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TULSA – He’s a culinary school dropout who hasn’t managed to leave the stove.

“I’m pretty good at this. I like to burn stuff,” laughs Justin Phillips, who is Cherokee and Ponca.

Coincidentally, he dropped out of culinary school to go fight wild fires even though he had enrolled in culinary school to end his firefighting career.

“I was out in Talihina working for the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs),” he said. “It was a good job.”

But cooking was what he was truly good at.

“I started (in the restaurant business) on my birthday. When I turned 16, I started at El Chico in Muskogee. I started washing dishes. A year later, I was pretty much co-kitchen manager of that place,” Phillips said.

Now in his 30’s, Phillips is getting a taste of success as the owner of LeGrubs Catering Company. He operates a popular food truck on the weekends and counts two Tulsa hotels among his regular clientele.

Today, he’s talking food and dreams while cooking up a meal for a Tulsa Cancer Society luncheon. Chicken breasts are charring on the grill while Phillips sautés roasted red potatoes with fresh bell peppers, Vidalia onions and lots of seasoning.

“I try to do fresh stuff all the time. You can taste the difference if it comes off a truck frozen or fresh from the market,” Phillips said.

The garden salad on today’s menu comes fresh from the Tahlequah Farmer’s Market.

“I did this menu all in my head right before I walked in. I had a whole other plan. But decided it just didn’t sound good,” he said.

The menu may have been off the cuff, but he had to go with what was fresh.

“It was all about the arugula. I couldn’t get any arugula.” He chuckled as he jerked his pan of sizzling peppers off the stove and sent the veggies flying up and over with a snap of his wrist. He thumped the pan back on the burner and turned his attention to the chicken smoking on the grill. Time pull the chicken and grill the asparagus.

One day he’ll have his own garden to ‘shop’ from and plan his menus around. He’s in the process of developing his own organic farm and says he intends to plant specialty greens, micro greens, rainbow carrots, parsnips, and turnips – among other produce - to use in his own kitchen and sell at farmer’s markets and to high-end restaurants.

“I remember my grandparents were always working in the garden…pulling potatoes, picking okra and shelling peas while watching Hee-Haw,” he said.

He’s living on his grandparents’ place so it’s only fitting he carry on that gardening tradition. It’s a hefty commute to drive to work in Tulsa, but it’s worth it.

“I just don’t have that stress of living in the city,” he said. “I like being out at the old place in the country.”

During the week he’s cooking for both the Clarion Inn and the Hilton Garden Inn hotels at the Tulsa airport. On the weekends he’s running his LeGrubs food truck, hitting events and festivals and the late night bar crowd.

Although he started his catering business a few years ago, the food truck took a little time, because as Phillips says, “I don’t want to put anything on my plate I can’t eat.” He means that financially as well as gastronomically.

“I just saved my money for it. Saved and saved and bought the truck. It was a Wonder Bread truck.”

When you see the shiny black beast, you’d never know the truck had its start in life delivering bread. It’s totally transformed, housing a commercial kitchen on the inside and a bold paint job on the outside. Formal script identifies the truck as LeGrubs. A chef hat-wearing skull hovering over a set of cutlery ‘crossbones’ logo provides an edgy contrast and a nod to Phillips’ sense of humor.

“I wanted something edgy. I wanted something that personified me as a person and as a chef...bold, willing to take risks… and a little wild,” he said.

He’s served the gamut from the truck – from a dinner party of 500 to a nursing home.

“Old people are hard. They will tell you straight up your food sucks. You can spend three hours or more on the meal and they’ll still tell you they didn’t like it,” Phillips said. He laughs and adds that little kids are hard too.

“I made my son homemade alfredo. He didn’t like it, so what did he do? He went to grandma’s house for a PBJ and some chips.”

Phillips just shook his head.

“What can you do?”

For more information or to find where LeGrubs will be each weekend, check or call Phillips at 918-944-8809.

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