If you’re looking for a dining experience like nothing you’ve tasted in San Francisco, Chef Anthony Strong and his ‘89 camper van named “Stella” is the one for you. We featured Anthony in the latest edition of The Common Flame, and now we had the honor to hear from the chef himself how he retro-fitted Stella into a “dining room on wheels” and how his journey with Stella began with a camping trip.
Check out the video below for a sneak peek into the interview and an exclusive look into Stella!
Who is Anthony Strong and what do you do?
I’m a chef in San Francisco, and I run a small-format catering service out of my camper van called “SuperStella.” We do dinners for up to four people at a time, safely. Every [dish] is cooked on a charcoal grill that I set up behind the van.
I’ve been cooking in San Francisco for, uhhh, fifteen years [laughs]. I used to run a local restaurant group for the first ten years and then took off on my own to do some cool, fun projects. I opened a restaurant that unfortunately was only a year old before COVID-19 hit. We turned it into a general store. It did really well for a little bit, until it didn’t. Once I made the call to shut [the restaurant] down, I wanted to camp as much as possible and keep cooking. Those ideas kind of collided into a . . . dining room on wheels [chuckles].
Did you have Stella before you shut down your restaurant?
No, no no. [laughs] I’ve just always been really into camping every chance I get. We’re on the northern California coast and it’s one of my favorite things to do.
But, COVID-19 kind of decimated the restaurant industry. Things got particularly rough in San Francisco and for my restaurant. After that, I just wanted to take some time to have some fun for a bit by camping and cooking things over charcoal. I had always wanted a camper van. I tried to think about what I could do that combines my love for camping and cooking that provides a safe dining experience for people in the meantime. I got the van, gutted it, installed some bleach ash banquettes, redid the upholstery in denim, made a cool dining table to sit at, and transformed the back to be able to hold everything I need for a mobile kitchen. We’ve been hustling dinners like this ever since. We do two seatings a night. Every night is an absolute blast.
How much inspiration did you take from your restaurant’s kitchen into Stella?
You know, it’s kind of funny. I designed and built my restaurant space, so I have some chops at doing design, some woodwork, and laying out spaces. The very first thing I needed to figure out even before I got the camper van was if I could get a standard, sixty-four inch booth inside. If I hadn’t been designing and running restaurants and knowing what that flow needs to feel like, I don’t think I would have been able to do it on a very small scale. I just did some drawings and got into the van to get a feel for the space. It was important I preserved as much of the original integrity of the camper van as much as possible. For instance, Stella already had a small pop-up table installed. I removed the original table and replaced it with this beautiful, laminated wood grain table I made and installed it into the original brackets. I kept some of Stella’s original features I felt added to the glamping dining experience. The cupholders of instance. I wanted people to enjoy this beautiful, gourmet glamping menu but also be reminded of the experience of taking a van like this out for an adventure.
What made you pick Stella?
I’ve always been infatuated with these [camper vans]. They are so cool, so iconic. They are so much fun, and they have that quirky, nerdy, camper van look to them. I knew I wanted something that was post ‘78, like an 80’s version that could hopefully still run [laughs]. I’m an ‘80s kid, so I wanted the camper van to give off this aura of nostalgia for our diners. Even our dining playlist is all ‘80s music. With the denim fabric over the booth seat, Stella just has that vibe.
My neighbor across the street has a camper van. As I was milling over this concept, I would look at her van. She even caught me with a tape measure as I was trying to see if I could fit a dining room inside one of these vans [laughs].
Stella’s quite the name. How did you get it?
The exact model for [Stella] is an 1989 VW White Star Vanagon. Since “White Star” was already in the name and the Italian word for star is “Stella,” it just kind of turned into that. Once my girlfriend and I saw the van, we knew she was a “Stella.” [laughs] It just stuck.
How long did it take to renovate Stella and start serving dinners?
[Laughs] Well, it took longer than I initially planned, because I kept going camping [laughs]. Like, I couldn’t get enough of it. I wanted to take Stella to every state park within three hours from San Francisco. For the first month, that’s what we did. We took Stella camping to get the feel for what I could do with the tiny little space here. That time was important to help me really get the feel and flow for serving dinners in a retro-fitted camper van. After that first month of solid camping, it only took my five or six days to do the renovation. I had such a solid plan after spending that month getting a feel for the space. We’ve been serving dinners ever since.
What was your biggest source of inspiration during that month of camping?
Just charcoal and grilling. Those things are such a big part of how I cook. I don’t like to make fancy, cute food at all. It’s totally not my thing. Those camping trips were great practice in cooking the types of dishes I would want to serve in the camper van, as well as helping me get a feel for the space and knowing how much gear and ingredient I would need to serve a handful of people at a time.
What type of food do you serve with Stella?
It’s very, very nerdy [laughs]. I mean the theme of the menu is “glamping,” so the first course is always soup served in a thermos. We do a fondue kept warm by the Solo Stove Lite. Oftentimes, we’ll do a whole grilled trout or tons of vegetables that we bury beneath the coals so they can slowly roast. For dessert, we do a fat slice of Japanese milk bread slathered in salted maple butter. It’s definitely not a cute, pastry chef type of dessert, but it’s how I want to cook and serve with Stella. Food that’s rustic, authentic, and reminds you those times you spent camping as a kid.