By Mary Constantine | Knoxnews.com
The presence of mobile food kitchens in Knoxville continues to grow, and Chef Justin Deuso of Chef Deuce’s Island Grill is happy to be in the ranks.
The Vermont native attended the New England Culinary Institute before serving two internships at The Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. After graduation he stayed in the Caribbean for six years, working a variety of jobs, including time as an executive chef for a “classic American steak house.”
He made his way to Knoxville a little more than four years ago after reconnecting with a friend that resides here. Before moving he had been offered an executive chef position at a Knoxville establishment, but after arriving in Knoxville that offer fell through. To make ends meet he did private catering gigs in the evenings and on weekends while working a day job at a pest control company.
While the pest control business helped to pay the bills it didn’t fulfill his dream of operating his own restaurant. He began looking for an appropriate storefront to transform into a restaurant when a friend suggested he consider a mobile kitchen. He looked into it, drafted a business plan and went to the bank.
“It just so happened that the bank manager had eaten my food at one of the gourmet tailgate parties that I had catered during a University of Tennessee football game. She approved the loan, and I ordered my mobile kitchen. It was delivered a year ago January.”
He began serving food within two weeks, setting up every weekend offering breakfast and lunch at the Great Smokies Flea Market on Dumplin Valley Road. He also continued to cater and offer private “plated dinner” events.
“I did pretty good business at the flea market, especially at lunch time,” he said.
He integrated his love for traditional Caribbean flavors into his food, including his jerk seasoned chicken and pork dishes and island slaw.
“People wanted me to offer a burger so I added a fresh Angus burger to my menu, but my number one seller since I’ve had the truck is my jerk chicken quesadillas,” he said.
About six months into the flea market gig he left that location when the owners raised his rent.
“I just hit the streets. I developed a good relationship with Rick McGill of Rick McGill Toyota. I went to that location weekly and even prepared meals for him that he could take home and put in the freezer. Not long after I picked up the folks at Comcast,” he said.
His current schedule has him at a different location four days a week, offering a diverse menu that includes Caribbean flavors like his jerk chicken quesadilla served with tomato basil salsa and cilantro-lime aioli and island slaw, as well as daily specials such as a blackened Mahi-mahi sandwich and a jerk chicken salad. Barbecue pork quesadillas, pulled pork sandwich, boneless and bone-in wings are available, as well as his “cheeseburger in paradise.” Sides include seasoned fries, slaw and Vermont cheddar macaroni and cheese. “I’m from Vermont and a little biased about my cheese. I only use Vermont’s Cabot extra sharp cheddar,” he said.
In addition to serving workers at established businesses locations, he’s developed a following of customers through his pre-order service.
“People can order ahead either by calling, emailing or texting me. That’s so people don’t have to wait in line (wherever he is serving that day). If they text and say they need their food ready at 1:30 p.m. then I’ll have it waiting on them. It’s a great way to develop regular customers and get to know their names. I even have a guy from Jimmy John’s who calls ahead to order my bacon cheeseburger,” he said.
Deuso has two part-time employees that alternate helping him in the truck, but the after-hours job of shopping and prepping for the following day’s service falls to him.
“I do the shopping plus I smoke and braise the pork, make the aoli and salsa and bake the cookies and pies. It keeps me pretty busy,” he said.
He currently serves lunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Locations are Verizon, 9038 Crosspark Drive (Monday); Comcast, 5720 Asheville Highway (Tuesday); Talbotts Call Center, 2160 Lakeside Centre Way (Wednesday); Knoxville News Sentinel, 2332 News Sentinel Drive, (Thursday). He’s currently looking for a site on Friday. To place an advance order call or text him at 865-771-9143 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.privatechefjustindeuso.com. He also has a Facebook page.