Mobile food truck chefs vie for attention in a game of culinary one-upmanship to create the “next hottest thing” in food trends.
CREDIT: The Melt
Today’s food truck customers are as unfixed as the venues they avidly pursue. They seek the mobile food experience, tracking trucks through social media in search not simply of a meal, but a motorcade of variety. Trucks provide consumers the opportunity to sample street foods from someone else’s—and from another nation’s—streets.
This is gourmet food without the gourmet price tag, usually prepared by locally famous chefs or passionate, aspiring culinary artisans, typically graduates of such august institutes as the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales. Sometimes, the food truck acts as a wheeled extension of a restaurant or even a local chain.
This trend, even as it continues to evolve, projects as though it will continue to influence exotic global combinations of ingredients, hand-held portability constraints and portioning, and promises a huge jump in the level of fusion. Basically, food trucks pick up where the fusion movement of the 1980s mainstreamed out.
While no longer a matter of grabbing a greasy brat from Joe the hot dog guy; a soggy-bunned, rubbery burger from some quilted-metal “roach coach;” or some tasteless, generic taco from a pushcart there are, to be sure, dogs, burgers and tacos a-plenty. Along with pizza, those items remain staples of truck fare.
Today, however, diners wait curbside for as long as an hour with high expectations to dine on dogs made from humanely raised pork, and slathered with ginger-mustard and kimchi. Exotic dogs dressed in house-made condiments are a hallmark of trucks such as Let’s Be Frank in L.A. And, they are as far-flung from their roots as the grass-fed beef tongue tacos on board The Chef Shack in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.
Recently, some trendsters were beginning to report that food trucks have “jumped the shark.” Tell that to the hungry folks standing 10-, 20-, 30- or more deep in lines at food trucks across America, happy to eat on their feet for an experience that’s part social and part gastronomic. These hungry throngs stand as clear evidence that far from flattening, the mobile culinary trend is more than ever a four-wheel food frenzy.
And, not only is 21st century truck traffic thriving in the cities where it began— L.A., San Francisco, New York—food trucks are gaining traction across the Northwest, Midwest and parts of the South.
In statistics compiled by the Daily Meal for their survey of the 101 best food trucks (http://bit.ly/17G4GAP), “food trucks have increased twofold over the past two years in cities like St. Louis and Boston, while on tested asphalt in L.A. and New York, its presence strengthened.” Some areas, such as L.A., boast more than 6,000 trucks. Online food news resource Food Beast claims some three million food trucks roam America’s streets. Interest is still being fueled by reality shows, truck crawls, competitions, various “best” lists and sustained attention from tastemakers, such as Zagat, Yelp and the mainstream food press.
The Daily Meal report cited money statistics, too, with trucks earning “37% of the $1.4 billion street vending revenue nationwide” in 2011, a 15% increase over the previous five-year period.
“The creative ingenuity possessed by these food truck culinarians drives them to create unique, inspired dishes,” says John Howeth, vice president of the American Egg Board. Researchers, food technicians and food manufacturers are taking notice, both of the ways in which they can tap these trends for broader applications and the ways in which their products and services might serve the needs of the creators of mobile cuisine.
“As a commodity board, The American Egg board looks very closely at the new ideas created by these chefs,” Howeth notes. “Because, just as the innovative dishes developed in white tablecloth restaurants move into other, more mainstream food segments, we believe many of these culinary creations will, too.”
Speaking of eggs, Steve Solomon, president of FS Insights, points to a related trend—breakfast foods that have been reimagined. “From egg dishes to donuts to pancakes, breakfast foods are the new frontier in food trucks.” Juan in a Million, in Austin, Texas, Solomon notes, serves “traditional items with a twist, like its Con Queso Breakfast with queso, carne guisada, refried beans and potatoes on two enormous tortillas.”
Another example, says Solomon, comes from Torchys, also in Austin. He says it features scrambled eggs with fried poblano chili peppers, guacamole, escabeche carrots, shredded cheese and poblano sauce on a tortilla.
Additionally, cupcake, dessert and other sweet snack trucks are wheeling out all over the country.
Zeal on Wheels
Sharon Olson, executive director of Culinary Visions Panel, Chicago, tells Prepared Foods why consumers keep waiting in line for the latest and greatest truck cuisine.
These reign on trucks, especially in major metropolitan areas. Consumers hunger for dishes “inspired by the street foods sold in stalls at markets around the world, such as gourmet tacos, crepes, bao, Greek cuisine and falafel.” Koji BBQ, for example, the truck widely credited with kick-starting the truck food movement, offers Kimchi Quesadillas. In Marfa, Texas, locals line up at Food Shark for fare that’s far from local: Marfalafels (falafels and hummus). In Houston, Texans clamor for The Eatsie Boys’ Pork Snuggies: slow-cooked pork belly with homemade hoisin sauce served on Asian buns.
Whether internationally inspired or all-American, ingredients and cooking methods found in traditional foods add modern interpretations that appeal to contemporary consumers and can be served on-the-go. At The Cinnamon Snail, for example, pancakes get a contemporary twist with varieties such as blue corn and fresh fig.
Everyday, Made Exceptional
This is Olson’s tag for classic comfort foods “made to die for,” or for classics reinvented with imaginative ingredients. Examples: chicken pot pie with bacon from Sue’s Sassy Pies in San Francisco; lobster BLT from Red Hook Lobster Pound in New York; grilled cheese sandwiches with upscale ingredients; and lobster as an ingredient in general, in everything from the classic lobster roll to lobster mac-and-cheese.
Worth the Splurge
These dishes are the got-to-have comfort items, like Southern food; gooey, sinful desserts; anything fried. These popular items “appeal to diners who occasionally crave food so bad it’s good,” Olson says. Fitting that bill is Frysmith Food Truck’s French fries served as a meal with topping options including kimchi, chili made with beer, and chocolate- and shwarma-marinated steak.
Truck chefs capitalize on the insatiable burger lust by creating “destination burgers,” such as the Dee Snider from Grill ‘Em All in Alhambra, Calif.: a half-pound beef, chicken or veggie burger of one’s choice with peanut butter, strawberry jam, bacon and sriracha. Or, the Exciter: duck confit, frisée, truffle herb goat cheese, cranberry gastrique. And, at Chef Shack in the Twin Cities, lines form for the hand-patted, grass fed-bison burger on toasted brioche.
While diners on the run want food fast, they also want it slow. “Slow-cooked pork products, ribs and other labor-intensive, from-scratch food recipes have groupies in most major cities,” says Olson. In Dania Beach, Fla., The Slow Food Truck entices with braised beef and slow-roasted pulled pork. At Crock Spot, Denverites stand for such slow pleasures as jalapeño shredded beef, duck confit, Irish corned beef and turkey cardamom meatballs.
The food truck explosion coincided with the economic meltdown of 2008, which saw a rapid rise in boutique operations by people bailing from the rat race and all its insecurities.
“A short-order cook, executive chef or cooking show-watching foodie can invest what would be considered minimal start-up capital in the restaurant business, to embrace this newest mode of boutique-style cuisine,” says Jerri George, a 30-year veteran of the foodservice and catering industry and author of Cater$avvy (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013). “Streamlined in size and built for mobility, they create a more specific demand on vendors and providers of goods that can be utilized in tight spaces or stored efficiently.”
George points out that the need for on-the-go ease has driven chefs to create what amounts to “finger food mini-versions of gourmet restaurant fare” in the minimal space allotted.
“Size of the prep and cooking areas dictates the number of people that can work on a given project and, therefore, the complexity of it,” she says. “Shredded, diced, chopped and pre-sliced everything is necessary. Menus must be easy to prep and compact enough to be served in and on a wide variety of available packaging, such as bento boxes, paper trays etc.”
Some of the creativity derived from this need includes a little “do-it-yourself” contribution to the final dish in the form of attractively packaged spices and condiments or dipping sauces, notes George. She stresses that the trend is to have such add-ins and sprinkle-ons “specifically targeted for a certain dish.”
“Tomorrow’s food trucks will need more and more pre-measured or combination ingredients, or seasonings and rubs, utilizing ‘designer’ herbs and spices,” adds George. “Canned or bottled high-end boutique dressings or sauces equal to that prepared by a trained chef might be welcome; versions of Marsala, bourguignonne, picatta, Bernaise and Hollandaise sauces all come to mind, as do those items that can be baked or finished off in a microwave.”
“Cooked pasta and rice in re-heatable serving portions make possible a wide variety of dishes,” George continues. She also points to heavy usage of pre-portioned meats (even on skewers) and other proteins, to be grabbed quickly and fried or sautéed, as well as packages of prepared vegetables and fruits.
George also predicts application of packaged, dry portions of polenta or risotto, or pre-cooked pasta and rice in re-heatable serving portions, all done like single-serve oatmeal and cream of wheat, and designed to make possible a wide variety of dishes. These would enable the truck chef to just add boiling water to “make it come alive.”
Driven to Fusion
Virtually all trendy food preferences are represented in today’s trucks, from gluten-free to raw and organic. And, the flavors and fusions of foods on wheels are wide-ranging, inspired by cuisines all over the food truck roadmap. Asian, Middle-Eastern, Mexican, French, Italian and all-American stand alone and cross paths with each other, with fusion knowing no limits. Tacos, for example, are no longer simply Mexican-inspired, but Korean, Turkish and Caribbean. Pitas are filled with bulgoki or spicy meat, bean and cheese combos.
Some of the flavor trends reported by Jerri George include: “Molé sauce served as a dip with nuggets of fajita-seasoned chicken and beef, jalapeño poppers, fried Manchengo cheese and tortilla chips, oysters, peel-and-eat shrimp and even crab claws presented on crushed ice with Hollandaise and cocktail sauce in an off-shore presentation. She adds, “Aïolis, gastriques, chutneys, spreads and butters are beginning to send these portable creations to infinite creativity.”
“Potatoes of any size or shape and ‘kicked up a notch’ with seasonings containing the flavors of chipotle, hickory, maple, bacon and dusted with sea salt can accompany any main dish item,” George says. “Of course, anything wrapped with bacon is a winner.”
George notes that the hottest trends are “ethnic dishes deconstructed or reinvented, such as chicken meatballs parmesan or lamb tidbits skewered with eggplant and tzatziki sauce for dipping.”
Particularly, George, regards the market strength of extraordinary sandwiches, including her own version of the classic Cuban sandwich that incudes grilled prosciutto, sliced figs and brie cheese.
Around the Bend
“The inspiration we collect from watching this segment is immeasurable,” says Sharon Olson, executive director of Culinary Visions Panel, Chicago. “The great advantage for prepared foods manufacturers in observing food trucks is to study the specialty items and flavors offered by food trucks in some of the cities considered hotbeds of innovation—like Portland, Oregon—and translate those into higher-volume, more mainstream items,” Olson says.
“We often run tours for insight teams from large manufacturers, and some of the trends we have seen from food trucks are promising inspiration for product development,” Olson continues. “From Korean barbecue and unique tamales and empanadas to some great gourmet offerings, we’ve seen a lot of delicious and imaginative food delivered out of truck windows.”
Although the tastes are big, the trucks are small. According to David Weber, president of the NYC Food Truck Assn. and author of The Food Truck Handbook, “Part of what has captured the public’s imagination with mobile food is the wide variety of cuisine available on food trucks.” But, the kitchen space, he says, might be as small as 10-by-6 feet.
Weber adds that chefs need either to make their dishes exceedingly simple to prepare on the truck, or to prep as much as possible off-site and finish dishes on the fly.
“The key,” he says, “is to break out the production process and do as much as possible ahead.”
Toasty Cheese Mobile Eatery, based in Schaumburg, Ill., boasts an eclectic menu of sandwiches, such as The Chef’s Choice, made with duck bacon, provolone, fresh spinach and fresh baby arugula with Sicilian cherry tomatoes. It’s dressed with aïoli on panini bread. Owner Greg Barnhart echoes Weber’s emphasis on advance preparation, calling it “extreme organization.”
“We portion everything in our commissary kitchen,” says Barnhart. “We weigh and individually wrap each cheese and meat portion; every item on the truck has a specific place, outlined in tape and labeled. It’s like a puzzle—if one item isn’t put back where it should be, the precise flow gets off-kilter.”
Toasty Cheese also precooks the bacon, makes special sauces ahead of time, and puts them in squeeze bottles. They then cut the potatoes for fries in advance and sometimes blanch them in the commissary before finishing on the truck.
While all truck chefs rely on advance preparation, many pride themselves on creating innovative dishes from scratch.
“The term ‘scratch’ comes with many interpretations,” explains Bruce Mattel, chef and associate dean for food production at the Hyde Park campus of the Culinary Institute of America. “For example, for the vegetarian market, there are fresh cut veggies—raw, fresh products that are cut and bagged. Chefs can rely on wholesale-purchased, pre-minced raw onions; pre-sliced mushrooms; and julienned peppers.”
“How do you achieve the same flavor of a restaurant dish if you don’t have the square footage to store the ingredients that are responsible for the flavor profile?” asks Marc Halperin, founder and COO of CCD Innovations, San Francisco. “Truck chefs must either change the profile of a dish or find a way to shortcut the execution or delivery.”
They might do this, Halperin explains, by partially cooking sauces ahead of time or making an infusion of fresh-chopped herbs rather than chopping great quantities of fresh herbs within the confines of the truck.
“This is where the creativity is challenged,” says Halperin. “A white tablecloth restaurant will make its own mayo,” he adds, “but a mobile chef might source a pre-made ingredient or doctor an existing product.” There are “zillions of packaged goods designed for convenience” that can help mobile chefs ratchet up the flavor despite limitations, adds Halperin.
Aaron Williams, division chef and center-of-the-plate specialist for US Foodservice Inc., agrees that products such as pre-cleaned and cut fresh vegetables and pre-made sauces “allow chefs to be more efficient without sacrificing creativity in their dishes.” He encourages chefs to explore substitutions. “For example, instead of buying a fresh chicken product that must be prepped and refrigerated, a frozen one might work that can simply go from freezer to the grill. A diced-beef product is another great example. Cooks don’t have to worry about safe handling of cutting raw beef and then cleaning it, while they’re trying to cook and serve customers.”
Some chefs might have to improvise particular dishes for timing. On his truck, Greenfields Gourmet Food Truck, Gill Stansfield, chef, department chair and associate instructor at Johnson & Wales University, College of Culinary Arts, uses a prepared pizza crust and tops it with locally sourced products. “This saves me a lot of time, and the locals seem to appreciate that it comes from the neighborhood.”
Up Front in the Truck
One great example of the food truck movement’s position as a vehicle for pushing the envelopes of food fusion and creativity is the Austin, Texas-based Chi’Lantro BBQ fleet, owned by Jae Kim and covering Houston and Austin. Michael Hong, general manager and business development chief, slowed down to 40mph and opened a window on the operation in this stoplight interview.
PF: Are most of the recipes for Chi’Lantro BBQ prepared in a centralized facility?
MH: All of our recipes are prepared in a centralized facility, a kitchen commissary, but Austin and Houston each has its own facility. One of the kitchen managers from Austin works in Houston on quality-control, and the Austin operations manager stops in about once a week for quality inspection. CBBQ has standardized recipes and procedures in place in every location.
PF: What specific techniques were needed when CBBQ was translating recipes for the food truck format?
MH: Due to the high-volume, multiple operations employed, we use a vacuum-sealing process for many items. We had to tweak the amount of marinades and adjust the storing process in order to maintain highest quality and control spoilage.
PF: What “pre-manufactured” components are provided, such as purchased sauces or marinades, or pre-grilled meats or frozen sliced salsas, etc.?
MH: CBBQ makes all sauces and marinades in-house. The beef, pork, chicken and tofu come in raw, and we prepare them. A couple of sauces, such as sriracha, are purchased and used as-is.
PF: What sort of prepared products would make it easier on food truck operators?
MH: Great question. Some of the things we’d be interested in are pre-marinated meats that have been vacuum-sealed and frozen; pre-grill-marked tortillas; julienne-cut lettuce; pre-cut fresh cilantro; pre-cut onions; pre-cut limes—vacuum-sealed or sealed in several varieties of bag sizes and volumes; frozen fries with stronger packaging—frozen fries kept in food truck freezers require strong seal/wrap/package. The paper-packaged fries are cheaper, but food truck operators prefer packaging that holds strong under conditions of high humidity. Up Front in the Truck
“Mobile chefs don’t typically have the time to cook dishes down to the right viscosity, but they can rely on specialized ingredients to achieve the desired textures,” says Rachel Zemser, a San Francisco food scientist and culinary consultant. “Functional starches and gums are still new territory for those creating formulations for central site preparation.”
As Zemser explains, “A natural gum can be used to extend the hold time on a cream-based soup or sauce, providing it both a smooth, velvety, bisque-like texture and allowing it to hold that texture longer. Since natural starches and gums—such as maltodextrin, resistant starch and modified potato starch—are flavorless and do not alter aroma, they can be used even in subtly flavored formulations.”
Various flavorings—such as citrus, herb or smoke—can not only boost flavor in dishes but can also be used to flavor condiments.
“Chefs can take plain ketchup, for example,” says Zemser, “and flavor it several ways to create versions that are fruity, spicy or tangy.” She speculates that custom-designed flavor kits could lead to helpful shortcuts in creating certain profiles. “Put a drop in the soup to give it a basil flavor or an oregano flavor. Or, [use] a grilling kit that lets chefs create a smoky chipotle taste on-the-fly.”
Zemser also points to existing helpful shortcuts chefs can use to authentically recreate dishes without sacrificing quality. These include frozen, flavored herb cubes; pre-made dressings; pre-sliced butter; frozen, fire-roasted corn; and any number of the modern varieties of cutting-edge pre-made stocks and bases, including pork, veal, lamb, goat, vegetable, mushroom and fish.
Scratch & Swift
Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlton, of Chef Shack in the Twin Cities, cut no corners, making everything except their bread from scratch, squeezing their own juices and braising beef tongue for three hours. They’ll marinate then roast pork shoulder in a process of eight or nine hours. But, they still can save time by using a certified-organic dry mix for their famous Indian-spiced organic mini-donuts and portioning out the dry mix in the commissary. When they make the donuts on the truck, they use their incremental portion of dry mix and create a dough with filtered water on site.
Dish creators also might give spark to ordinary dishes by tweaking the flavors in a single component. Sandwiches, for example, might be enlivened to stand apart from the competition through the use of sweet or savory flavored breads, such as a sweet pepper-flavored or chocolate-infused bread.
Dubbed one of the top 10-healthiest food trucks in America, GMonkey in Durham, Conn., serving a vegan organic menu from a truck that runs on biodiesel fuel, does all its prep in the commissary kitchens and finishes dishes on the truck. It turns out many popular items, such as a vegan, grilled-cheese sandwich made with tapioca cheese on whole-grain, organic bread with caramelized onions and a homemade basil pesto.
GMonkey’s fresh-from-scratch approach extends even to its ketchups. But, there are challenges to what can be achieved on the truck. Ami Shadle, co-owner with her husband, Mark, points to limitations imposed by food-safety concerns. They make raw and vegan food, plus many varieties of fresh-pressed juices, in their restaurant.
“On the truck, we have to limit that, because the small ‘fridge can’t handle the amount of product,” she explains. “We have to restrict the amount of juices we offer. We can’t serve all the fresh-pressed juices using all the fruits and vegetables we use at the restaurant.”
Shadle turns to frozen, organic, pre-sliced fruit vs. fresh mangoes, and, while in the restaurant they’d use fresh Thai coconut water, on the truck they turn to purchased coconut water. Shadle notes that she’s not yet found a suitable-quality workaround for fresh, organic avocado, with the taste, texture and consistency of fresh.
Toasty Cheese’s Greg Barnhart echoes that lament: “We haven’t been able to figure a way to precut, then store, avocados in the truck without them turning brown and unappealing-looking. And, cutting them from whole on the truck is too time-consuming.”
Jay Hamada makes the dishes for his San Francisco truck, Japa Curry, from scratch, almost all of it prepped ahead, off-site. His made-from-scratch stocks are exceptionally time-consuming. In Japan, deeply flavorful stocks can be purchased from local companies, but Hamada says that in the U.S., he has to make do himself.
The curry sauce on Japa Curry is different from that which he serves in his restaurant. He seeks a pre-made, caramelized product that would allow him to create the same deep flavors for his popular Chicken Katsu Curry.
As chefs struggle to make cutting-edge cuisine work in cramped spaces and with self-imposed limitations, the upside is an ability to get instant feedback for pushing the envelope.
“The food truck environment presents a unique opportunity for chefs to talk directly with customers and find out what they really want to eat,” says US Foodservice’s Williams. “Then, it’s up to the chef to look for creative ways to bring their culinary vision to life.”