It was awesome chatting with Jay Thornhill and Charlie von Aspern from The Bus Stop Bistro in Carencro, LA. Diving into their culinary journey was enlightening, and I feel like I've made two new buddies along the way. Big thanks to you guys for letting me share your story!
From humble beginnings in the dish pit to becoming the proud co-owner of The Bus Stop Bistro, Charlie von Aspern's culinary journey is nothing short of inspiring. In an enlightening interview with Jason Stoner, Charlie, and his partner Jay Thornhill unraveled their intriguing journey.
Charlie's culinary journey began in 1994, at the age of 16, when he started working in a kitchen in the Central Valley of California. He worked his way up from washing dishes to head of housekeeping at a hotel in Colorado. His passion for the culinary world was ignited during summer layoffs when he had to help in the hotel's kitchen. Impressed by Charlie's skills, the Food and Beverage Director suggested he attend culinary school.
After several summers working in the kitchen and an unfortunate job loss due to the hotel's sale, Charlie and his wife decided to move to Pennsylvania. They explored the eastern part of the United States while working minimal jobs to pay the bills. But the tragedy 9/11 prompted their return to California, where Charlie finally pursued culinary school in 2001.
Charlie attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco for two years and gained practical experience through a six-month internship. Unlike most interns, Charlie was offered a job at his internship place, starting his professional career earnestly. In 2004, he moved to Louisiana with his wife Jolee’ and started working at various restaurants, eventually becoming the Executive Chef at Holiday Inn.
At the Holiday Inn, he caught the attention of the Chef Dean at the Petroleum Club, who, after sampling Charlie's catered food, persistently sought to bring him into his kitchen. This opportunity led to a seven-year tenure as Dean's sous-chef. Following this, Charlie took an executive chef position at Baker Hughes in Broussard, where he enjoyed a desirable schedule and the ability to manage his kitchen.
The journey to owning a restaurant began with an idea suggested by Jay's father, Stan. Tired of making money for others, they decided to start a food truck business with a loan from Jay's mother, Cathy.
The Bus Stop Bistro owners Charlie von Aspern and Jay Thornhill delved into the origin of their food truck turned-restaurant concept. With the absence of a burger truck in Lafayette, their initial idea was born. They had the funds to start a food truck but not a full-fledged restaurant, so they decided to do a few things well - their focus being burgers.
The Bistro's early food truck days saw the team alternating between 10 stops from Tuesday through Friday. Their location varied every other week, allowing regular patrons to anticipate their return eagerly. Their locations ranged from Kaliste Saloom, downtown Lafayette, and some spots near the campus. Night times, mainly weekends, were reserved for festivals, parties, or even late-night street vending to cater to the local night owls.
This unique model worked remarkably well for them. They realized that people going out late at night often had few options for a good meal, and the food truck was an instant hit. Even towards the early morning, when the bar crowds were dying down, the food truck was cooking, ready to serve the late-night stragglers.
Jay Thornhill, who also handles the front-of-house services at the Bistro, shares his journey. A native of a small farming town in California, Jay served in the Army for three years before eventually moving to Lafayette. Initially intending to stay only for six months, he fell in love with the town and made it his home.
The conversation also reveals Jay's prior experience in the hospitality industry, having worked at locations like Poets, Prejeans, and Dupuy's Seafood and Steak before starting the food truck and eventually the Bistro. This experience lends itself to the exceptional service guests can expect at the Bus Stop Bistro.
The restaurant's passion and love for their craft are palpable, as the owners personally engage with their customers, even sharing recipes. For Charlie von Aspern, sharing these recipes provides insight into the workings of their kitchen. However, he quickly points out that not all their creations are easy to replicate, adding a layer of magic to their culinary art.
The owners, Jay Thornhill and Charlie von Aspern make a point of keeping their culinary processes open, ever-evolving, and adaptable to customer feedback. "We may give a recipe out someday, and somebody may go do something with it, and that may inspire us to do something else with it," said Thornhill, highlighting the idea of mutual culinary inspiration.
They are even open to the possibility of patrons requesting recipes. This doesn't daunt them in the slightest. Von Aspern quickly agreed, suggesting they might share their unique charred cherry tomato recipe that had delighted many a palate.
The duo also emphasized that not all excellent dishes require elaborate recipes. Some of their mind-blowing dishes are deceptively simple like pork cracklins served with yogurt—a pairing that, as Thornhill pointed out, "no one thinks about," but makes for a delightful culinary surprise. They believe that there's no need to "chef up" dishes that thrive in their simplicity.
Running a restaurant involves constant juggling between maintaining high-quality food and managing costs. Their commitment to using fresh ingredients often translates to higher prices. While they are aware of the challenges this presents, Thornhill and von Aspern believe their clientele appreciates the quality and effort they put into their dishes.
When asked about their favorite part of their job, von Aspern's response was pure culinary passion. He savors the quiet morning hours, setting the pace for the day, ensuring everything is in place for the busy lunch hour rush. He lives by the concept of "mise en place," a French culinary phrase meaning "everything in its place," which, according to von Aspern, is crucial for a smooth-running kitchen.
Despite their fresh food ethos, the duo does have to shop around for supplies frequently. Their dry storage is small, and their freezer is even smaller, so they must be out shopping three to four times a week. They also rely on local suppliers for fresh ingredients. For example, they get fresh meat from Lagneaux’s Meat Market on Ridge Road.
Jay Thornhill explained how this restriction helped shape their approach. They stuck to a small menu, aiming to perfect each dish. Thornhill expressed his preference for a casual restaurant setting, though he revealed Charlie had a leaning towards more fine dining options. They found a middle ground, offering a simple lunch menu and more upscale choices for dinner. When the Bistro transitioned from a food truck into a brick-and-mortar building, they already had a solid customer base. The success of their burgers led them to continue with their tried-and-true menu, but they also started experimenting with nightly specials.
Jason praised these specials, acknowledging the creativity they added to the menu. Despite The Bus Stop Bistro being a 30-minute drive from his place, he championed the restaurant as a destination worth traveling to. Thornhill admitted to their struggle with location, as people tend to head into Lafayette city when they think of dining out. He expressed his desire to highlight Carencro as a great food spot and make The Bus Stop Bistro a destination for people around Lafayette.
Jay and Charlie are so grateful for all their faithful customers and employees that have helped make The Bus Stop Bistro the success it is today. They also wanted to thank their employees—front of house waitstaff: Lindsy Prejean and Emily Trahan, that’s been with them from the first day of opening the Bistro, Isabel Roy and Rachael Comeaux. Back of house kitchen: Grill cook—Melissa Pesacreta-Savell, Nathan Miller and James Clark.
Swing by The Bus Stop Bistro located at 3823 N University Ave, in Carencro, Louisiana—you will not be disappointed!
The Food of The Bus Stop Bistro: