Love for people, veterans fuels local food truck owner in “Top Chef” winner’s contest
Published 12:20 am Tuesday, June 20, 2023
Jennifer Caldwell doesn’t work for the notoriety.
Despite ranking second in the country Monday in a contest with “Top Chef” personality Carla Hall, the longtime chef, food truck owner, veteran, mother and grandmother does everything with one thing in mind.
“Personal care is where my heart is,” Caldwell, 50, said. “The (Veterans Administration) is where my heart is. I’m military. My kids are military. My son-in-law is military. We just have a huge military family.”
Caldwell enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at age 17, finally able to join when she turned 18. The Oklahoma native served nearly four years before she retired with the birth of her first of five kids, which led to now five grandkids.
Her first job was in an Oklahoma restaurant, where she started as a waitress and then managed the salad bar.
“The owner saw I’m kind of particular about the way I do things and very military clean,” she said. “On a boat, if you get someone sick, they could die. So they’re very particular about food safety and cleanliness. They measure everything — six inches from the ceiling, six inches from the floor. And so I was used to that. He saw that in me just in this little salad table and he promoted me to the kitchen.”
She worked her way up to kitchen manager for about five years before managing a pizzeria. But as much as she loved cooking, she loved serving more.
So she went to nursing school.
But she says the restaurant industry and medical industry aren’t that far apart.
“It’s really not if you actually think about it,” she said. “They’re both service oriented. They’re both people oriented.”
Caldwell spent almost 20 years in nursing when COVID hit.
“I got involved working for VA in Beaumont,” she said. “I was an independent contractor for wound care. I set my own hours. And I really loved that. But COVID really did me in.
“I lost a lot of friends that I happened to take care of — good men and women. So I decided, probably about a year ago, that I really wanted out of nursing. It had just gotten so hard. It had moved away from patient care to governmental care. And it is a completely different beast; it’s a different animal. I am a people person. I take care of the whole person.”
And so she prayed while looking for options.
“About a year ago, I started writing down things that I could do and things that I was good at that would make enough money to pay our bills,” she said. “It’s not about fame or fortune or anything like that for me; it’s about helping as many people as I can.”
Almost 90 days ago, she and her husband Larry opened Luna Nashoba, LLC.
The food truck got its first start at the South Texas State Fair.
“Being nervous and starting at the fair level — that’s huge,” she said. “We were kind of sad; we didn’t even break even. I think that being sad, I was very sad and my husband reminded me it’s OK. My family has been such a huge support system. But that’s the only time we’ve ever walked away not making at least a dollar.”
Her husband, Larry, said the difference is in the delivery.
“We do it a little bit differently,” he said. “Everything we make is homemade. We do real hamburgers. We do real tacos. We make to order. Her cinnamon rolls are her own recipe. It’s not something we buy and throw at people. With her background she likes to do her recipes. It’s real food. For us we’re not worried about the easy. We want people to like the food.”
Since, Luna Nashoba has had tremendous success. During the recent Juneteenth festivities in Orange, they sold out of food multiple times.
“We do try to keep the cost low,” she said. “It’s easier to do from scratch, and doing everything from scratch is a labor of love.”
The contest with Carla Hall’s 2023 Favorite Chef Competition comes with a $25,000 prize and a spread in “Taste of Home Magazine.”
But should Caldwell win, she knows where that money will go — back to veterans as she and her husband work on their veteran-based non-profit.
Still, she’ll keep cooking.
“Faith is very big for me,” she said. “I believe that God asked my husband and I to start the food truck. I believe that so many people, because of COVID, have forgotten how to have fun and how to relax and how to not worry about things as much as we do. You shouldn’t have to worry that you’re going to go to the store around too many people. I know that’s a real concern; you still see people wearing masks.
“So God started dealing with my heart as far as nutrition and being healthy in my own life. Then feeding people and giving them just a smile again. I hope that we do that when we do food.”
The first round of voting for the 2023 Favorite Chef Competition ends Thursday, with contestants being cut to 20. Click here to vote.
Learn more about Luna Nashoba on Facebook, by calling 409-238-0760 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Written by Monique Batson