[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]veryone loves great-tasting food, but not everyone has the time to travel to a sit-down restaurant and wait for service. On the other hand, fast-food joints rarely do more than kill the pain. Surely there must be some middle-ground for discriminating diners who budget their time and money. Enter gourmet food trucks: the hidden treasures of North America. These aren’t your simple grease pits on wheels, rolling into construction sites during lunch. Instead, these food trucks provide some of the most unexpected food offerings, ranging from escargot to chicken and waffles. The Cooking Channel highlights America’s most interesting food trucks in its new show Eat St. hosted by James Cunningham. Working Author met with Cunningham to discuss the show, how he got involved and the most outrageous food truck meal he’s had.
“This whole concept is just phenomenal,” James Cunningham says of Eat St. He leans back relaxed on a sofa facing a wonderful view of the marina in Marina del Rey. “We kind of sat down and tracked it. Where did this all happen? It started when the economy started to collapse…. What’s the first thing people do? They stop going out to eat.” Cunningham explained that there was suddenly a large group of young, creative chefs who were finding themselves out of work and facing the risky prospects of opening up their own restaurant. “Or, do you get twenty grand together, borrow from friends and family, rack up some credit cards, open up a food truck with your own concept of the food you’re really passionate about? Throw out the rule book. Become your own boss. And that’s what’s happening. All over North America this is happening.”
James Cunningham is a Canada-based stand-up comedian with 15 years of experience. He’s probably best known for his financial education show called Funny Money, which is aimed at students and may come to North America. Ironically, he was cast as the host of Eat St. when the production company behind the show saw Cunningham’s audition tapes for a different program. “I got a call from Paperny Films in Vancouver a while after. They said, ‘Listen, we saw your audition tapes for [the other show]. We’d love you to come out for our show.’ Cool.” Scheduling the audition was an issue, because of Cunningham’s and the production company’s location, but luckily the Eat St. film crew was shooting in New York and Cunningham was frequently traveling there to visit his girlfriend. It was the perfect opportunity to test him on camera. He met with director Peter Waal and Cunningham just seemed like the perfect fit. “Right away it was just kismet. And I became submersed into this whole food renaissance culture. It’s just been really, really fantastic.”
“I’ve always been a foodie,” Cunningham confesses, “You know, when you play clubs what’s open at 1:30 in the morning…except street food?” While Cunningham hasn’t sampled every food truck featured on the show, he always seems to find a new favorite whenever he does. “Every time we go into one city and I think this is it. This is the ultimate. This is the best. We go someplace else and I think OK, THIS is it. THIS is the ultimate. THIS is the best.” The best examples, however, are on the Cooking Channel Web site. Cunningham highlights the Redonkadong Burger from the The Brunch Basket in Portland, Oregon. This burger actually uses two grilled cheese sandwiches as buns. “We did everything from a guy pushing a cart down the street to a full-blown converted double-decker restaurant bus.”
Eat St. has covered over fifty trucks all over the country. Cunningham rattles off city after city – Philadelphia, New York, Phoenix and more. “This thing has exploded; it’s gone crazy. And what’s really adding fuel to the fire is the social media…. Most of the entrepreneurs – these chefs – are younger, media-savvy…guys and girls…they’ve been building up these fan bases off Facebook and Twitter….” As Cunningham explains, the food trucks leverage their online presence to let their fans know exactly where they’ll be at any given time, eliminating the problem of parking someplace and waiting for customers to show up. Now a food truck can pull up to a location and have customers already standing in line.
To further help direct hungry viewers to their local food truck is the Eat St. App available for the iPhone and coming soon to Android and Blackberry platforms. Cunningham pulls out his phone to demonstrate how the app works. “It’s GPS enabled and any city you’re in, you just tap on [the app] and you find carts. So not only is it going to show you where we are right now, but where the nearest food carts are, what they’re serving, their prices and what’s on special that day. It’s really, really cool.” So viewers that live in a city that’s featured on the show can actually experience the showcased food truck for themselves.
Regarding the style of the show, Cunningham is proud that it’s different from other food shows out there. “It’s great because it’s got a magazine-style format,” he says and then refers to himself as just being bald eye-candy. “You want to see a bald guy, right?” The format is elegant in its simplicity. Cunningham introduces the food truck and then lets the chef and the food speak for themselves. “Literally, I host the show – I’m not the star of the show. The star of the show is the chefs and their food…primarily the food.” The show, written by director Peter Waal, has a great sense of humor as well, highlighting distinguishing facets of the individual entrepreneurs. One chef specializing in pork converted his food truck into an armored pig with sunglasses. Another chef specializing in dessert seems to only have one token male customer in a sea of nubile women.
“The most fun I’ve had, though, is in LA,” Cunningham says, “LA has a lot of great stuff…. The weather here is gorgeous and you’ve got almost 365 days of potential outdoor eating weather. And plus I think people out here are more liberal and more open…there’s way more funky stuff out here on the west coast by far.”
Watch Eat St. on the Cooking Channel on Tuesdays @ 8 p.m. ET.