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James Cunningham

April 29, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

13 Questions with James Cunningham

Many of us in the speaking industry think of James Cunningham as one of the top emcees and entertainers in North America, always guaranteeing laughter and delight at whatever he undertakes. But did you know that he is also the host of the food TV program Eat St., and the  newly-minted author of the show’s companion cookbook?  The Indigo Lifestyle Blog recently had the chance to ask James about his top 5 meals, the appeal of food trucks and the correlation between tasty and messy:

Indigo Lifestyle Blog: Food trucks have taken street food and hand-held eats to a whole new level. What do you think is the food truck capital of North America?

James Cunningham: Without a doubt it is a tie between Portland, Oregon (700 food trucks) and Austin, Texas (500 food trucks). Both cities have embraced their food truck culture and really made great strides in promoting their successes. If you are looking for a great vacation, check out either of the two cities and you won’t be disappointed!

ILB: Why do you think we love to wait and line up outside for food? Is it memories of the childhood ice cream truck? Would restaurant food taste better if we had to wait in line and eat it outside?

JC: I call this “lining up” process for a food truck a “gourmet flash mob” (I invented the word – but you can use it). It is what sets food trucks apart from à la carte restaurants. There is something special about meeting other people in the line, chatting about other trucks or favourite experiences or dishes. There is a time for a nice wine list and being waited on but with summer coming up do yourself a favour and spend at least ONE lunch hour a week checking out your local food trucks – it’s a whole new experience.

ILB: Earlier this year Zane Caplansky approached CBC’s Dragon’s Den for financing to expand Thunderin’ Thelma (his food truck) into a fleet, but he was declined. Do you forsee truck “franchises” or fleets of food trucks across North America anytime soon? What food truck would you nominate to be franchised first?

JC: Zane is an all-around awesome dude and brilliant food entrepreneur. His idea was a good one but a franchise of food trucks is a difficult thing to manage. Most truck owners are very hands-on and are usually out with their trucks each and every day. I don’t doubt they are coming, in fact Smoke’s Poutinerie is already attempting to do this across Canada with a series of trucks – so we’ll soon find out how it goes. From what I’ve seen so far they are quite successful!

ILB: I have a hypothesis to share with you. Does more messy = more tasty food? Are they related?

JC: Oh absolutely! If you need a shower after a meal…that was a good meal!

ILB: Is there a type or style of food that you feel food trucks are better at executing/offering vs restaurants or vice versa?

JC: From what I have seen there is no limit to what can be made on a food truck! I am constantly blown away from the incredible offerings coming out the window. No one has opened up a Beef Wellington truck and I am sure a soufflé is a difficult thing but that is why we still have our brick and mortar restaurants for.

ILB: What was the most surprising thing you’ve eaten from a food truck?

JC: That is such an impossible question because the past few seasons has been FILLED with a neverending parade of incredible food! I hate to give the boring answer but they are ALL so surprising and good. Some notables would be the $27 lobster roll from “Ed’s Lobster Bar” in NYC. The Jal Muri from “Everybody love love Jal Muri” in London, England.

ILB: Name your top 5 food truck eats.

JC: Impossible…so very impossible! In no particular order I would have say some top contenders include:

Gordough’s donuts in Austin, TX.
Opal’s Thai Truck in Honolulu, HW
Vij’s Railway Express in Vancouver, BC
The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in New York, NY
The Cinamon Snail Truck in New York, NY
The Lime Truck in Orange County, CA
The Grill Cheese Truck in Los Angeles, CA
The Fojol Bros. in Washington, DC
The Gypsy Queen Café in Baltimore, MD (Mac and Cheese Cones with Bacon “Bling” recipe below)
…do you see how hard it is…?

ILB: How did you pick the final recipes and food trucks for the book?

JC: I ate….and ate….and ate….Actually it was our great food truck owners who contributed to the book – I can’t cook to save my life (which I admit to in the first sentences of the book) so we really owe the book to them. We put the call out to our food truck owners and they gladly filled the pages! I would say 80% of the submissions made the final cut.

ILB: Which is a better address: Eat St. or Sesame St?

JC: “Sesameat St.” of course!…which actually sounds very non-vegan friendly!

ILB: There are some bricks and mortar chefs that have started trucks (Vikram Vij) and some food truck chefs that have opened bricks and mortar locations (Buster Seacove, Fidel Gastro). Do you think we’ll see more blurring or blending between trucks and traditional restaurants?

JC: There has been a lot of talk about this “war” between food trucks and restaurants. What the industry has to realize is that they are really two different faces of the exact same business. There are many example of great food trucks growing into restaurants (Japadog out in Vancouver). And there numerous examples of great restaurants that have spun off into the food truck world (Alley Burger in Calgary and Vij’s in Vancouver) Any food truck could be a resto and any resto could be a food truck. I think we’ll see a lot more crossover in the coming years.

ILB: Have you been to any great restaurants that you think would translate as terrific food truck concepts or vice versa?

JC: I think Susur Lee needs to take a shot at the food truck world. He has been one of my favorite chefs for a long time and he has that cool kind of fusion cooking that would make for a very interesting truck! Momofuku would do really well with a noodle truck!

ILB: Do you think the rise of food trucks says something about our eating habits as a society? Are we eating more on-the-go more?

JC: With people now working an average of 60 hours a week (thank you smart phones!) our time is constrained so the time for sit-down meals has shrunk indeed. I am happy to see that these food trucks are bringing a gourmet flair to our limited schedules. Now we can enjoy GOOD food on the go, and it comes to US!

ILB: You credit the rise in popularity of food trucks with the use of social media. Do you think traditional bricks and mortar restaurants have anything to learn?

JC: Absolutely! Creating a fan base through social media is important to ANY business but especially in such a social industry as food.

Readers, we’re happy to share the recipe for one of James Cunningham’s best food truck meals from Gypsy Queen Cafe, courtesy of Eat St. and Penguin Canada.

Gypsy Queen Cafe | Baltimore, Maryland
Mac and Cheese Cones with Bacon “Bling”

Serves 6

The best part of eating macaroni and cheese out of a waffle cone is that you don’t get an ice-cream headache! I don’t think that’s why Annemarie and Tom came up with the idea, but what a great happy accident. Known for its amazing seafood, Baltimore’s Gypsy Queen Cafe is rolling around serving locals who can’t get enough of their unique cones. The Mac and Cheese Cone is one of their most popular.

And what are gypsies without their bling? In this case we’re talking not jewelry but bacon bling – an amazing sweet-tart-appley-smoky-bacony topping that’s the perfect adornment for mac and cheese.

eatstreet 1

Bacon “Bling”

1 lb (450 g) bacon, diced
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 tart apples, diced
3 cups (750 mL) barbecue sauce
3 tbsp (45 mL) liquid smoke
3 tbsp (45 mL) balsamic vinegar

Mac and Cheese Cones

1 ½ lb (675 g) macaroni, cooked and cooled
2 cups (500 mL) cream cheese, softened
1 lb (450 g) American cheese, cubed
8 oz (225 g) Asiago cheese, grated
4 cups (1 L) 10% cream
6 large malted waffle cones

For the “bling,” in a large skillet, cook bacon, onion, and apples over medium-high heat until bacon is crisp. Stir in barbecue sauce, liquid smoke, and vinegar. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until thick and caramelized, about 1 hour. Remove from heat.

For the cones, in a large saucepan, combine macaroni, cream cheese, American cheese, Asiago cheese, and cream. Heat over low heat, stirring frequently, until cheeses are melted and well blended. Spoon mac and cheese into malted cones and top with bacon “bling.”