In addition to being a celebrated comedian and corporate emcee, James Cunningham is also the formidable host of the hit television program Eat St., where he brings people a curbside view of North America’s tastiest, messiest, and most irresistible street food. The Food Network’s Abbey Sharp caught up with James for a chat about the new season, his dream food truck, and street food laws:
It’s been a year since I made my way down to an Eat St. filming to stuff my face with the goods of Feisty Jack and Curbside Bliss on camera. So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that Eat St. was returning to Food Network Canada on Saturday, September 6th with its highly anticipated 5th season. In honour of the show’s return, I had a chat with Eat St.’s hilarious host and super-foodie, James Cunningham. James and I go way back to the early days of the Toronto food truck scene when I won a chance to interview him via an Eat St. twitter contest. Since then, I had him judge one of my foodie events (Abbey’s Kitchen Stadium) and I’ve bumped into him at various food events and galas. You can bet your boots there’s always a nice combination of deep-belly laughs, cocktails, great food and a few selfies every time the two of us chat. The following is what came out of our latest discussion in the weeks leading up to the season 5 launch.
Abbey Sharp: So James, I’m sure Season 5 was a blast to film, what was your favourite memory?
James Cunningham: With 104 trucks and 24 episodes, I think Season 5 is going to be best because the trucks are just getting crazier. The Pink Tank in Denver, Colorado really stands out in terms of totally insanity. The owner has a pink Mohawk, and has a DJ booth and flame throwers on the top of the truck.
AS: Wow, well obviously people are getting more and more creative as the food truck phenomenon grows. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen served on a food truck?
JC: I think a lot of the entrepreneurs are getting slicker and slicker. They have been watching Eat St. for four years now so they’re getting exponentially better. Swede Dish in Orlando serves this crazy mashed potato and crab salad on top of a hot dog. And that was delicious. Oh and the best burger came from Mainley Burgers in Portland Maine. They have this Le Eiffel Burger that is topped with a tower of onion rings. It’s insanely good.
AS: That does sound incredible. So you’ve surely seen a lot of cool street eats, what do you really want to see done on a food truck that you haven’t seen yet?
JC: It’s a Canadian thing- I would love to see Bannock. I was in Saskatchewan where bannock is popular, and I was asking some of the people there, why isn’t there a Bannock food truck? You can dunk it, you can top it, you can put meat in it, fruit in it, sweet or savoury. It’s kind of like the Canadian taco or crepe- it’s a food I would like to see taken to a better level in a bunch of different directions. And then we could see a bannock truck in the States and it would be our way of saying, hey, this is Canadian, we’re not just poutine. I think bannock could be done so well. Do you want to do it? Abbey’s Bannock Truck – I would invest in that.
AS: I am so up for the challenge! Bannock pizza, breakfast bannock with bacon and maple syrup, bannock burger- so many delicious opportunities. So flip that, what do you never want to see done on the truck?
JC: You know, I’ve seen many hot dogs and burgers and you think I’d be tired of them but I’m actually not. I think the trucks that are doing the basic comfort food items are really doing them with such a great fusion approach. Crepes, hot dogs, tacos, and burgers, I’ve had 9 million servings of them all, but I’ve never been let down.
AS: I guess the sky really is the limit. From what you’ve seen now on Season 5, what are some of the emerging areas in North America for food trucks?
JC: We’ve got seven trucks in this season from Columbus, Ohio. We also got to places like Knoxville, La Fayette, Denver, and Michigan. What a lot of these trucks are finding is that you can do a really amazing breakfast and lunch service in suburban business areas where there aren’t a lot of options for the work crowd. There is a thriving food truck scene in these restaurant deserts. So we’ve moved from large downtown scenes of New York and Miami to these suburban business areas in smaller cities.
AS: That’s so true and makes a lot of smart sense. Now, I’m finding that a lot of food trucks like to do the event scene more than daily service, especially in Toronto where street vending laws are tough. What do you think makes for an awesome food truck rally or event?
JC: Variety is the key. The best cities have the best rallies when the food truck vendors communicate- when there’s a great community. So if there are three Indian food trucks in a city, they need to communicate so they don’t all go to the same events. You have to have a simple menu, too. It’s an A.D.D. foodie thing. People don’t want to have a long list of options to decide on. So when you decide between which truck to eat at, you want a truck that does just three to four things really well. I always go up to the truck and just ask them what’s good and it’s always the best choice.
AS: That’s definitely my approach as well. So back to the Toronto food scene, it’s definitely tough for a lot of these food trucks to serve on the streets with the tough bylaws recently enforced. One of the big arguments against loosening the laws is that food trucks are a threat to brick and mortar restaurants. What do you think?
JC: No, it’s a stupid food truck owner that parks his truck directly outside a restaurant. It’s just two different things. How many restaurants have spun off into food trucks, and how many food trucks have spun off into restaurants. If you have a passionate chef, who is good at what they’re doing, and bringing it to the streets at great prices, the truck will do well. People will keep coming back because it’s good stuff. Food trucks are like gourmet flash mobs. It’s something that wasn’t there before and now you have food from a truck that wasn’t there before. It’s bringing unique cuisine to unique places to people who are hungry. But bottom line, being passionate is so important- if you don’t love it, you wont be successful.
AS: Oh yes, food truck work is a labour of love for sure. What would you personally say to change people’s minds who are against having food trucks here in Toronto?
JC: Well, you just can’t ignore the economic impact. When you look at Detroit, the best revitalization projects are because of good food coming in. A lot of small towns that have dying downtowns are bringing in good food. People travel for food. A lot of the cities have turned food deserts into food truck parks, so now people are coming out of their way and go to have their meal at their park. Also, a food truck is a great solution to places where a restaurant wouldn’t work but you still need food options. And since Toronto is so seasonal, some areas like out by the docks, a restaurant just wouldn’t work year round, but a food truck has a opportunity to set up when it works, and then get out.
AS: That’s a really good point. Well like you said, a lot of food trucks eventually make enough money or build a big enough following to open up a brick and mortar restaurant. Which food truck do you want to see become a restaurant?
JC: Fresh Local Wild in Vancouver- they have a small trailer, and I would love to see what they do in a full restaurant. They do 100 mile cuisine, freshly grown, so whatever is great that day, they make a meal out of it.
AS: That is totally my style. Let’s hope they build an outpost here in Toronto too. Thank you James for taking the time to chat, you definitely are getting us all pumped for the upcoming Season 5 premiere!