Meals on wheels: Why casual street dining and food trucks are here to stay

Food trucks have become an intrinsic part of Irish food culture. Joe McNamee on why our love affair with mobile cooking is going nowhere
Meals on wheels: Why casual street dining and food trucks are here to stay

While the outbreak of food trucks has begun to recede with the great societal reopening, casual street dining is here to stay and that is a very welcome consequence indeed

In decades to come, a roll call of the pandemic’s most familiar tropes inevitably must alight on food trucks. When lockdown first set in, they began to spring up, tentatively at first, but soon with a vigorous proliferation that near mimicked the contagiousness of the virus itself.

They were everywhere, found in all manner of places. Apocryphal tales abounded of random civilians who’d never gone beyond knocking out a turkey and Tayto sandwich on Stephen’s Day now freshly set up in shiny new mobile units, coffee docks being especially popular because, after all, anyone can make a coffee, no? (No, ‘anyone’ cannot ‘make’ a coffee.)

Quality was varied. A number of pros knocking out very excellent fare, but they were also augmented by some rank amateurs and dodgy cooks with dreams of emulating Jon Favreau’s film, Chef. Once restrictions eased, people began to return to what they knew best, the traditional pubs and restaurants.

Yet, this critical mass of food trucks achieved something almost overnight that many of us in the food world had for years thought impossible: the creation of a new Irish culinary culture that embraced the concept of casual street food on a society-wide scale and, in particular, an acceptance by previously obstructive but now newly enlightened health authorities, that employing similar regulations as apply to the bricks-and-mortar hospitality sector could ensure delicious food delivered using proper hygiene standards.

While the outbreak of food trucks has begun to recede with the great societal reopening, casual street dining is here to stay and that is a very welcome consequence indeed.

In the American telling of the history of the food truck, it began with the invention of the ‘chuck wagon’ in 1866 by cattleman Colonel Charles Goodnight as he drove a herd of 2000 cattle from Texas to Colorado. A long and arduous trek with scant access to ‘civilisation’ along the way, he conceived of an idea to rebuild an army surplus wagon and fit it out with shelves, drawers, cabinets and cubbyholes to hold food and culinary kit, a hinged worktop and a large water barrel. Cowboys used an English slang word, ‘chuck’, to describe their meals; hence the name.

It caught on rapidly, soon copied throughout the wild west, and the Studebaker Company and other manufacturers piled on and began turning them out for what was then a comparatively hefty $100. While the era of long cattle drives peaked about 20 years later, there are archive photos showing cowboys still eating at chuckwagons as late as the 1930s.

Actually, people have been eating street food for thousands of years. Street traders in Ancient Greece sold fried fish while the lower classes in Ancient Rome depended on street food as they rarely had ovens at home. In China, historically, it was again intended for the poor but, proving the universal appeal of street food is timeless, wealthy citizens would dispatch servants to pick up some tasty morsels. 

The Aztecs sold atolli (a maize gruel) and tamales, while in 14th century Egypt, lamb kebabs, rice and fritters were street staples. In the 17th and 18th centuries, colonial Americans ate tripe, oysters, roasted corn cobs, fruit and sweets, all purchased on the street. In 19th century Paris, ‘fried strips of potato’ were a compulsive staple—now what would you call those? Londoners on the other hand ate pea soup and jellied eels.

Stuart Bowes of Curly Stu Food Truck. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Stuart Bowes of Curly Stu Food Truck. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation have estimated that some 2.5bn people worldwide eat street food every day, but that is less about the compulsion to Instagram a snack from a stall on a street corner in Mumbai and, just like the ancient Romans and Chinese, often because the consumer has little or no cooking facilities in his or her home.

What’s more, multiple studies have shown that incidences of the dreaded ‘food poisoning’ so many fear contracting from street food, most especially when travelling in the developed world, occur roughly on a par with those in the world of restaurants proper.

Some tradition of selling food on the streets in the US, from a kiosk, portable booth or cart, lingered on after the chuckwagon finally rolled to a halt—the hot dog cart is a globally recognised icon of New York City—but the contemporary craze kicked off in earnest when the late, great LA food critic Jonathan Gold penned a paean to the glories of the food truck, in the LA Times. It was 2010, just as local authorities were on the verge of clamping down on street food trucks, many of them run by Mexicans selling authentic tacos but too poor to open a proper restaurant.

He began his article with a description of a midnight gathering of utterly random LA citizens, some 200 of them, all queuing up for Roy Choi’s Kogi Food Truck, to purchase his renowned Korean tacos. The piece caught fire and the food truck scene blew up entirely. Four years later, Choi, a Korean chef who had started selling from the truck after the 2008 recession, had inspired Jon Favreau’s movie, Chef, about a chef who ditches the restrictions of a proper restaurant and the chaos of his own personal life for the freedoms of cooking on the open road. Choi acted as a consultant on the film, he and Favreau became close friends, going on to create and present The Chef Show together.

When Jonathan Gold died in 2018, aged 57, from pancreatic cancer, a memorial service was held in public in downtown LA. Naturally, there were plenty of food trucks on hand, including Choi’s Kogi Food Truck.

Of course, we’ve had ‘food trucks’ in Ireland for decades. Specialist food trucks. You see them every time you rock up for a big match, lining the main thoroughfares leading to Semple Stadium, to Lansdowne Road. You see them at small-town festivals and local summer shows. If you ever went to Féile or Siamsa Cois Laoi, you most certainly ‘dined’ at one of them. When I say, ‘specialist’, I mean burger or chip vans, all churning out an identical menu of deep-fried frozen cheap and cheerless chipper staples.

There have been isolated mobile food truck practitioners around the country over more recent years, turning out simple yet sterling dishes, and farmers’ markets and festivals have become de facto ‘food courts’ for communal food truck gatherings, some turning out exceptional food. Dublin’s Eatyard was the first to create a permanent space for ‘street food’.

But is it any surprise that it took a pandemic to truly convert a nation en masse? If your only hitherto experience of food trucks was wallowing in the guilty and queasy doldrums that invariably followed an old-school chip van repast, then you’ll understand why we so long shied away from the wondrous world of the food truck. It was only when the fixed hospitality sector was entirely shuttered that we overcame our reservations. Well, food trucks are finally here, hopefully, to stay—let’s see where this road takes us.

Caitlin Ruth Food Truck

Caitlin Ruth of Caitlin Ruth Foods, with her extra chill area for customers. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Caitlin Ruth of Caitlin Ruth Foods, with her extra chill area for customers. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

US-born chef Caitlin Ruth has lived in Ireland for years and is the former head chef of the late, lamented Deasy’s, just outside Clonakilty, where she delivered superb menus of truly original and innovative cooking featuring a larder of premium, local, seasonal produce. She opened the Caitlin Ruth Food Truck four years ago, before the pandemic.

“My first experience of a food truck would have been at the local county fair in Dublin, New Hampshire, the equivalent of The Ploughing or the Cork Summer Show. Fried dough. It is just basically, dough, fried, and you shake on icing sugar and cinnamon, it’s like a big side plate-sized pizza base, deep fried. Oh my god, it was just so good, that would have been one of my top favourite things when I was little, seven or eight.

“I loved mobile cooking when I was in restaurants. I always had a huge bootful of cooking equipment to pull over the car and make pancakes or sandwiches or whatever, for years I’ve been making food outdoors. I love cooking and when you’re out and about there’s nothing cooler than going wherever you want and yet still being able to cook for people. Beach cooking was always a big thing. The whole idea of cooking on the go, it’s very liberating.

“I’m so sick of working in restaurants, just being stuck in the one place, it’s punishing, it’s gruelling and it impossible to please everybody all the time but outside is a more casual atmosphere, people always seem to be happier, everyone loves seems to love being outside.

“When I first opened [at Dunworley Beach, in West Cork] queuing was a really big problem. The mistake I made was resisting pre-ordering because I didn’t know how to set up an online system. I might have 80 people in a queue, waiting to order, then waiting for their food — even if they’re just buying a bag of popcorn, they are going to be waiting 40 minutes and I was all by myself.

“Then I signed up to Clickandcollection.com, that was a gamechanger, and the website was so easy to use, people see the menu, see what they want, click, pay and then they pick a time.

“My boyfriend, Matt O’Sullivan, is an engineer and he built the truck, from a flatbed trailer and built it from the ‘ground up’, he’s quite talented.

“It has a six-ring gas cooker, gas oven and a tiny fryer. He made me a big griddle for sitting on top of the ring, I do everything on that, make quesadillas, the other day, I made a Turkish flatbread, stuffed with red lentils, spinach, cheeses and preserved lemon and fried that on the griddle. It’s cool coming up with new vegetarian dishes. I don’t really have staff, I prep it all myself.

“I just want to keep on cooking nice food and feeding nice people, enjoying being outside, not stuck for 60 hours a week in a restaurant kitchen and I have so much more freedom. I work a lot, but I take a lot of private bookings, so I can’t commit to the same time, in the same spot every week. I just don’t want to get back into a model of operating that begins to just become another restaurant but outdoors. I like to keep it loose!”

The Curly Stu

Stuart Bowes, with his Food truck Curly Stu. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Stuart Bowes, with his Food truck Curly Stu. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Stuart Bowes is a classically trained Scottish chef with Michelin star experience in Britain who married a Cork woman, from Coppeen. He was head chef at Barnabrow Country House & Restaurant, in East Cork, when he began experimenting with making pizzas in his downtime.

He opened The Curly Stu during lockdown and eventually left Barnabrow in 2020, devoting himself full time to the food truck and business that has boomed ever since. During lockdown, this writer reviewed The Curly Stu for Weekend’s restaurant review page, calling Stuart’s pizzas some of the best he had ever tasted in this country.

“I started making pizzas in my local country pub every Monday in the summer of 2018 and people were asking me to cater at their homes so I bought a horse box and converted it in 2019 and I was mobile!

"I bought it on Done Deal and got a good carpenter friend [@thewoodgenie on Instagram] of mine to custom fit it out. I gave him dimensions and an idea and he took it away and worked his magic. I got it signed off by the HSE and I was set loose to start trying things out.

“The pandemic came and I was just set up and ready to go. I sold lots of pizzas and at the same time learned the craft of producing consistent dough, no matter what the weather while creating operational procedures to make the trailer run as efficiently as possible. I have a second trailer now. The Saturdays are booked up and I can do up to three private parties on the same day with one trailer. I’m still looking for a pizza chef to get the second trailer up and running properly.

“The best thing is I have the freedom to go down whatever road I like and pursue anything I’m curious about. And the worst thing is the weather! Not because I don’t like being cold but a combination of wind and rain while working with high-temperature ovens is not ideal!”

Ron D’s Sandwich Truck

Simon Kershaw with his food truck Ron D's. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Simon Kershaw with his food truck Ron D's. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Simon is sous chef at the excellent Camus Farm Field Kitchen restaurant, outside Clonakilty, in West Cork. Kershaw spent extensive time cooking and travelling in the US and has an innate feel for the culinary vernacular of US casual dining and street food.

Ron D’s, which was run by him and his American wife, Liz, and called after her father, is currently in storage but this writer penned a rave review of Kershaw’s food truck menu during lockdown, when it pitched up every Wednesday in Ballydehob, serving the best grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever tasted in Ireland, featuring Kershaw’s own superb sourdough, premium local produce and some of Kershaw’s own wonderful sides, dressings and accompanying grace notes.

“My first proper experience of food trucks was definitely in the US. I remember chasing around LA trying to find Roy Choi’s food truck to have his Korean taco. You know how big LA is—it was an hour and a half. We did find it in the end and [chuckling] it wasn’t worth it but the idea was right, that stands out.

“I’d stopped cheffing, obviously, during lockdown, but picking up our food truck was a bit of luck, from an old couple out in Kilcrohane. It was the ‘everything’ truck, frozen burger patties, rotisserie chicken, a kebab, a fryer, a bit of everything. When we bought it, there was a kebab spit, a burger grill, a fryer dock, a rotisserie spit. They had brought it over from Germany, 15 years at it, doing all sorts of biker festivals and local things

“It all started with our Reuben [a classic American sandwich]. Make the bread, make a good sandwich and people will come. That’s the secret of food trucks anywhere, make one good thing, that’s what you need. In the US, you know your fried chicken spot, your Reuben spot, your burger spot. One good thing, do it well, do it right, what people are going to come for. Then the toasties followed and proper doughnuts—they were hugely well received.

“I had to stop in the end. It was taking me three days to prep, from Sunday when I began the bread, and honestly, life got in the way. My kids are so young and I was now back [working in a restaurant], my kids are so young, it was too much.

“And then there’s the fickle nature of the [food truck] business, they had such a heyday [during lockdown] but we were coming back out of Covid and I chose job security. I love the freedom of the food truck but I had to have the paycheck. Two rainy Wednesdays in a row — and you get them in West Cork! — and you’ve spent loads and earned nothing, it soon catches up.”

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