The arrival of "The Great Food Truck Race" on the Food Network is just the highest profile indicator that the gourmet food truck has truly broken through. Ordinances liberalizing the sale of street food from trucks or stands are being passed or considered in a variety of cities across the country, including Minneapolis (passed), Chicago (under consideration), and Los Angeles (where an anti-food truck law was overturned after passionate public lobbying).
What's the appeal? Whether humble hot dogs or upscale kabobs, street food is fast, it's affordable, and it's a little luxury -- something you can grab during a 30-minute lunch break, or on impulse while shopping at the farmers market.
Street food chefs Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson of Minneapolis run a food truck company called Chef Shack. Their truck-based kitchens serve up everything from tempura fried soft shell crab, to braised Indonesian chicken, to their locally famous Indian-spiced doughnuts.
We caught up with Chef Carrie Summer to ask her about the national street food craze and her globetrotting gastronomic travels with Carlson.
Q: What sets you guys apart?
CARRIE SUMMER: We (Lisa and myself) are world travelers, and we enjoy exotic food from all over, especially street food. So when we began Chef Shack, our goal was to introduce "luxury street food" to Minneapolis in an affordable manner.
We felt everyone should be able to experience something really tasty, seasonal, quick and inexpensive. But also to strike out independently without opening a traditional "brick/mortar" type establishment and keep our overhead low. What sets us apart from much of the food in our area is we utilize many small farms for our produce, dairy and meat -- and we create memorable fresh, exciting flavors.
Q: Why are we seeing such a national excitement over street food right now?
SUMMER: First, the mobile concept is fun because you can be anywhere! For example, at any given time I have two trucks in St. Paul and Minneapolis for lunches.
Second, even in this bearish economy, people still want to go out and treat themselves and their family to food and entertainment, but they have a budget. We can provide that in a unique way, as each food truck is a show and a delight. Especially at a farmers market where a young family can get their produce, goods and a tasty lunch for a few dollars and have a good time watching the crowd and listening to music.
Furthermore, food trucks are emerging onto the creative culinary scene for their diversity and uniqueness, as entrepreneurs get busy showing off their fancy side of life! Not just a vanilla shade of corporate catering, and the masses want to patronize small businesses.
Q: Even though you're based in the Twin Cities, you guys travel for inspiration -- tell me about that.
SUMMER: We are very fortunate to take time off each winter to travel far and away. We seem to gravitate to Asia -- however, Africa and the Middle East are calling also. Travel helps us reinvent our spirits and grow as human beings.
Exotic culture has always been an allure for both of us, it's endlessly interesting, and then there's the food which is a whole experience unto itself. So as chefs, we consider travel essential to growing our palate and broadening our horizons.
Q: Where have you traveled recently?
SUMMER: This past winter (2010) we spent two months in southern India, really homing in on spices. India is the world trade center for spice export. We were really excited and honored to go behind the scenes with spice farmers and to even bring back and ship over 20 pounds of spices indigenous to southern India.
For example: I have a few pounds of this dried fruit called a kokum, from the Kerela region in India. They dry it and then smoke it, and it's outstanding! I now put it in my bacon ketjap for another layer of flavor.
Our menus reflect local ingredients with global influences. We have an infatuation with world maps, I have one next to my bed. It's the first thing I see in the morning. I think it helps me to dream about travel.
Q: Where are you headed next?
SUMMER: This winter, we're taking a tour of the southern states of the USA to visit foodies in Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and California. Then back to Indonesia and India.
Q: How has the Twin Cities street food scene changed since you first launched?
SUMMER: We are proud and excited that people are very supportive of our cooking and that Minnesotans hopefully look at food trucks with more ease. At first, people were really skeptical (I mean about food out of a truck).
Both Lisa and I were chefs in the city prior to launching our concept, so we had established reputations and clientele. We gave away many sample bites to taste and I feel we've grown our following one plate at a time in the last four years.
Today with our new lunch spot at 5th and Hennepin we have a permanent location now which is exciting, and the new trucks popping up all around is fun to watch!
We feel fully supportive of the growth of the scene here and actually it's becoming a tourist destination. Just yesterday I had a group of Japanese kids taking their photo by the truck at lunch, and I was proud to say hello in their language.
(Photo credit: Katie Cannon)