The Improv Chef of Walla Walla
You probably have seen them dozens of times: the mini-marts inside gas stations where you’ll often find deep-fryer-dipped chicken fingers, churros, and Jo-Jo’s. Havens for greasy, warmed-over food products. Normally, I avoid these places like the plague. But when Andrae Bopp laid eyes on the dilapidated food area of the Cenex Gas Station on 9th and Rose in Walls Walla, Washington, all he could see was a gigantic offer.
I met Andrae at a dinner hosted by the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce. I was there to speak to business leaders in the heart of Washington’s wine country about improv, collaboration, and innovation. After the workshop, heading up to one of the wineries for dinner, I had no idea that I would meet a living example of everything that I had just talked about.
The dinner, on the picturesque lawn of Basel Wineries, was catered by chef Andrae Bopp, who was trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and has worked at some of the world’s best restaurants. He glowed with pride as he introduced the menu, which included hand-smoked pork belly and salmon pastor. At the end, he slipped in the fact that he had just been voted National Food Truck of the Year, beating out major players from Chicago, Portland, Austin, and New York City.
The dinner that night was amazing! I was floored by the experience and didn’t want it to end, so I asked Andrae where I could sample more of his great food.
“Oh just stop by the gas station,” he told me. “We open at 8 for breakfast.”
The gas station??? I assumed it was some retro fueling station that had been converted into a hipster eatery.
The next morning, my wife and I walked over to the “gas station.” The first thing I noticed was, well… it was an actual gas station. Cars pulled in to fuel up alongside a parking lot packed with trucks, sedans, and a large motorcycle contingent. We walked into the gas station’s fully functioning mini-mart, with coolers of sodas and beer, racks of beef jerky and Cheetos, and, tucked into one side of the room, Andrae’s Kitchen.
I ordered the huevos rancheros (saving the Halal chicken and poutine for lunch). Andrae showed me his smoker in the back next to the tire pump and told me how he had improvised this extraordinary set-up. “Everyone told me I was nuts. I had a food cart that was doing gangbusters. I would park it here at the gas station, and the lines would stretch across the parking lot. The owner noticed this and asked me if I wanted a permanent home for the operation. I said ‘yes,’ and the rest is history.”
The creativity you witness at Andrae’s is vibrant and impressive. He sees possibilities in everything and has turned the offer of a gas station mini-mart into one of Eastern Washington’s must-find destinations. Go find it!