at school – and a gentleman named Fred Halpert, in the Bay Area, who influenced my career beginnings.
Where else have you worked?
I worked at various restaurants in the Valley early in my developing career. Before I started my own business, I was the executive chef at the Paradise Valley Country Club for 12 years. Locally I worked at the Wrigley Mansion, Terravita Country Club, and at all three Pointe Resorts. I also worked at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, FL, Caneel Bay Resort in the Virgin Islands, Doubletree Hotels in the late 1980s, Westin Hotels and the Sheraton Grand in downtown L.A.
What is your signature dish?
On the mac truck, I would have to say the Nawlins Mac, with shrimp and andouille sausage, onions, tomatoes and Cajun spices mixed with mac.
Have you worked with any other chefs? Who is your favorite?
I’ve worked with many wonderful chefs: Leo Knoeller and Didier Desmond while attending school, who both taught me how to command a kitchen and its surroundings as well as common sense with foods; Fred Halpert for seeing his visions and sensibility in food; Christian Schmidt for his no-nonsense German attitude. I don’t have a favorite; I loved them all.
What is the inspiration behind the dishes at Chef Wade’s Mac-n-Cheese?
When I opened with Bistro on Wheels, I was finding the concept was not great for mainstream – I either needed to change the truck or change the business model. Our most popular item as the bistro concept was our truffle mushroom mac-n-cheese. It dawned on me that we could create many versions and variations of mac, so that’s what we did.
What is the most challenging dish you’ve had to cook?
The first time I made Gravlax (a salmon dish), I thought I would never get it right. It’s not cooked at all, but the process needs attention to detail. Also, my first several Beef Wellingtons – not individual but the whole loin. My first roast, first turkey – pasta – still haven’t quite figured it out. All cooking is a challenge if you’ve never made something.
What is the most challenging part of working on a food truck?
What is one item you can’t live without in your kitchen?
Easy – salt and pepper.
What is your go-to comfort food?
I enjoy fried chicken with corn and mashed potatoes with country white gravy.
What do you do when you are not working?
I love to dine out. I need to work out more, and of course, hiking. It’s funny when you own a small business like mine. You work more than expected.
What advice has stayed with you throughout the years?
Love what you do!
What or who inspires you?
For who: Vincent Guerithault from Vincent’s on Camelback, or Chef Alex Stratta. For what: love and passion for what one does.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Fois Gras, artichokes, truffles or oil, onions, herbs; it depends on the dish.
How did you cope with all of the restaurant shutdowns?
The food industry as a whole was hit in a way no one expected. I always thought my profession would never feel an impact since less and less cook, but I knew I could always feed. The only part of the food industry that escaped this onslaught is fast food. They were set up from the go. Besides, they do not, in a chef’s eye, serve real food.
The unfortunate reality is we will have great small restaurants never open again. I am coping the best I can by doing everything I can to create options. I put together a weekly delivery menu of family-pack, ready-bake dishes; they change somewhat weekly.
We are marketing to neighborhoods and people can come by and buy grab-n-go meals. I am not sure if I will survive as a business; I can only continue to look and step forward. My mother taught me never to give up.
Do you think the shutdown will affect how people treat others in the industry in the future?
I think this will affect us as a community, a state and a nation more than we will ever know. Our industry will change as so many industries will change. I doubt we have any idea what is to come. We as the food industry will need to adapt some practices and will always be first and foremost ready for change.