By Marijke Rowland | The Modesto Bee
Not too many chefs starting out getting personal advice from the likes of Tyler Florence.
But then, not everyone introduces their new food venture on national television like the team of Los Banos natives behind Super Sope, a catering company and soon-to-be food truck serving the Central Valley. Turlock resident Carina Stringfellow and her cousin Priscilla Gutierrez of Turlock and sister-in-law Lindsey Stringfellow of Denair will all appear on the new season of “The Great Food Truck Race.”
Hosted by celebrity chef, Bay Area restaurateur and cookbook author Florence, the reality series on the Food Network pits teams working on food trucks against each other in weekly challenges for the grand prize of $50,000. The new season, the show’s 12th, should begin airing this spring, though the Food Network has yet to set its official start date.
Carina’s team, Super Sope, specializes in — as its name suggests — serving sopes. The traditional Mexican dish consists of a thick corn masa base that is deep-fried and then topped with a variety of ingredients from refried beans and shredded lettuce to Mexican cheese and a choice of cooked meats.
This year’s teams feature food industry novices like Carina and her team, as well as seasoned restaurant owners. The mother of four children, 9 to 4 years old, got her start as a true home chef. At age 11, she began preparing meals for her family while her farm laborer parents were away at work.
“My mom would leave me in charge of cooking,” she said. “She’d say, ‘Here’s a chicken. You’re going to do this and that to it. And then put it in the pot.’ So I started at a very young age and just perfected the skill over the years.”
But she hadn’t intended to making cooking her career. Instead, Carina got her bachelor’s degree in sociology and then a master’s degree in education. She taught students with special needs as a paraprofessional for five years, but after having her own children, family demands took over and she became a stay-at-home mom.
SO WHY SOPES?
It was then that she realized she enjoyed cooking as more than just a way to put dinner on the table. The idea for Super Sope started in 2016, when she became involved in the PTA at Denair Elementary Charter Academy. For one of their fundraisers, the group decided to host a festival with a food booth, and Carina agreed to make sopes to sell.
She picked the dish because of her fond memories of getting them from her favorite street vendor in Mexico. Every year growing up, her family would go to Mexico, specifically the north-central state of Zacatecas, where her mother is from. One of her favorite parts of the visits each December would be eating the delicacy hot on the street corner from the same sope lady.
Through word-of-mouth, interest in Carina’s sopes grew, as did the idea for a food truck. Then in 2017, she applied to be on “The Great Food Truck Race” with her truck concept. But she didn’t hear from the producers for the whole year, and thought perhaps she had missed her shot.
But then in early 2019, she was contacted by the show and thus began a four-month interview process. She asked her cousin, an area physical education teacher, and her sister-in-law, a Stanislaus County courthouse clerk with previous restaurant and bar experience, to be on her team.
GOING ON REALITY TV
The show was shot over six weeks last summer starting in July. Contestants are provided a food truck by the network, which they use to prep, cook and serve food to the public for each challenge. The team that earns the most money each week wins, and the least is sent home. This season saw the trucks traveling across the West Coast to compete with stops in Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Santa Barbara and more.
Carina said the experience was a real trial by food truck. Before going on the show, she had only served food at nonprofit events and school fundraisers.
“It was a little intimidating to be competing against these hot-shot restaurant owners and veterans,” she said. “And they really put you to work. You are legitimately working on a food truck, and what you see is all real.”
Carina can’t reveal the results of the show, or more details until it begins airing. But she said they enjoyed meeting all the other teams, and getting food tips from host Florence.
“He’s amazing,” she said. “You’re getting feedback from this celebrity, from Tyler Florence. It’s incredible. He’d say, ‘This is great. Have you tried adding this or doing this?’ But he was really trying to help (improve) your food’s taste and appearance. You have to use that to make your food better.”
Her menu for the show included a variety of her super-sized, hand-crafted sopes, as well as her version of quesadillas, which are made with uncooked fresh corn masa, then filled and deep-fried like an empanada. All of her food is cooked to order, making getting the timing down important for the show.
She said being on the show helped to validate that her food and concept are good. Her catering company started in earnest last fall. She plans to have a booth at the Turlock Certified Farmers Market this season, and possibly Modesto’s market as well.
The first public event where you can try her food will be Feb. 29 at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock. They will be part of the grand opening festivities for Kaitlyn & Ashlee’s Kitchen, a new commercial kitchen and BBQ buffet restaurant coming to Turlock.
Carina said that being on a food truck show without having a current food truck just yet has made things interesting. People have been asking constantly where they can try her food. She is currently working with Valley Sierra SBDC, a department of Opportunity Stanislaus, to get her food truck or trailer off the ground. If all goes smoothly, she hopes to have it on the road by late spring, early summer.
“When people watch the show, I just hope that they are able to see that our food is really homemade. It’s authentic. The way we make our salsas full of flavor and the time we take to prepare our handmade masa is really important. That’s what makes Super Sope super.”