Like many people Carlos Serrano learned to cook from the people in his family before him. Growing up as a child he watched as his grandmother made delicious meals for his family on a regular basis.
Since that time Serrano, 44, has taken those lessons and used them to make a name for himself as The Empanada Guy with a popular food truck based in Port Reading. Now the Freehold resident is in a competition on the Lifetime Channel’s Supermarket Superstar, looking to bring his fried specialties to supermarkets across the country.
Competing against other chefs from around the country is not how Serrano started his professional career or where he thought it would take him. Originally working for United Airlines he said he started bringing empanadas for his coworkers for lunch, eventually earning the nickname “Empanada Man.” The name stuck and changed slightly from there. “It wasn’t my idea,” he said. “I never gave the name to myself.”
Eventually the business of making empanadas grew from supplying restaurants to Serrano wanting to get on the food truck bandwagon. “I told my wife we have to change something here,” he said. “Let me be who I really am, a guy with red shoes and a red bandana and sells empanadas.”
Since that time, that is exactly what he has done not only making a name for himself through his truck but also selling to “top of the line chefs,” through his professional kitchen. With a variety of 12 empanadas to choose from Serrano said he has a machine that can churn out 600 empanadas an hour. Making six or seven on a given day he makes anything from a beef or chicken empanada to one stuffed with juicy delicious lobster. “It’s been in the works for a couple of years,” he said. “It’s basically a lobster bisque soup. In this case you get the cream but you also get all the meat inside it.”
Hoping to get his empanadas into mass circulation, Serrano said he believes people will like something new to cook at home in their kitchens. It was his wife’s idea, he said, to compete on the show. “She said this is exactly what you want because you always want to get your product on supermarket shelves,” he said. “There’s really nobody representing the product so I said I’m going to do it. I’m going to represent the product and put my product on the shelves.”
Whether he wins the contest or not, Serrano said everything he does comes back to his grandmother. “It’s a very touchy subject. She’s been gone for so long, but she lives in my memory every day.” He added, “It’s strange because I got influenced by her, but you don’t see those things until you get older. You start realizing the things she used to tell you and I said you know what, she was right about a lot of things.”
Serrano said one of the biggest lessons he learned from her was the work ethic he uses every day. “She taught me if you’re going to start something then do it,” he said. “She had a third grade education but she was an amazing cook and an amazing human being.” Even though she couldn’t read, he said she always carried a bible with her and taught him a lot about faith.
He has taken those lessons and taught them to his children along with his wife Gigi. “My kids don’t know me any different,” he said. “They know me as the Empanada Guy.” His oldest daughter Jessica was just 4-years-old when he started this business and since then has seen him go through a lot. “They saw me struggle, they saw me cry, they saw me broke. They saw daddy running out of gas because I didn’t have money.”
Now they see him not only succeeding but thriving and taking his talents to the national level. “They saw me getting rejected from restaurants,” he said of bringing his little ones on sales pitches. “Those restaurants are still buying from me to this day.”
During his time on the show Serrano had the opportunity to learn from mentors like Chef Michael Chiarello and Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies fame. He said he tried to not be starstruck while learning from them. “They are who they are,” he said. “Mrs. Fields is part of Americana in this type of business and Chef Michael, he just basically is upfront. He’s one of the top chefs in the country. When I saw he was on the roster and I got to be part of it I was like ‘whoa,’ but I took it all in stride.”
He said he took many lessons from them on a variety of topics. “It’s gratifying to see people like that in your industry coming down to work with people that want to get in the industry and get advice from them.”
If Serrano has his way, the empanada will be a popular choice for consumers across the country. “My goal is to make the empanada like the hot dog, like the hamburger or the taco.”
To find out more about Serrano check out his Facebook page.