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Chef Robert Hesse announces new venture

Mark Parker



Chef Robert Hesse, a St. Petersburg native who spent two seasons on the cooking show "Hell's Kitchen," is launching a new culinary concept. Photos provided.

As an entrepreneur, Chef Robert Hesse has multiple business ideas he hopes to bring to fruition; his latest venture will merge two long-planned concepts.

Hesse is returning to his food truck roots with Grillaking. It will offer Korean and Mexican “confusion” cuisine, a play on the popular term for food that blends ingredients from different cultures.

For example, the Linkin Pork Korean Mandu features kimchi dumplings filled with mojo pork. Hesse – widely known for his two seasons on the hit cooking show Hell’s Kitchen – said the food truck will also embody “heavy metal and rock culture” and “being badass chefs with no apologies, riding the lightning and going on tour from city to city.”

“I want to have fun,” Hesse told the Catalyst. “That’s the beauty of fusion – paying respect to the culture of Mexican and Korean chefs who came before us. In an all-new way.”

Grillaking’s signature dish, the Bulgoritto, blends a traditional burrito with Korean accoutrements.

Hesse, a St. Petersburg native, compared the venture to a lead singer forming a new band. His will include childhood friend and business partner Matthew Crowley, formerly a managing partner at Metro Diner.

Crowley helped Hesse, who also appeared on the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay, launch the popular Fo’Cheezy Twisted Meltz food truck in March 2020. A St. Pete Beach restaurant followed that August.

A downtown St. Petersburg location opened to much fanfare in October 2021. “We grew that brand from its infancy and were able to turn it into something pretty incredible, with a great name around the area,” Crowley said.

“I’m really proud of where he’s (Hesse) come in his career and the changes he’s made in his life,” Crowley said. “The food we put out is definitely going to be something to behold, and the truck is going to be beautiful.”

Fo’ Cheezy’s downtown St. Petersburg location abruptly closed March 12. However, the artisan-style, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches remain available at the St. Pete Beach outpost and from the food truck.

Hesse wants to focus on mobile franchising opportunities and new challenges. He pledged not to abandon Fo’ Cheezy but said it has “matured enough to be self-sufficient.”

“What am I going to do, retire with Fo’ Cheesy?” Hesse asked. “I’m 46 years old and just had two heart attacks. I got a lot to give yet, creativity-wise.”

Hesse said he planned a Korean taco concept, Gorilla King, for six years. He also considered opening a rock-and-roll-inspired barbecue food truck, Grilltallica.

Grillaking merges the two ideas, and Hesse named menu items accordingly. Those include a Judas Beef Gogi Hoagie and From Whom the Egg Rollz.

The Rock N’ Seoul Chic sandwich.

“Robert (Hesse) is a creative force,” Crowley said. “That’s the fun part. Keeping the creative juices flowing and putting new, amazing things out into the community.”

Hesse called Tampa-based restaurateur Michael Stewart the operation’s “executive producer” who offered a record deal. Stewart owns Ava with former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, Lure and 717 South – where Hesse served as an executive chef until a January fire forced its temporary closure.

Hesse believes 717 South will reopen in November or December, giving him time to establish Grillaking. He plans a grand opening celebration for the food truck in May.

Hesse credited Stewart for believing in him, Crowley and the concept. Grillaking’s under-development website already shows multiple bookings, and Hesse noted the concept’s Facebook page garnered 600 followers in 24 hours.

“This truck is 31 feet of badass rolling thunder,” Hesse said. “If you love Fo’ Cheesy’s truck, this one is like 2.0. Bad to the bone and in your face.”

He said “tour” stops would include St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater and Orlando. “There is no place we will not go,” Hesse added.

He noted that food trucks can be highly profitable with relatively low upfront costs. Hesse’s focus is now on mobile units rather than brick-and-mortar locations and offering people an “easy and economical” way to start a business.

Injecting energy and joy into their daily routine was another attraction for Crowley and Hesse, who pledged to dedicate a percentage of Grillaking’s sales to public school music programs. He stressed the importance of promoting the arts and noted that everyone’s first instrument is the air guitar.

“If you’re going to be this bold with the fusion, you got to have the tenacity,” Hesse said. “And give them (customers) a sense of fun and nostalgia at the same time.”



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