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Paul Como was 32 years old when he realized what he wanted to be when he grew up: a chef.
The only problem was that he didn’t really know how to cook anything. He was living in Greensboro, N.C. and working as a mental health counselor. He cooked for the kids he was helping, but “I was just mixing things together, not really knowing what I was doing,” Como said. “I didn’t know how to cut an onion.”
Como had great taste, though. He loved trying new restaurants in town. He also had a background in retail management. He would watch Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and wonder how owners would allow their restaurant to fall apart so badly.
He finally decided to take the plunge and enroll in culinary school after he entered a cooking competition with a friend who was a professional chef. They made ribs together and were both surprised when they won, beating other local professional chefs.
“My friend said, ‘You seem pretty talented at this.’ There was a community college that offered a culinary program,” Como said. He knew he’d hit a ceiling at his current job, so he enrolled.
The school had a robust kitchen with high-end equipment. His teachers were former professional chefs with experience in gourmet restaurants and fast-paced kitchens. He didn’t just learn how to cut onions; he learned how to slice and dice and mince them. He prepared rabbit the whole way through, from the butcher to the dinner plate.
While he was in school, he had the opportunity to cook for a dinner party. One of the guests offered Como a job at a high-end seafood restaurant he owned, and Como took it. He started working with freshly caught seafood delivered daily and learned how to run a kitchen in the real world.
Within a few months, the owner asked Como to run the kitchen of a new location.
“It was like a wine bar but focused on spirits and cocktails and beer. They wanted to offer a food menu,” Como said. “When I started, they had a food truck and they cooked everything there.”
Como created the menu himself and would change it every month or two. Eventually, the restaurant built a brand new kitchen that he could cook out of, and he used the food truck for catering events.
He soon began experimenting with different cooking techniques like sous vide and using nitrous gas to create flavor infusions. His college had just started to offer classes on such techniques right before he graduated.
“I caught some of it at the end, but I didn’t get a chance to take the classes,” he said. “I read a lot about them because I realized it would become a trend and learning those techniques was important.”
Como worked at the restaurant for almost two years when he decided to move home to South Bend. He got a job cooking at the University of Notre Dame, where he would prepare meals for the football team and cooked for students in the north dining hall. The fast-paced environment taught him organization and time management skills, so he became more efficient while cooking. While he was there, Como became a Certified Sous Chef through the American Culinary Federation.
Then a friend told him that REAL Services was looking to hire a professional chef for their Meals on Wheels program, Simply Catering To You business and an eventual food truck. Como couldn’t pass up the opportunity. After all, he had experience with running a kitchen, catering and food trucks — and he loved the idea of using his skills and passion to help people.
When Como started at REAL Services in January 2017, he helped prepare food for the Meals on Wheels clients and worked with the catering business. In 2018, they started moving quickly on the REAL Grille food truck, and that became Como’s main focus. He helped pick out the equipment on the truck and built the first menu. Now, he spends most of his time at work with the REAL Grille food truck.
“We started with gourmet grilled cheeses,” Como said. “Then I wanted something that went out a little faster and was popular. I added tacos to the menu.”
He also experiments with different food items and adds limited-time specials to the menu. Recently, he used morel mushrooms to create a morel-leek flatbread that sold out quickly. Como’s goal is to make sure the REAL Grille food truck is offering fresh food that you can’t find at other restaurants around town.
“(The REAL Grille) can do things that other places aren’t doing. There’s so much food around here,” Como said. “We have stuff that changes frequently and ingredients that you don’t normally see. I think people are looking for that more experimental food that you might see in Chicago, but not necessarily here (in South Bend).”
Como preps all of the items on the food truck himself and cooks each item fresh as it’s ordered, so sometimes there’s a bit of a wait for the food. This summer, he plans to experiment with more salads and fresh, cold-serve items that can be faster to get out. He’ll change the menu with the seasons, depending on what produce is fresh and what foods people crave at different times of the year.
The REAL Grille is often requested by businesses to park in their parking lot during the lunch hours so employees can order fresh food. The food truck can also sometimes be found parked in downtown South Bend.
Como loves how supportive people have been so far, and he hopes to make the REAL Grille a fixture in the community so that he can serve people delicious food while raising money for a great cause.
“Everything I’m doing is literally going to help the Meals on Wheels program,” Como said. “At the end of the day, we’re helping people and I’m really proud of that. I think it’s cool to be able to use the skills that I have to cook, which I love, but also to help people at the same time.”