WILMINGTON — Long gone are the weeks when Tripp Engel was working overtime in Wilmington’s upscale restaurant scene. Now he’s doing his own thing, serving Rastafarian vegan food from the city’s newest food truck, Vital Seen.
Inspired by the food diet known as Ital, which uses purely natural ingredients to enhance one’s ‘livity,’ or life energy, Engel’s menu reflects a Rastafarian philosophy influenced by Jamaican, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Indian food cultures.
“I wanted it to be healthy and tasty, and I didn’t want it to be a vegan truck that’s trying to create meat substitutes. I didn’t want to have fishless fish tacos or meatless meatloaf,” he said.
Engel, an executive chef for Brasserie du Soleil for 12 years, got his first kitchen job in the late eighties when he was 14 years old — illegally, he noted — for a sandwich shop on Long Beach in Oak Island.
“I got paid under the table, four bucks an hour, cash,” he recalled.
After years spent moving up the ladder in the restaurant world, Engel became a line cook at downtown Wilmington’s Circa 1922 restaurant in the spring of 2005. He then began spearheading the creation of Brasserie, and after opening the new restaurant within the year, he led the kitchen there for over a decade.
In 2016 he became the executive chef at Circa 1922 — at the time, both were owned by the Circa Restaurant Group — then called it quits in the summer of 2019.
“I just got to the point in my life where, number one, I was ready to get out of the restaurant environment,” Engel said. “I didn’t like the stress.”
Although he had learned a great deal during his career, and had loved it for a time, he said it was time to cook the food he actually wanted to cook for less privileged customers. And he wanted to take better care of himself with the arrival of a baby; many colleagues over the years had developed health issues due to the demanding nature and fast-paced culture of the restaurant world, he said.
When Engel decided to start his own food truck business, he researched different truck options for months, even traveling to a food truck manufacturer in Virginia before he heard about a retired truck sitting in a repair shop in Castle Hayne. It took a year, he said, to install the electrical wiring, plumbing, walls, and kitchen equipment — all with the counsel of Catch the Food Truck Chef Keith Rhodes — before getting it up to code for the county food inspections department.
Tim Armstrong, on his way to the beach from New Jersey, orders what he would later say is the best drink he’s ever tasted. Called agua de Jamaica throughout South America, and ‘sorrel’ in Jamaica itself, it’s made from dried hibiscus flowers. (Port City Daily photos/Mark Darrough)
His menu is simple, just like his newfound goal with the food he serves — no longer to tables covered in white cloth but from a window to guys like Tim Armstrong, in town from New Jersey.
“Alkaline is the objective. No acid. Starch brings acid,” Engel told Armstrong, who said he was lured in by the truck’s logo next to the order window: a circle outlined in red, yellow and green, resembling the flag of Ethiopia, with the words, ‘Roots, Garden, Food’ above a cluster of palm trees.
“[The food philosophy] comes from the word ‘Ital,’ which means pure and natural from the earth. That’s what the Rastafarian diet is. If it doesn’t come from Mother Earth, you don’t eat it,” Engel explained.
The alkaline diet, he said, originates from a belief that acidic foods can affect the overall acidity of the body — proponents of the diet say that lower pH levels help and treat and prevent diseases — which is why he tries to avoid starches like sweet potatoes and French fries.
The menu includes Okra Chaat (Indian influence), Falafel Bowl (Egyptian), Quinoa Tabbouleh (Lebanon and Syria), and Mujaddara (an old Arab dish consisting of lentils and rice covered in sautéed onions). While developing his food concept, he said he was particularly intrigued by a theory that the Egyptians began making falafels hundreds of years before other Arab nations began cooking their own versions of the deep-fried balls of chickpeas and fava beans.
Armstrong, who was heading to Wrightsville Beach when he pulled over at the parking lot of the Triangle Lounge to try the food, was particularly excited about a drink known throughout South America as agua de Jamaica. A dark purple, it is made from infusing dried hibiscus flowers.
“It has a sweet flavor to it but isn’t so overpowering,” Armstrong said, reggae music playing overhead. “It’s got a little bit of a bitter taste to it as well, and they complement each other. Honestly it’s like nothing I’ve ever had before. It’s a little hard to describe: It’s so refreshing and I want another one.”
Five minutes later, Armstrong returned to the window and ordered another drink before heading to the beach.
Catch the truck this weekend. On Friday (11 a.m. – 1:20 p.m.) it will be parked at the Eagle Island Seafood shop off U.S. 421 just over a mile north of the Isabel Holmes Bridge (2500 US 421). On Saturday (1 – 6 p.m.), it will be again parked in front of the Triangle Lounge (5920 Wrightsville Avenue).
Send tips and comments about Wilmington’s food and beer scene to the reporter at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com, @markdarrough on Twitter, and (970) 413-3815