Food trucks have come a long way since the days of roach coaches stocked with pre-packaged sandwiches and lethal coffee. These days, mobile restaurants are manned by some of the most innovative chefs in our region.
Brian Finks, the chef and owner of cult favorite Fired Up Taco Truck, is one of those entrepreneurs who not only is talented, but also grateful for every day he has on earth. After a fight with alcohol that nearly crushed his dreams, his motto is: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."
Finks is a Cleveland native with Italian and Puerto Rican roots, but his father's military career allowed him to travel as a child. "Some of my first food memories were in Greece," says Finks.
Like many teenagers, Finks' first job was at McDonald's. He checker-boarded his way through multiple fast-food joints, putting partying ahead of his future. After high school, he attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute.
With diploma in hand, Finks returned to Cleveland to work as sous chef at Park City Diner. "Park City Diner was my first experience with managing, and a real eye opener on running a kitchen," he explains. After three years, Finks was restless. "I wanted to position myself around the best cooks I could."
Finks zeroed in on Pier W, where he accepted a job as line cook working under executive chef Regan Reik. After six months, Reik promoted Finks to kitchen manager. "Working under Chef Reik, I was able to put dishes together focusing on textures, acids and richness," he says. "I also gained confidence through constant pressures to create specials."
Finks' continual pursuit to master his craft landed him next at Lola Bistro. "I felt that Lola was the closest restaurant in Cleveland compared to the volume at New York's best restaurants and execution of techniques," explains Finks. Working under executive chef Derek Clayton taught Finks the crafts of charcuterie, pickling, smoking and brining.
It was on May 31, 2009, toward the latter part of his stint at Lola, that his life changed forever. "Within a 24-hour period, I found out I was going to be a dad and I lost my cousin," explains Finks. At that moment, Finks knew he had to get his shit together.
Those two pieces of news were a huge wake-up call. "Being an alcoholic in the food industry is very common," he says. "But after years of running the same cycle of working 50 to 70 hours a week and drinking the rest, my life was on a crash course. My life was unmanageable, and it was time to get busy fixing all the damage."
Finks got the help he needed to fight his alcoholism. He also decided to leave Lola and focus on being an entrepreneur. "The food truck scene was becoming popular, so I started researching and realized this was perfect for me," explains Finks.
He worked to secure an old Cleveland S.W.A.T. truck from an auction. Finks pondered his concept, wavering between empanadas and tacos. "At first, I wanted an empanada truck, but I picked tacos because I knew that everybody, regardless of nationality, loves tacos. But in the end, I was happy that I combined the two concepts."
"I named it Fired Up to match my personality," says the chef, who's been in business for over a year and half.
Customers track down his truck like hunters, hungry for chef-inspired tacos like chorizo, Angus beef or popcorn shrimp.
The best part for Finks is the direction his life has taken since the news broke on that day in 2009. "There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about alcohol, but I'm sober, I have a beautiful son named Markos, and a successful business. Life is good," says Finks.
Life is so good that this rising star chef has purchased a second truck, which will serve dessert themed fare when it hits the streets in the coming months.