In this era of increasingly sophisticated phishing scams, it’s perfectly understandable that Reuben Asaram would have been skeptical when he was first approached by someone saying they represented Taco Bell and were interested in a partnership.
“They literally slid into our DMs,” Asaram said. “I thought it was a scam because we get some scammy stuff.”
Alas, it was no scam and no joke and life has been “unbelievable ever since,” Asaram said. Asaram, Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin and Lawrence Smith comprise the first generation of TBX, Taco Bell’s new program featuring partnerships with emerging chefs.
Their first task will be to infuse their culinary styles with Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme.
The chefs will work on their versions of the Crunchwrap over the next couple of months. The goal is to release those three versions in their hometowns by the end of the year.
“So then we’re going to see where’s the pulse? Which one do we like?” Taco Bell CMO Taylor Montgomery said. “And then we’ll see how fast it’s going to take to scale. It just depends on what it is.”
“But if consumers respond well, that’s something that we want to get out there as soon as possible for the chefs and for us and for our fans,” he added.
For the brand, the program can potentially lead to the creation of an innovative new product while helping one of the most innovative fast-food chains in the U.S. learn more about the creative process. It also provides a trio of young chefs with the support of one of the country’s biggest brands.
“I love the program,” Liz Matthews, chief food innovation officer for Taco Bell, said in an interview. “There’s so many talented people out there, young chefs. I love the whole concept. Because we’re supporting them. And we’re also going to be curating something together.”
Here’s a look at the three chefs.
Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin was born in San Antonio. Both her parents are from China. Her Taiwanese mother moved to the U.S. in the late 1970s. “I grew up in a restaurant, a failing restaurant that bankrupted our family and also divorced my parents,” she said.
She went to grad school, received her master’s degree in international relations and moved abroad for a while. And then she quit that job, moved back to San Antonio, and got a job as a fry cook at a popular local restaurant. “My parents were pretty mortified,” Dobbertin said.
Dobbertin opened her own fast-casual ramen concept in 2016, called Tenko Ramen. In 2018 she developed a new concept called Best Quality Daughter through a series of pop-up dinners designed to address the lack of Asian-American female chefs in South Texas.
Working alongside fellow chef Anne Ng and artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Best Quality Daughter then opened its first brick-and-mortar in San Antonio.
“We were doing Chinese New Year Popups and it was all female-led and that led to a brick-and-mortar,” Dobbertin said. Last year, she was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for emerging chef.
There's nothing off-limits. Be creative, have fun." -Lawrence Smith.
Sports was Lawrence Smith’s identity growing up in Ohio. “My first love was football,” he said. He played for the University of Akron and in 2015 was signed by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts but was soon waived. “I traveled around the country for a few years training, training training and just never got picked up again,” he said. “I was heartbroken, lost, depressed, didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted to do.”
He ended up in Phoenix and applied for the Great Food Truck Race, made the finals of casting but didn’t get in. And that gave him a taste of the business, so he went to culinary school. “I was cooking all over the valley under some great chefs, some celebrity chefs and some Michelin chefs, James Beard chefs,” Smith said. “Learn as much as I could, in about three years.”
He and his wife started in their own apartment. “Just me and my wife out of our apartment in the rain, in the weather,” he said. They did that for a year, then a food truck. A year ago, they opened their first brick-and-mortar, Chilte, in Phoenix. The restaurant serves “experimental Mexican cuisine” and was listed by the publications Esquire and Bon Appétit as one of the best new restaurants of the year.
Reuben Asaram was supposed to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. Born in India and raised in Queens, that was his plan growing up. But his grandfather made him fall in love with food. He eventually dropped out of high school and told his father he wanted to become a chef.
He attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked in New York City restaurants before he moved to Philadelphia, where he was a sous chef. He traveled around the country. “I got into Mexican cuisine because of the workers,” Asaram said. “They took me in as one of their own and I got so close it made me feel like I was with my grandfather again.”
He planned to take everything he learned about various cuisines and apply it to a food truck. Just as he was about to get that truck, he broke two vertebrae in his back. “I went down into deep, weird holes and I pulled myself out and said no,” Asaram said.
At one point, he was told he would never work in the restaurant business as a result of his back injury. Instead, he started a series of pop-ups, bringing his combination of Indian flavors and Mexican cuisine to the public. “And then Taco Bell found me,” he said, “which was the wildest thing ever.”
As for what they do with Taco Bell, that remains to be seen. But they will work in the company’s test kitchen, coming up with ideas that could find their way onto the chain’s menu. “We can come up with our ideas, and they can do what they can to backwards engineer where they can make it work at scale,” Dobbertin said.
They also get to be as creative as possible. “There’s nothing off limits,” Smith said. “Be creative, have fun.”
“Be crazy and wild,” Asaram added. “Bring your personality.”
Get ready for a different type of Crunchwrap.
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