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TBX Chefs.jpg Photo courtesy of Alicia Kelso
(From left): Lawrence Smith, Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin, and Rueben Asaram were chosen as the inaugural chefs for Taco Bell's TBX program.

Meet the emerging chefs chosen to reimagine Taco Bell’s signature Crunchwrap

Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin, Reuben Asaram, and Lawrence Smith were chosen as the inaugural chefs for Taco Bell’s TBX program.

Chefs Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin, Reuben Asaram, and Lawrence Smith have all crafted impressive resumes in their respective hometowns of San Antonio, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. But, as is often the case in the restlessly creative world of culinary, they all want more.

For now, Dobbertin, a repeat 2023 and 2024 James Beard Award semi-finalist, is busy running Best Quality Daughter, which she first opened alongside two friends in 2018 and five years after opening her first brick and mortar concept, Hot Joy. Best Quality Daughter has since become a San Antonio staple featuring Asian-American cuisine with a South Texas influence.

“My mom is Chinese, but I was born in Texas and so my food is a lot of what it’s like to grow up in Texas with a Chinese mom. I also lived in Bangkok for about six years, so there’s a lot of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Texas influence,” she said during a recent interview.

Despite the vigor required to run a busy restaurant, Dobbertin is thinking about opening more concepts.

“I think I have some more in me,” she said.

Rueben Asaram, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America and now owns and operates Reuby in Philadelphia, blends Mexican and Indian flavors. Asaram has a background in fine dining but left to travel as much of the world as he could. The experience inspired him to since create colorful popups throughout his city, which has become his signature.

“My love for Mexican food comes from working alongside Mexican line cooks who took me in as their own. I stayed in Mexico for three months learning all the recipes and ingredients and then took my childhood experience that had Asian influence and blended all those flavors together to create my own concept,” he said.

Asaram is working on something he doesn’t yet want to disclose too much about but notes that he is teaming up with a James Beard-nominated chef who is going to house him in her own restaurant, “almost like an incubator.” Guests will have the option of ordering from both restaurants.

Lawrence Smith is a bit newer to the scene, working his way from line cook to sous chef to executive pastry chef. In early 2022, he opened Chilte in Phoenix, which he describes as experimental, modernized Mexican cuisine.

“I’ve just traveled all through Mexico, my wife is Mexican, and I really got into the culture and wanted to bring back that feeling and put it on a plate,” Smith said. “That heart and love of food really resonated with me and reminded me of soul food growing up, so I just started bridging the gaps – coming from street food and taking the pretention out of it and trying to have fun.”

Though geographically dispersed and with wildly different sources of inspiration on how they got to this point in their careers, the three chefs have some similarities; key among them is the global inspiration driving their creations. As such, the three have been tapped by Taco Bell to be the inaugural participants in the chain’s new TBX program, launched to “support and connect emerging culinary talent from around the nation, opening the door for chefs to co-create and take tacos to new places through their own cultural exploration.”

The chefs are specifically tasked with reimagining Taco Bell’s signature Crunchwrap Supreme.

The TBX program

How they got to this point seems to still pleasantly surprises them.

“They just slid into all of our (direct messages) and said, ‘Hey, we have a cool new thing we want to do with you, but we’re not really going to tell you what it is yet,’” Smith said.

Asaram added that people reach out to them all the time asking to eat for free or collaborate or “whatever,” but “this time it was Taco Bell,” so he gave the request a closer listen. The chefs have started ideating their take on the Crunchwrap and will revisit the Taco Bell test kitchen in March to move the process along. Then, their creations will move into R&D and ideally into restaurants by the end of this year. The chefs can’t disclose their ideas yet, but their heads are spinning in overdrive.

“I think they’re looking for us to just be ourselves, to put our personalities into that Crunchwrap and then let them decide what’s going to work and what’s not going to work,” Smith said.

“They told us we have no parameters,” Dobbertin added.

During a recent interview, Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s chief food innovation officer, said the impetus behind this program’s launch was to “open the door to different perspectives we might miss.”

The three chefs are excited to offer their perspectives, but they’re also looking forward to learning from Taco Bell as well.

“Taco Bell is great at figuring out the supply chain and how to scale something for millions of people, so that’s what I’m interested in learning,” Dobbertin said. “It’s this global brand and they want us to come to their test kitchen and show us a peek behind the curtains and I think that makes them more accessible to the consumer.”

Whether these new Crunchwraps will actually make Taco Bell “more accessible to the consumer” via business metrics is yet to be seen. But these chefs at least feel that way thus far.

“This program shows Taco Bell is connected and part of the culture, and wanting to support the up and comers,” Smith said. “It’s bringing more approachability to the innovation we’re already doing.”

The TBX chefs are leveraging this opportunity with Taco Bell to deliberate on what they want to do next. Though no decisions have been made, all three understand that this program could, indeed, provide a strong catalyst.

“Maybe this will be the thing that gets the next door open,” Dobbertin said.

“It is exciting and it’s just the beginning,” Asaram added.

Toward the end of this year, fans will be able to experience these chefs’ unique Crunchwrap Supreme creations. Taco Bell is also looking for the next round of TBX participants via

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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