Jason Perkins wheels his office into a parking spot just outside the Pendleton Art Center in Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. The office is hard to miss—a bulky 1991 Grumman/Chevy P-30 step van that began its life as a bookmobile in Madison County, Ky.
“When I got it, the little check-out kiosk was still there,” he says, “but the shelves had been removed. It took me about four months to buy all the equipment and have it converted.”
All meals can be accompanied by a drink, side item and a lively discussion of Aristotle—if you’re so inclined. Perkins graduated, with honors, in 2000, with a degree in philosophy which still serves him well when he dons an apron and fires up the grill.
“I was a big fan of the German Idealists and my favorite class was metaphysics,” he says.
His shrimp and bacon sandwich isn’t bad, either.
The eclectic exterior design is based on Perkin’s own drawings including his abstract logo which tends to provoke a lot of personal projections as to what it actually is. “It’s part of a pen and ink drawing I had done. The original piece was 11 by 13 and that was a small section of it I just really liked. So when I put the truck on the road I thought that would make a nice emblem.”
As far as EAT?
“I came up with Eat because I wanted something very simple and that everyone could relate to.” And it’s served up in five different languages on the side: Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Spanish, which along with English, are the five most widely spoken languages in the world.
Perkins is its owner/driver/head chef/philosopher. While the city grows its numbers of food trucks, EAT! isn’t your typical burgermobile. Sure, there’s a Philly steak sandwich to satisfy the true carnivores in the crowd and a Portobello sandwich for fungus fanatics. But Perkins focuses on Eastern-style cuisine. Among his regular lineup—thin rice noodles with carrot threads, onion, Napa cabbage and black sesame seeds. Or a not-your-mom’s grilled cheese filled with Indian paneer and served with spicy onion chutney.
“I like to come up with different flavor and ingredient combinations,” he says. “I tried to make a reasonably diverse menu but it could all still be prepared in the truck. “Pendleton’s usually a pretty good evening. We get a nice mix of artists and guests, and even occasionally people from the neighborhood will come in.”
Now he can be found most days hitting the street in search of hungry people. “The other day I was at the Christ Hospital facility in Clifton.” It’s a lot like fishing—being in the right place at the right time. And the results can be surprising, even to this two-year veteran of the food-on-wheels wars. “You’d think Christ Hospital, and a school of ravenous nurses come to mind, but no. “It was mostly accountants and I.T. folks.”
So how does a philosopher eventually become rolling chef? First attend the Midwest Culinary Institute with the best of academic intentions. “My initiial plan was to go to culinary school, get a culinary degree because I was looking to go the graduate school philosophy in San Francisco or New York. So I’d work my way through grad school working in restaurants.”
But that’s when his carefully considered philosophical plans took an unexpected turn. Then shortly before I graduated, I got an internship at Givaudan (an international flavor and fragrance producer) and found out I really liked the flavor industries. But don’t call Perkins a former flavorist.
“I was a food scientist. The flavorist created the flavors then I work to incorporate it into different foods. For seven years I worked for Cargill (or as Perkins calls it “Corporate America”) as a food scientist then I decided to strike out on my own and see what I can do.” Thus, EAT was born.
During the summer, 70 to 80 hour work weeks aren’t unheard of. While the winter months account for only about 25% of total sales. “But if there’s a real winter, like long and cold, it’s slower than that.”
While the idea of heading south for the winter and doling out grilled paneer sandwiches on Panama Beach may seem appealing, as a family man with three children, domestic duties call. His wife, Samantha Gerwe-Perkins, also a Xavier grad, teaches journalism at Walnut Hills High School, which frees up her summer and makes his off-season busy at home.
“Maybe I’ll head for the beaches when the kid’s are older, but at this point, I’m primary care provider.” And, of course, head household chef.