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Interview: Aaron Pérez Dishes Up Vaka Burgers and More

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Interview by Marcella Haro

Physically, chef and business owner Aaron Pérez is a big guy (in the food business this lends credibility to chefs, as if they know food, and their bodies can be submitted for evidence), but he also smiles big and has these signature glasses that cover a good third of his face. It’s not just physical, though. He thinks big, too, and his dreams... well, think of a flash card with the three-letter word. I first tasted his now legendary Vaka Burger when they were posted up at Tested LA in Glassell Park. There’s nothing I love having food delivered but also love being able to put on my chanclas and walk to get something tasty.

The place was packed; there was a long line, and I saw familiar yuppie faces, the same people I run into at open houses from time to time, happily eating $12 burgers with organic toppings alongside fries that smelled like garlic and home equity.  I started following their Instagram because they had a photo up of my fake husband Anthony Bourdain near the truck, and I tagged Vaka in the post. Within seconds, Vaka started following me and commented, “Your food will be ready in a minute.” Vaka has hit the open road, and, finally, a few months ago landed in a permanent spot inside of the Ramirez Beverage Center in Boyle Heights.

What first got you interested in food? How young were you when you started, or was this a later in life thing because I always hear people say, “I knew when I was two that I wanted to do this” and I’m like, “Really? You knew when you were two?”
I’d say it was a bit of both because it was a choice later on in life, but looking back I can remember getting in the kitchen with my mom when I was younger, even when I was in preschool. Check this out! My mom pulled out a picture recently of when I was a kid with my bowl haircut and I’m holding a little cauliflower!

Did you get support from your family when you decided to do this?
No. And you know, that’s a hard thing. Coming out of high school I wasn’t the nicest guy. I wasn’t involved with any gangs or anything, but I was always around that crowd in Boyle Heights in the ’90s. It was pretty bad. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I bounced from job to job, [then] I just came across this Le Cordon Bleu commercial on TV. I enrolled, and my mom was like, “What are you doing? You’ve tried so many things.” And I was like, “No, no. I like cooking, so maybe I’m good at this." I’m really competitive, and I think I get that from growing up in the inner city. You always want to be the best. My instructors were like, “You have something. Keep with it.” My first year I was literally working for free, and I chose to do that.

Yeah, it’s like what they tell you on airplanes. In case of emergency, you put your oxygen mask on first. You can’t help anyone if you don’t put your mask on first.
I did what I had to do, and then my mom’s like “Okay, you’re at a Michelin Star restaurant.”

That probably didn’t mean much to her right?
Well, it goes back to the old school Latino mentality. I’ll say it. They think, “You made it, you’re done.” I don’t have that thought process.

When did you go from being a chef to being an entrepreneur?
Straight out of culinary school. I was doing my catering jobs because the reality was, I needed to pay bills, and I had to get a job. But I wasn’t happy there because I felt I was too good. I really did,. It’s not cockiness. I felt like I was meant to do something more. My family is totally supportive now, but in the beginning they were skeptical, being the old school Latinos that they were. I think now, this generation is very fearless. We’re not afraid to do things anymore. I see my value. I don’t care if I’m Latino or if I grew up in the ’hood. I’ll go and talk to a millionaire. I’m not afraid to do that and I think that’s what separates people, being afraid or feeling not worthy because I could’ve [said], “I’m going to work at a restaurant because what else am I going to do?”  We started everything we did with no money. When I met her [wife and business partner Esmeralda], her background was in marketing. She said she’d help me and then I thought, “She’ll get over it. She’s going to see how much I work, or what I’m trying to do and get scared off.” But she stuck through everything with me, which is a great thing.

Maybe a month into our relationship I moved in with her, she was living in Long Beach. She had roommates so we sold whatever little stuff we had and we bought equipment. We moved to Huntington Park into her mom’s garage with no insulation, right? And she’s closing deals for work, like catering for George Lopez, big deals. And we didn’t have a car, so we would get on the bus, go get a deposit, rent a car, go and shop and make it happen. Nobody knew anything. They thought we were in a loft (laughs). So the struggle is there, we have a story.

I recently read an article that mentioned how the saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” can be misleading. I mean, you love what you do but it’s hard work, right?
It’s still hard work, but I think we are so used to it now. I’m so used to being in a kitchen working for someone non-stop. I’ve worked at Providence, Rivera, Wolfgang Puck’s. Those are hard kitchens.

What made you come back to Boyle Heights and open up inside the Ramirez beverage mart?
I was born and raised by El Tepeyac, down the street by Blanchard and Blades and Evergreen, and I was like everybody else. I was very uneducated about food,,, [until] I had the chance to work with people like Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsey. I’m just trying to bring back what I’ve learned.

Was there a food place here before?
This used to be a market. It was called Fines Market. I went to Salesian High School a private school, and the Ramirez family  had a liquor store down the street. They had seen the food truck, and they were opening a bunch of [new] spots. They said, “You could park your truck out here if you want.” They [knew] I was from the neighborhood, and saw that we attracted people. About four years prior to this, I was going to open a place on 1st Street by Eastside Luv and I got so much shit for that. I had the neighborhood council on me. Councilman José Huizar was backing me though.

What was the push back?
You know where the Boyle Hotel is? We were going to take both of those spots, make it like a downtown vibe and... they were like “We don’t want that in the community. You’re going to be taking away jobs from people. How about the vendors on the streets? I have my opinions on that. I feel everybody should be fair and if you’re going to be a vendor you need to pay taxes. And I don’t want to come off as harsh or anything but I’ve struggled. My mom has struggled. My grandma’s an immigrant. We’ve been in Boyle Heights over a hundred years. We were one of the first Mexican [families] here. I understand the struggle, but to oppose things and not want the change? It’s circulating money into the community. Everybody that I hire is from Boyle Heights. There’s a few people [that go] “Ten dollars a burger, what do you mean?! We use top quality stuff. Our meats are grass fed beef. We use all organic produce. We work with local farms. We make everything in house. Everything is from scratch.

Sometimes when you’re first, you get more of the shit. So what’s next for you and Vaka Burger?
We’re getting ready to expand. I don’t want to say too much yet but we just got approached this week to go on the other side, so that’s already a done deal. So watch out Downtown LA. We’re coming!
Also, we did a pilot for a show that the original owner of Umami burger, Adam Fleischman, is doing. It’s about burgers It was him, myself, and another chef from Cassell’s in Koreatown.

So last question: Now that you know what you know, if you can give young entrepreneurs any advice, what would you say?
At the end of the day, you’re the only one that stops yourself. As far as trial and error, that’s going to happen. It’s whether you stop, whether you give up or not. You’re your own worst fear. If something doesn’t go as planned, people tend to freak out and give up. You have to hit rock bottom before it starts getting better. I know for me, when it gets really rough, that’s right before it starts getting better. Don’t give up and believe in what you do.

Reach Brooklyn & Boyle food writer and arts maven Marcella Haro at: marcella.haro@outlook.com

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Brooklyn & Boyle is a print and online magazine dedicated to Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The publication features Brooklyn & Boyle stories from the Greater Eastside LA arts scene, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, South Pasadena, Cypress Park, Arroyo Seco, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock, places every bit as creative and cultured as one another while aware and active in support of authentic arts and creative projects which support community integrity and respect for the history and heritage of the many Eastside neighborhoods.

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