American Pantry UK

American Pantry UK Blog

How we have New York to blame for the Food Truck Foodie

Bleeker St Burger Food TruckIn 2009, something happened the English never could have anticipated – their esteemed food critics were queuing van-side for burgers and hot dogs. The most notable launches often had no fixed address. And the only credible cooked ground beef, it seemed, was rarely more than four meters from gasoline.

Understanding how the humble food truck went from snack palace to gourmand ‘foodie’ icon here in London is like trying to understand how Miley Cyrus became a ‘grown-up’ the night she twerked on Robin Thicke. Like twerking and growing up, you can’t limit the so-called food truck revolution to one influence from one place. The push for higher quality mobile fare frothed up in several US cities – namely Austin, Portland, and Los Angeles – all at about the same time. Cities like Beirut, Hong Kong and Seoul also factor in. But New York arguably changed the paradigm.

You surely know the story by now, but to summarise for the sake of background: following the failure of the large New York banks in 2008, scores of young professionals used to expense-account dining found themselves jobless. Chefs, used to ready access to capital, found themselves blocked from borrowing. Smart chefs and aspiring restaurateurs began to use the food truck format as a prototype for larger businesses, complete with slick branding and clever use of PR. Smart foodies (a term coined in NY) leveraged social media to showcase the gastronomic expertise they developed when times were better. It was the perfect storm.

Thanks in part to the film and fashion industries, there is an undeniable cultural exchange between London and New York that exceeds that of other cities. The food truck scene in London got going about two years after the New York scene did, and followed in a similar pattern: hypercharge your branding, attract young professionals and trend-setters, leverage social media and go bricks and mortar when you can. The similarity also extends to the food central to the London scene: ‘dirty’ New York staples like burgers, hot dogs, donuts and Asian fusion, but done to a standard to entice the discriminate diner.

If there is a legacy of the cultural exchange worth celebrating, it’s this: affordable food is better than it ever has been in the UK. Behind the burger is often a smart entrepreneur that has both culinary expertise and the nous to create hype in a crowded market. In front of the burger is someone who is prepared to pay for quality ingredients with provenance, ingredients once limited to fine delis and restaurants. And around the burger is the privilege of sitting at the chef’s table, stripped of the need to underwrite high rents and expensive fixtures and fittings. Yes, there has been good, cheap food in London for some time, but not with the same range and culinary creativity.

It’s a rare occasion to give pause to thank a New York investment banker, but credit is due in part to them for the quality and chutzpah of the early food truck movement. Ironically, the group once driving the exclusivity of food is responsible in part for the democratisation of access to restaurant-quality cuisine. So, thank New York for this, for encouraging the reticent people of London to brag about eating street food and for the word ‘foodie’ to help us make sense of it all.

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