Norwalk family competing on Food Network show

NORWALK -- Growing up in a household dominated by females, Javier Crespo Jr. says it was only natural that his formative years were mostly spent in the kitchen, cooking authentic Mexican meals for the entire family. “I grew up with three sisters, my mom, and my grandma,” said Crespo, 29. “I just gravitated toward the kitchen from an early age.”

Crespo’s infatuation with cooking has proven beneficial – today he’s a contestant on the Food Network’s wildly popular show “The Great Food Truck Race.”

Now in its fifth season, the reality show normally pits food trucks against each other as they compete for prizes. But this season has a twist, with culinary teams competing to win their very own food truck. Crespo is captain of a three-member team that includes his wife, Senorina, who operates a daycare, and mom, Luisa, a nanny.

Filming took place over seven weeks earlier this year, with teams traveling from Santa Barbara all the way east to Key West, Fla. There were multiple stops along the way.

Filming has wrapped but Crespo -- bound by a confidentiality agreement -- is tight-lipped about the results.

“But I can say it was the experience of a lifetime,” he says with a grin. “Besides competing on the show, I got to see the country. Before this I had never traveled outside California except to Texas and TJ.”

A 2003 graduate of Norwalk High School, Crespo moved to Norwalk with his family at age 10. After graduating high school, he reluctantly enrolled at Cerritos College but dropped out after two years.

“It just wasn’t for me,” Crespo says. “My passion was in culinary arts.”

He enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, a respected culinary school in Hollywood, but it was a decision that did not come without repercussions. “My dad was really against the idea,” Crespo admits. “He was paying for me to go to Cerritos College, but he wouldn’t pay for culinary school. I just think he had a different vision for me. He didn’t speak to me all through culinary school.”

Crespo pressed forward and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu’s Kitchen Academy in 2007, majoring in French cuisine. Degree in hand, Crespo and his father were able to patch things up. “I think he saw that this is really what I want to do,” Crespo said.

Crespo found work at upscale restaurants in Manhattan Beach and Hollywood, often preparing meals for A-list stars. Today he is an assistant research and development chef for Ketotherapeutics, helping develop nutritious meals prepared specifically for cancer patients.

Last March he caught a marathon of season 4 of “The Great Food Truck Race” and saw an advertisement soliciting applications for the upcoming season. Crespo gave it a shot. Three days later he was contacted by producers and told to go in for an audition.

Crespo’s culinary team originally included his two best friends, but one dropped out early and was replaced by Crespo’s mom. Another friend backed out on the day of the audition, and Crespo’s wife gamely stepped in.

In early April, Crespo was informed his team was selected for the show, beating out more than 10,000 applicants. He was given three weeks to develop his own distinct menu for a food truck he called Madres Mexican Wheels.

“We decided on Mexican food with a twist,” Crespo says. “I took my mom’s and grandma’s recipes. Our specialty was huevos rancheros but we also served albonigas, ceviche, tostadas, cinnamon nachos and steak quesadillas.”

The menu purposely had one glaring omission: tacos.

“We wanted to let people know Mexican food is more than tacos,” Crespo says. “We could tell some people were disappointed but we tried to get them to try something different.”

Eight food trucks are competing this season, with one truck eliminated each week. The season premiered last Monday, and Madres Mexican Wheels survived the first episode.

Crespo and his team were dubbed “Team Cry Baby” in the first episode, due to his mom’s habit of constant crying, usually out of happiness.

“I hate to see my mom cry, so then I would cry,” Crespo laughed. “It was just constant crying but that’s how we really are. It wasn’t for the cameras.”

This season of “The Great Food Truck Race” features four Southern California teams, including Madres Mexican Wheels, but three of those teams – from Pasadena, Venice and the valley – are referred to on the show as hailing from Los Angeles. Crespo, however, was adamant about representing his hometown.

“I made it be known that I’m from Norwalk, not L.A.,” Crespo says. “My mother and father brought me here. It’s where I’m from. I told [producers] that I wanted to be listed from Norwalk and they were OK with that.”

Without knowing the show’s outcome, Crespo was asked if he would still consider operating a food truck, possibly in Norwalk.

“I would definitely operate a food truck,” he says. “But not in L.A. There’s way too many food trucks here...Maybe somewhere in the East.”