Comedian James Cunningham takes us on a tour of the best food trucks in America with his new Cooking Channel series, on Tuesdays at 8pm
Comedian James Cunningham is taking to the streets of America, looking for the best food trucks this country has to offer. His new Cooking Channel series Eat St. is out to capture the mobile cuisine renaissance that is currently sweeping the national, with all new episodes set to debut every Tuesday night at 8pm.
Eat St. is a lip-smacking celebration of North America's tastiest, messiest and most irresistible street foods. From Tijuana-style tacos served out of an Airstream trailer and pizzas baked in a brick oven on wheels to classic dogs with all the fixins and sirloin burgers slathered in bacon jam. The stars of the show are the vendors; food mavericks with creative takes on mobile meals and inspiring stories to tell. Seeking out the very best curbside eats all over North America, Eat St. is your grease-stained roadmap to the ultimate street food experience.
We recently caught up with James Cunningham on the eve of his second episode, which takes a look at the popular Frysmith Truck of Los Angeles. Here is our conversation about Eat St. and all-things food related:
How does a comedian get such an awesome side job? And were you always a fan of these new food-inspired shows that have emerged in recent years?
James Cunningham: I have always been a fan of the Food Network. I love to eat. I am omnivorous. I eat everything. Without a girlfriend, I would starve in the kitchen, so I eat out a lot. Also, being a comedian, I am always on the road. I am eating at food carts and restaurants all over the place. So this was a good fit. I was never really a foodie before this show came along. But now, I love this whole renaissance explosion of these food carts. In terms of the TV show format, I have always loved the Food Network. My girlfriend always has it on in the background. And the Cooking Channel. But in terms of this, I never really saw myself as a host on the Cooking Channel. Now that I am, I have to say...I freakin' love it! Number one, because when you show up to a gaggle f food trucks, and you say that you are from the Cooking Channel, suddenly everything is free. My life became really cool. I love being on the Cooking Channel for that reason alone. All of these new food shows are pretty cool, but our show is a little bit different. You have Guy Fieri's show, he is in the kitchen, cooking with the chefs. O our show, we stand back, and we let the food truck operators, who are some pretty innovative and creative chefs...We let them have their own segment. We let them take us through it. We let the chefs and the food be the stars. Which is pretty cool. My job as the host is great. I get to show up, eat food, and let them do the job. It's a great job, my friend, and I couldn't be happier.
Its different in that we also don't see you at the truck eating the food...
James Cunningham: It's a magazine format. We made a conscious decision off the top. We didn't want to be like any other food show out there. You see these different shows, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Man vs. Food...You have a star of the show, and he is taking you through the trucks and the restaurants, and showing you how its all prepared. We didn't want to do that. We wanted something different. So, it's me doing the throws, and hosting. At the end of the day, it's not about me at all. It stands out because of that. I think its pretty cool in that way.
How do you know where these food carts are going to be? Is it just luck of the draw?
James Cunningham: Oh, no. Not at all. We spend a lot of time on the social media aspect of this new food truck revolution. Where did this revolution come out of? Look at the economy. The economy collapses, so you have a number of really good, entrepreneurial chefs out of work. What they did was think, "Okay, I am out of work, what do I do? Do I spend a quarter of a million dollars and invest in my own restaurant? Which I cannot afford to do. Or do I take twenty or thirty grand and go open a food truck?" A lot of them did that, and they were very successful. It was like the perfect storm. They coupled this new food movement with social media. Because of Twitter and Facebook, what's been happening is, now they are able to build their fanbase. Its like the grilled cheese truck we saw featured in Los Angeles. These food trucks will Tweet their locations as they move around the cities. What will happen is that they will pull up to these locations, and they will already have forty patrons waiting in line for the food truck to arrive. That had never happened before. Now, they are using the Droid applications. They are using iPhone apps. Twitter. It is amazing how they are using this GPS technology to build their business. What we did was spin of on that. We have a free app in the iTunes app store that is called the Eat St. app. When you are in any city in America, what you do is, you just hit the app, it will locate where you are in the city, and it will locate all of the food trucks within five, ten, or fifteen kilometers of your current location. Not only that, they will show you what food they are featuring, if they have any specials, and you can pre-order stuff on you iPhone, This internet thing is really taking the mystery out of finding where these food trucks are, and where they roam. It depends on the city, because some cities have different bylaws. Some cities require that a food truck stay stationary, in one spot, for the whole time. Some cities allow them to roam. You have to also look at what they are using, We feature both the trucks and the carts. Some of the carts are just old converted hotdog carts. So they are not any bigger than a phone booth. It didn't matter to us. We shot the whole range. Small independent carts to fully mobile, converted double-decker buses. That fell into our perimeter. But again, social media has really taken the mystery out of where to find really great food trucks.
The next obvious evolutionary step is to be able to get this food while you are watching it on TV. Watching the episode with the Redonkadonk Burger, I just want to eat it off my TV screen...
James Cunningham: Oh, yeah. Exactly. That is the thing with the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. It's incredible. I call it food porn. Because its this HD photography of this beautiful food. Our camera guy was phenomenal in how he shot all of this gorgeous stuff. This street food, like Korean short rib tacos. The grilled cheese. That Redonkadonk Burger. This is why we came up with these apps. You can leave your TV, walk out your front door, and hit up a street food truck. Its great.
You mentioned Korean short rib tacos. Have you been to Red Hot Kitchen?
James Cunningham: In Los Angeles? No, I have not. I have now, because I have been doing media all day, a list of twelve places I have to go. Someone told me I have to go to this place called Street. Have you been to Street?
James Cunningham: Is it worth it?
Its pretty good.
James Cunningham: What about this place you're telling me about. What is it called?
It's a place I found by accident. I just moved into this house, and it is literally around the corner from me. Its in the middle of nowhere for Los Angeles. It's Korean-Mexican. Its called Red Hot Kitchen.
James Cunningham: So it's a BBQ fusion kid of thing.
Its Kimchi chimichangas, they have bulgogi burritos with glass noodles, the short rib taco.
James Cunningham: See, what's happening is all of these young cool chefs are throwing the rule book out the window now. And with all of this fusion going on, its mind blowing. Totally mind blowing, like Mexican-Korean fusion. Stuff you've never seen before. That can only happen in America. You have all of these ethnic foods coming together with these classic comfort foods. It's a great blend. With a food truck or cart, your operating expenses are a lot lower. You can bring all of this great gourmet food to the masses at an affordable price. It is really making all of these foodies out of people that wouldn't have thought of themselves as foodies before. Which is great.
On this Tuesday's episode, we see the truck Brunchbox, which has the Redonkadonk Burger. Which has a bun made out of two grilled cheese sandwiches. The Vortex in Atlanta also has this, which was featured on Man vs. Food. But who had it first? Do you ever see any rivalries with some of these new food fusion inventions?
James Cunningham: Because you have so much fusion, and so much new stuff coming out...Half of the trucks that we shot didn't even exist up to a year ago. So this is all brand new. The food truck community is all over the country, north to south. What's happening is that a lot of the same comfort foods, and the same themes keep coming up. But the way its being used is unbelievable. The Redonkadonk Burger, what does it have? It has Spam, it has turkey, it has eggs. Its ridiculous. The ingredients of the Redonkadonk Burger are like nothing else. There were a couple of other burgers that I saw. There is another truck that was featured in the show The Great Food Truck War. They also had a bun that was made out of two grilled cheese sandwiches. I think they are aware of each other. We do see a lot of similar themes popping up. When you are looking at a food truck, you have a grill, and you have a lot of the same staples. These fusion ideas are coming out of this. I don't want to say they are balling off each other, but what's happening is that it's all coming together in unique and interesting ways. I haven't experienced any competition. They aren't competitive. I haven't noticed any of that going on. I think there is enough room, and it's a huge market, so people can have similar ideas. I don't think anyone is getting ripped off. I wouldn't be surprised if some rivalries do start to pop up. But from what I have seen, there aren't any at this current time. Not yet. Portland, Oregon alone has four hundred food trucks, if you can wrap your head around that. Portland isn't a massive city. As all of these food trucks are starting to explode, there is a lot of creativity, but there is only so much you can do, so there is going to be some overlap. What I have found with the 52 trucks that we shot: These guys are all creative, and they are all a little bit nuts. You'll see that in the episodes. I don't think anyone is doing anything in quite the same way. Out of 52 trucks, every time I found my favorite one, I would go to anther city, and I would find my new favorite one. I never found myself saying, "Oh, no! Not this again." That is from 52 trucks. That is a lot of food. I never saw the same thing twice.
Did part of the research for this show come from you doing stand-up, and remembering various food trucks from your stays in different cities around the country?
James Cunningham: No. Social Media, again, actually played a big role in how we chose these different trucks. We went to the trucks that had the most buzz online. We found out which trucks had the most fans, and the most followers. We found fans that are real advocates of the trucks they love. When they find a truck they love, they go all out. They become the marketing department, they become the PR department. They blog about it. The trucks that had the most buzz, and the ones that were the most interesting? That is what made season one.
What was the weirdest truck you saw during this adventure?
James Cunningham: One of the weirdest ones was Maximus Minimus, which was a pulled pork truck. It was in Portland, I think. I could be wrong. But the guy decked out his truck to look like a pig. It's a metal gladiator pig. It's hilarious. Really funny. That was the funniest looking truck. The weirdest food? I wish I could say one was my favorite, or one was my 'this'...But every time I would say, "That was the best so far!" We'd be in another city with something else mind blowing. This stuff coming off of these food trucks is just unbelievable now. I remember food trucks. You think of those carts, and it's the hot dog water. The kebabs. But this whole revolution is going to blow that away. It's unbelievable and phenomenal.
You mention the explosion of food trucks in Portland. My parents live up that way. It's the strip capital of the world. Has anyone merged the steak and strip experience into a food truck scenario? Maybe get your steak from the window, and then peek at the girl dancing in back of the truck?
James Cunningham: Not yet. But I think I want to do that. I think we have a business opportunity. I think you and I should do this.
I think that would do well in Portland. Anytime I am taken out to lunch in the city of Portland its for the steak and strip.
James Cunningham: I should hang out in Portland more often.
Well, the steaks aren't so good sometimes.
James Cunningham: Hey, it doesn't matter!
Are you planning to incorporate more of your own style of comedy into the show?
James Cunningham: We sat down and made a really conscious decision about the show off the top. Although I am a stand-up comic, I am not the star of the show. We would walk around and meet people, and these personalities...The chefs who own the food trucks? They have such strong personalities, and they have such great stories...We thought, I don't need to be a wacky, crazy, hosty type of guy. Its about setting up these guys, telling them were we are...It's a very simple, magazine-style format show. We have a load of fun on the road, but at the end of the day, and I am fine with this...Its not about me. Which I think is great. That's what makes it stand out from other food shows.
You guys shot 52 food trucks. Is there such an abundance of these vehicles that season two is a no brainer?
James Cunningham: We are actually shooting season two this summer. I am in Los Angeles right now, wrapping up the first season. Once I finish that, we literally begin starting Season 2. We start that on Monday. The first season is in the can, more or less. Now that we know what we are doing, we have this down to a science. We are probably going to have the second season done by fall. By the time the first season is wrapped, we'll be ready to show you the second season. Which is great.