Through the cool, spring breeze and the slow stream of traffic heading Uptown for lunch, the scent of cayenne pepper, flour and special Creole seasonings fills the air. It's Food Truck Friday in Charlotte and Gwen Square and her three sons — Montero, Darrel and Derrick — are gearing up for yet another busy shift inside Mae's Creole Kitchen, their family-owned food truck.
Sure, there's usually half a dozen other trucks around on days like these and some even have similiar offerings but the difference between Square's truck and all the rest is the genuine Creole flavor.
The daughter of French, Native American and Spanish parents was taught to cook by her mother at the age of 11 and by the time she was 13 it was her full responsibility to prepare all her family's meals.
Fast forward to 2017 and Square has not only passed the Creole tradition down to her own children and grandchildren but is also sharing the spicy southern flavors with locals.
Her truck has served thousands all over the Carolinas and after three years is still going strong. We headed over to Mae's to find out how they keep their truck rolling.
Creative Loafing: So lets get this straight: your mother trained you to cook for two years and then turned all the reins over to you at age 13? Tell us more.
Gwen Square: (Laughs) Yes, my mother showed me all the secrets to great Creole cooking step by step starting back when I was 11.
Then when I turned 13 she was like, "OK, it's your job now and I'm going to pay you to do it. So she paid me $10 a week, which back in those days was a lot of money, and I cooked everything from jambalaya to gumbo.
You name it, I made it, and that's how I became good at it. Cooking was truly my first job and I made enough money from my mom to buy my very first car at graduation, a beautiful lime green Ford Pinto (laughs). This was back in the '70s, so yeah, I was styling.
Your business is a family affair. What is everyone's role and how did you build to that point?
Well, we decided to start the truck back in 2014. One day my son Darrel, who already frequented food trucks, came up to me and said he really thought we should consider starting a truck of our own. From there we had a family meeting and all of us agreed it was a great idea so we put a plan in motion.
I come up with all the recipes and cook our special creole dishes. My son Montero handles all the maintenance and cleaning. My other two sons, Darrel and Derrick, do all the frying. My two daughters-in-law handle all the marketing and even my little granddaughter Peneleope who's 3 comes by for visits. So yes, everyone in the family is very involved.
We've seen people literally flag your customers down to ask about your Creole fried shrimp and other dishes. What the heck is it that makes your food so addictive and enticing?
Well, it all starts with good high quality seafood and also the right seasonings and flavors. Anybody can fry shrimp but if you want food that's going to keep people coming back you have to have great ingredients and extra care. With our shrimp, we always use the best seafood sources possible and then comes the family secret.
We use a blend of Louisiana batter and local batter along with other spices to add layers of flavor. When you see people using cocktail and tarter sauce you know something's wrong. With good shrimp you don't need all that. At the end of the day the job is not easy, but with a little revamping, a little hard work and a whole lotta love, my family and I will be serving Charlotte for many years to come.