Bruxo conjures up shapeshifting cuisine for Santa Cruz
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS
It’s ten o’clock on a Monday night and Brooks Schmitt—the 29-yearold chef/owner of Bruxo Food Truck—stands in his 20-foot industrial kitchen trailer working his way through the prep list for the next day. He has just wrapped up two weeks of serving vibrant Burmese-inspired fare and tomorrow he will launch a rustic Japanese-style menu. In two weeks, Schmitt will spend another late night in the kitchen working on a new menu with new flavors that will transport his customers to an entirely different corner of the world.
This is the mad method behind the shapeshifting cuisine that has earned Schmitt a loyal following since landing in Santa Cruz last December. His food represents a fierce commitment to marrying local ingredients with exotic flavors in the format of a culturally specific, everchanging menu.
“I think real food is magic,” Schmitt says, while prepping tender spring onions from Dirty Girl Produce. “That’s why I named us Bruxo (pronounced BRU-ho, from the Portuguese word for sorcerer). The constantly changing menu allows for those magical moments—those times when the blood, sweat and tears that you’ve put into your cooking allow for things to come together in such a perfect way that you know you’ll never be able to recreate it. If we were making the same set menu then it would become a science, a mechanization. And it’s hard to find dynamism—it’s harder to find the magic—in mechanization.”
“I want to be a gateway drug to fine food.”
Mobile culinary magicians: Brooks Schmitt and his take on Burmese cuisine
For customers, the bruxaria can be found in the sophistication and complexity of flavor and texture experienced in every dish. The Burmese menu featured delicate rice flour pancakes with passion fruit chutney and ground Espelette peppers—a favorite of Schmitt that he calls “the third spice.” The chutney provided a sweetness up front and a tartness that lingered, while the pepper rounded out the dish with a brilliant red dusting and smooth, slow-to-build heat. His wok-simmered noodles were a triumph in layering with silky noodles, tender potatoes, crunchy peanuts, and juicy Fogline Farm chicken, all tossed in a vibrant red curry that had heat, but never overpowered. The compostable dishware is the only part of the experience that signals dining from a food truck.
Not surprisingly, Schmitt grew up steeped in fine food. His grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, were the original owner/operators of The French Laundry in Yountville and ran it for 16 years before selling to Thomas Keller in 1994. They then opened The Apple Farm in the Anderson Valley—an idyllic biodynamic property specializing in heirloom apples where Sally ran an intimate cooking school. Schmitt’s father, Johnny Schmitt, is the chef/proprietor of the Boonville Hotel and its family-style, prix-fixe restaurant.
“Honestly, I fought against cooking for a long time,” Schmitt says. Growing up he worked beside his family, but never wanted it as a profession. In 2010, during his senior year of studying classics at UC Santa Cruz, he started a hard cider company out of Boonville called Bite Hard, which he watched grow to national distribution before stepping away in 2015. After a “retirement” period in Santa Cruz spent working for the now-closed organic homebrew shop, Seven Bridges, Schmitt found himself back in Boonville and back in the kitchen. Within a year, Bruxo was born. “I think I always knew this is where I would be eventually,” he says with a laugh. “I guess this is my prodigal project.”
Schmitt, along with his childhood friend and sous chef, John Paula, were thoughtful in their decision to move Bruxo from the quaint-yetfine- dining-centric Anderson Valley to seaside Santa Cruz. “The Monterey Bay feels like a food frontier,” he explains. “It’s a hotbed for some of the most amazing farms in the world and I think curating that in an accessible way is a reason I’m here. I want to be a gateway drug to fine food.” With the average menu price of $12, Bruxo is certainly approachable. “I love that someone can walk up to this window who has never had anything like what we’re serving and they can get something fun and irreverent that is also made with the intention and care that I would put in while making an expensive prix fixe.”
Mobile culinary magicians: Sous chef John Paula at the stove and the scene outside Humble Sea Brewing Co.
Bruxo can be found at Humble Sea Brewing every Tuesday and Wednesday, and on a rotating schedule at other breweries, wineries and special events during the rest of the week. The arrangement is part of a larger trend of tasting rooms foregoing kitchens of their own to host a changing lineup of food truck/pop-up businesses that exist in Santa Cruz County without brick-and-mortar homes. “Santa Cruz creates a lot of challenges for mobile food businesses,” Schmitt explains, “so the symbiotic relationship that can exist with an established business, like a tasting room, is the easiest route to take.”
For the last six months Schmitt has been schooling himself on what he can and cannot do in Santa Cruz County—figuring out the loopholes and niches and the possibilities for the future. “The longer we’re here, the more creative we want to get,” he says. Some projects on the horizon include beer-pairing dinners, like the one slated for July 11 at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing as part of its Summer Supper Series, and pop-up brunches in the Humble Sea back garden. Schmitt is also cofounder of a new pop-up series launching in June called Standing Invite. Tickets will be offered on a sliding scale and the full details of each unique dinner will only be revealed the day of the event.
It’s clear that the shapeshifting philosophy of Bruxo extends beyond the cuisine. Schmitt approaches the future of the food truck the same way he approaches deciding what the next menu will be—patiently, thoughtfully and following his cravings. He waits until the current menu is dialed in before he even begins to daydream about what’s next. He examines what’s in season and looks to balance flavors, textures and ingredients with what came before. “I eat out of this truck,” he says. “If I can’t keep myself balanced and interested, then how can I expect others to be interested?”
Shapeshifting is also what will allow him to continue to grow in Santa Cruz—to balance and fill gaps in the continuously changing food landscape. “In many ways, this is an evolving art project,” he says. “We want to create something beautiful for our community. People work so hard to live here—we recognize that—and we want to create food as beautiful as the place we live.”
Bruxo Food Truck