A cold sweat runs down my neck as I drive a food truck up Highway 101 to the Google campus in Mountain View. It’s my first time driving this type of vehicle and it’s huge compared to my two-door Mini Cooper. My truck driving instructors are just as nervous as I am. When I poke a mirror off a FedEx truck, we all scream.
The past seven months have been a whirlwind. Google and Off The Grid, a company that provides food truck marketplaces to collect and sell food, have accepted me into their incubator program where I can try my Indonesian food truck ChiliCali at Google locations before I go introduce him to the public. My days consist of cooking, preparing and serving food for 300 people. On the weekends I store demos and sell my cooking sauces at farmers’ markets. On other weekends, I have pop-up dinners in restaurants and cafes. I hardly sleep, I am constantly tired and I spend all my energy preparing, cooking and talking about the foods of my heritage. I am not complaining. This is my calling.
ChiliCali’s Nasi Campur: Steamed jasmine rice, Mie Goreng (fried noodles), shrimp sambal, roast pork and Balinese Urabalat with egg, tempeh and roasted peanuts
I started cooking with my mother in Jakarta when I was a teenager. She was a catering cook and I was her unpaid sous cook. I left her kitchen to go to college in the US because I wanted to see what other opportunities were out there for me. I got my degree in Mandarin Literature while working under the table in San Francisco restaurants to afford college, mostly in tourist areas like Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square.
After graduation, I worked in Silicon Valley, but I was very homesick. I missed my mom’s food and I missed speaking Indonesian. I didn’t feel like I had a community. In 2015, 10 strangers came to my house for my first weekly pop-up. They brought friends and their friends brought friends. Now I have a community that my regulars and friends are. In 2017 I quit my office job and rented a commercial kitchen to start my company ChiliCali. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, I catered, hosted pop-up dinners, and launched a range of Indonesian cooking sauces. I watched the Bay Area food community become aware of Indonesian food and applied to the off-the-grid food truck incubator program.
I chose the name ChiliCali because chili is what we eat with everything in Indonesia, and Cali stands for California because I get all my ingredients locally. I like the mobility of a food truck. Just like with my pop-ups, I can reach more guests this way. It is also the first Indonesian food truck in the Bay Area. San Francisco may be one of the best food cities in the country, but Indonesian food is still largely lacking. With fewer than five Indonesian restaurants, I often wonder if our food isn’t good enough for this city. It seems to be equally underrepresented across the country, and my fellow Indonesian cooking colleagues all have our own theories as to why that is.
Silitonga Marcus distributes lunch on Google’s campus.
My friends from Kaki Lima, a popular pop-up restaurant in Boston, have a good point: we have limited support back home. Thai cuisine broke out across the United States in part due to financial support from the Thai government, but the Indonesian government has been slower to promote our cuisine here. Less than 200,000 Indonesians live in the US, but our food still deserves recognition and almost everyone I cook it for agrees.