Shift Drinks: Karl Deuben

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Along with Bill Leavy, Karl Deuben is the co-owner of Small Axe Truck in Portland, Maine. He is pictured here with a Sazerac made with Bulleit Rye.

Why did you select a Sazerac? 

I love Rye whiskey. It tends to be a little bit drier than bourbon. A Sazerac obviously has a lot of things involved in it. Years ago when Bill [Leavy, co-owner of Small Axe Truck] and I were still working together at Hugo's, we went to New Orleans for vacation and that was the drink of choice when I wasn't too hung over or when I didn't have too much heartburn going on…

Or it was the cause of hangovers and heartburn.

Exactly. Sometimes you need to hair of the dog, but sometimes it took me a little while to get back into the swing.

New Orleans is famous for that drink and it made a nice memory to have associated with that cocktail. And again, I enjoy the Rye, and you have the Absinthe in there so it makes for an interesting cocktail.

That's a lot of emotions to go through in a beverage.

It is and I go through a lot of those. I have an interesting personality in that way sometimes.

If you threw tequila in there, it would be an emotional massacre.

A disaster.

You decided to take on the food truck at the start of their introduction into Portland, and so not only was it a big leap of faith to get into a new business, it was a big leap of faith because the waters were generally untested.

Maybe it was naivety or maybe it was blind faith. We were looking for restaurant locations outside of the city and that was proving difficult. Rob Evans [owner of Duckfat and former owner of Hugo's] brought up that the Good Shepherd Food Bank had bought a food truck and suggested that we come take a look at it and help to operate that. The way that Rob was trying to sell that idea was that we could learn how to operate a business on a small scale. One of the fears I was having about owning and operating a restaurant was about whether or not I had the knowledge about owning a business I needed to operate a successful enterprise.

We went up and looked at the Good Shepherd truck, but we also ended up looking at trucks online in addition to physical spaces. The cost of a truck that was relatively finished compared to building out a restaurant was extremely reasonable. I was more comfortable borrowing a smaller amount of money to start out than a larger sum. I think both of us looked at it as a stepping stone to opening up a larger restaurant. It has certainly taken a bit longer than we both anticipated, but that's where it started.

So it's been a leap of faith. We had faith in our food and our skills. Bill and I have worked together off and on for 12 years. He is a good friend and a trusted co-worker. At the very least, we could get our names associated with our food.

Without being precious, your food is perhaps more sophisticated than one might expect to get from a truck. How did you decide to go that route?

It is food that we like to cook in a style we thought was accessible for people who would be coming to a food truck. We wanted to put into our business everything we had learned at Hugo's and Miyake. Bill had been in New York and I was in Chicago, and we wanted to utilize the techniques and philosophies behind cooking food that we had picked up over time. You have to have pride in what you are doing. This isn't necessarily the optimal business model, but we are very proud of the food that we execute.

As I understand it, part of your decision to take on a food truck was you thought that it would provide for you a schedule that would make it possible to find more time to spend with your family. How did that end up working out?

It is the plight of the restaurant life. I had thought about getting out of it for a long time, but it is what I enjoy doing. It is what I think about and it was my hobby before it became a profession. Now it is kind of both. But I thought that we would do some breakfast and lunch and do a couple of events here and there, but it really controls your schedule. There is the loading and unloading and there are four to five hours of setup and breakdown, where you might just have two hours of that at a restaurant. A lot of people will unplug their truck and come back the next day, but we will clean, scrub and re-container everything. Maybe it's a little more than we have to do, but outside of the actual cooking there is a great deal of work. We are working in the morning and at night, so where I thought it would give me more time with my family, it actually took more time away.

How do you describe the sort of people who do well within this industry? Who thrives in it?

Maybe there is a masochistic element in some capacity. I don't know. The hours are long and the pay is generally not very good for people in kitchens. I have no idea. I have been thinking about that for a long time. I know that in general I am more comfortable with the way that people in this industry think about the process of creating things. It is tangible. With food, everything is directly within your control. I was an English major, but with words it was always hard for me to get across visceral experiences. With food, it is very tangible and it covers all of the senses.