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The Zest: After Surviving Fire, Chef Rene Valenzuela Says 'I'm Going To Do What I Am Meant To Do'

Rene Valenzuela
Courtesy photo
Rene Valenzuela

Chef Rene Valenzuela brought Mexican cuisine to Tampa Bay by way of the food truck, well before food trucks were trendy.

He’s best known as the founder and former owner of Taco Bus. Rene’s life and career came to a standstill two years ago, when he was burned in a horrific kitchen fire.

He says he learned a lot about himself during his recovery -- and now he's ready for his next venture. This time he's teaming up with Jamal Wilson, owner of Hall on Franklin in Tampa, and expanding to Orlando.

The Zest podcast host Robin Sussingham spoke to Rene about  his accident; the food from his home region of Mexico; and what to make for Cinco de Mayo.

Robin: Tell me why you started out with a food truck:

"I had a few restaurants in Mexico before I came here. But when I got here, it was too expensive to open a real restaurant, because you had to have exhaust hoods and grease traps and ADA compliance -- and before you know it,  it's a lot of money...In Mexico, especially back in the day, you know, you put a grill in the front and some tables and chairs and you were in business."

You say everybody has a food truck now. So what's next?

"To me, the next step is the food halls...this experience of having those different little places that are chef-driven, small, independent, with very interesting food all together under one roof with A/C and table service."

You were in a terrible fire. But you look great now.

"I took the whole of 2018 to recuperate. I was in the hospital for a few months; I almost died.  You know,  people tell me 'Oh, that was close.' That was not 'close.' I knocked on the door. I touched the door of death. And I refused to go in."

How did that experience change you?

"I couldn't work for a whole year, and there were very expensive medical bills and and all of that. So then coming out of it, I thought, 'what am I going to do?' But then you say, 'No. Life is so short. I'm going to do what I'm meant to do. I don't care, you know, I'm going to do what's very deep in me, in my love for my craft, and for what I have to contribute to the world.' And it's been very difficult, getting my footing back. But it's got to be this priority, that I've got to make a living doing what I love."

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Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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