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James Cunningham

September 16, 2014 by Speakers' Spotlight

The Food Truck Phenomenon

As the formidable host of the hit television program Eat St., James Cunningham brings people a curbside view of North America’s tastiest, messiest, and most irresistible street food. With the program already in its fifth season, James brings us up to date on what to expect from the show this year, and the state of food truck culture as it continues to grow:

There’s something about the street. It’s a great scene for the silver screen.

It’s a frontier, much like TV itself. The offerings are creative and infinitely fresher than whatever’s indoors – whatever’s in theatres, with the recipe locked in a studio’s vault. The actors move literally and upwards from and between the mediums, and the audience knows there’s a difference between 22 minutes and two hours, but the products are largely the same.

With the help of this article’s headline, you can maybe see the metaphor I’m going for here – the supposed split between next-generation-y food trucks and the restaurants their chefs have migrated from.

And maybe that’s what makes Eat St. so delicious, too.

“Our show started right on the cusp of this whole movement,” says James Cunningham, host of the Food Network’s Canadian series, now two episodes into its third season. “We let the food truck owners be themselves and just take us through what they do.

“We throw to them, and let them be their crazy selves… A lot of them are just really awesome people that love what they do.”

Cunningham and Eat St. tour North America, sipping and ingesting from the best mobile restaurants in a slew of the continent’s metropolises. The American food truck culture is now well-documented – you’ve no doubt seen it bragged about on Anthony Bourdain’s Layover or Jon Favreau’s new movie Chef – and the supernova keeps on exploding. Food trucks have gone from hipster cool to established chic, from a swell way to start a business to a viable peg in a chef’s empire.

But while several cities in the United States are cornered by hundreds of food trucks, Canada’s biggest cities – even Toronto or Montreal – tend to only flirt with the century mark, says Cunningham.

“What we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality,” says host Cunningham, who adds that Canadian food trucks are often born after plenty of research and planning, with a vision. “Once someone decides to open a food truck in Canada, their operation is pretty slick.”

Cunningham was born and raised in Toronto and lives there downtown now, but he’s more than familiar with Vancouver. This season, Eat St. will be showing off B.C.’s biggest city and its mobile food scene.

“Vancouver is probably our best street food city because of the weather factor, you’re spoiled out there,” he says. “You’ve got the good stuff out there.

“You guys can operate 365, seven days a week. Nobody’s outside in Toronto in minus-40 saying, ‘Hey, I want some street food.'”

Eat St. started its fifth season two weeks ago, heading to Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, and Vancouver in Episode 1. In B.C., Cunningham and crew enjoyed the feasts from Street Meet, a “West Coast take on European cuisine”.

In Episode 2, Eat St. took to Victoria, B.C. for Taco Justice – a “truck to wrestle your hunger into submission” – and also visited Philadelphia, Boston, and Seattle.

For Episode 3, the show again focuses on British Columbia. Tomorrow night’s program will feature Vancouver’s popular Mogu truck, a Japanese Street Eats truck run by Yuji Aoko and his wife Kumiko.

“The concept is basically Japanese-inspired fast food, so the fundamental flavours are Japanese but served in a North American style,” says Yuji.

He grew up in Vancouver, the son of Japanese parents. And Kumiko is from Japan. Their truck parks and serves downtown at Howe and Dunsmuir Streets and has a booth at the Richmond Night Market, every weekend and holiday Monday.

“Having the different influences here, I’ve sort of mixed that into the flavours, but it is Japanese at the core,” Yuji says of Mogu. “People in Vancouver, they like to go out and eat, so being out and eating at a food truck festival, I think is really attractive to Vancouver people.

“All the culture (here), all the different kinds of food… you can have Indian, Chinese, breakfast, juice at these spots,” he said. “It is getting stronger, the food truck culture.”

Yuji and Kumiko started Mogu in 2012 after an impressive showing at a taste-testing event downtown, at Vancouver Community College. The event’s judges chose 12 food carts and gave out 12 permits.

“We were lucky to get one of them,” says Yuji, who was working at a restaurant and attending the culinary program at VCC. “At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve gotta do this.’

“It’s not that I wanted to get away from a restaurant but I’ve always wanted to do a business of my own… it really allows for my own creativity to come through and it was allowing me to serve the kind of food I can serve in my style.”

Saturday’s Eat St. showing will be Yuji’s first time on television. He says the show was filmed about a year ago, taking a full day – starting at 6 a.m., ending around 7 p.m.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” he says. “They were totally professional and really helped me out. I think it ended up being really good.

“That will be very exciting (being on the Food Network). I’ve never been on TV. They will be very cool and they showcase a lot of food trucks all around North America, so that will be very cool.”

Tomorrow’s Eat St. will also return to the fifth season’s familiar venue of Philadelphia, as well as New York City and Portland, that much-loved capital of skinny jeans, live music, and craft beer.

“Every city has its own food truck personality, I call it,” says Cunningham, pointing out the strong scenes in Texas, Portland, Miami, and Los Angeles. “It’s really been taking over the world. Food truck are really just, they’re everywhere.

“People aren’t talking about it as a food trend anymore, it’s not going away anymore.”

One misconception people often have, says Cunningham, is that there’s some sort of war going on between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks. Like the Internet and newspaper or TV and movies (you still remember that attempt at a metaphor, right?), food trucks and their five-star big brothers are often pitted against each other by journalists like me, the folks desperate for a conversation or a column.

“We get calls from around the world, people say, ‘Tell us about the food truck war, the war between food trucks and restaurants,’ but it’s so not the same thing,” Cunningham says. “People eat at different places every day. What food trucks do is, they really re-energize areas.”

The difference between the two, of course, is that a food truck can never compete head-on with a restaurant – resources, money, size, and all that important stuff. But the flip side of that is, a food truck doesn’t need millions of dollars or the financing from someone with deeper pockets.

Tons of food trucks use social media to build their customer base, reaching out to fans on Twitter, Facebook, and the rest. Their promotions and marketing are as street smart as their kitchen is, and even Eat St. has adapted the identity. (The show has a Twitter handle – @EatStTweet – and a smartphone app that locates food trucks in a user’s vicinity.)

All that entrepreneurial endeavouring allows for trucks like Mogu to come about, with the help of the city, hungry bellies, and open mouths. And, of course, a truck.

“A lot of really good food trucks spin off into restaurants,” says Cunningham, adding the vice versa. “Vikram Vij has one of the greatest restaurants on the West Coast, for God sakes, and he opened a food truck to educate people, to bring his food to the streets.”

So maybe my metaphor’s not totally spot-on. Maybe, instead of trying to think like a writer, I should just sit back, turn on the tube, and grab a bite.

Any ideas?

By Kolby Solinsky/Victoria News/September, 2014