By Brian Duff | The Phoenix
Is it a sign of the shallowness of our national culture that we have spent half a decade excited by the idea of food served from trucks? Sure. But is it a symptom of some deeper condition? I suspect so. This summer offers a chance to investigate thanks to the arrival of a critical mass of food trucks around Portland, along with the film Chef, about a restaurant chef who starts a food truck.
The film, like many of the trucks, arrived in late May. Chef continues to hang around in theaters, thanks to generating good word-of-mouth as a heartwarming comedy. In truth its appeal lies deeper: in soothing our deepest apprehensions about adulthood. The food trucks here in Portland offer a tangible experience of the same reassuring escape into childhood.
Chef is directed by Jon Favreau, who launched his career by writing and starring in Swingers (1996) before going on to direct blockbusters like the Iron Man films. Chef supposedly marks his return to smarter, more adult material. But in fact the film’s themes and obsessions indicate a regression—into infantile anxieties about helplessness, poop, breasts, and the difficulty of achieving adult autonomy.
In Swingers, men chased women with hapless obsession, in the manner of preteen boys. In the new film, women are not among Carl Casper’s problems. Despite his schlubby appearance and lack of confidence, Hollywood’s two leading curvy beauties (Sofía Vergara and Scarlett Johansson) portray women who care for and nurture him with uncritical warmth and ample cleavage. Boys may chase girls, but infants just lie there chubby and helpless expecting a voluptuous woman to care for them and occasionally put a breast in their face. Chef Casper lives the same way.
Little boys often like trucks, and Chef Casper gets his own by giving up on adult autonomy. At the start of the film he appears to be a model of good authority. But though he has the words El Jefé (the boss) prominently tattooed on his knuckles, and he leads an admiring kitchen staff, Chef Casper turns out to be unbosslike. A prominent food blogger’s visit to his fancy L.A. restaurant prompts an argument between the chef, who wants to cook something inspired and new, and the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) who wants to serve the chef’s standby “greatest hits.” And though the owner ultimately agrees to let the chef decide since “it’s his kitchen,” Casper does it the owner’s way. Denying his moment of cowardice for the rest of the film, he insists repeatedly that he had no choice.
The resulting vicious review prompts a childish tantrum that goes viral. “You are not getting to me!” he screams, like a little kid who has been gotten to. He quits petulantly, is abandoned by his supposedly loyal staff (a betrayal quickly forgiven, like kids after a fight), and goes crawling to his ex-wife (Vergara) for help. His redemption begins when a food truck is gifted to him by a more successful man, who also delivers a pep talk designed to ward off infantile fears of the abject: “You are not a turd,” he reassures Chef Casper.
But he is pretty close, as the script reminds us through repeated jokes about the uncleanliness of his crotch—seriously, at least four. The truck, also initially dirty and smelly, is quickly fixed up and launched. Called, ironically, El Jefé, it serves Cuban sandwiches and becomes an instant success. In the novel How Should a Person Be, the author Sheila Heti describes her desire to live “a simple life…By a simple life I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in.” This is the infant’s fantasy of oneness with the world, and it re-emerges in Chef. In the simple life on the food truck, humble pork sandwiches attract worshipful multitudes as the truck moves across the nation.
It is a success in which the chef barely has to participate. The sandwiches are traditional and require none of the creativity that was supposedly the hallmark of his restaurant days. As he explains to his son at a farmers’ market, cooks don’t give orders, they take them: “the ingredients tell you what to do.” And you do it over and over the same way. Having taught his kid to butter rolls and press sandwiches, he says, “now be a robot.”
But if modern life has taught us anything it’s that robots can make, and trucks deliver, a lot of neat stuff. The folks who have chosen to undertake repetitive labor on Portland’s food trucks are delivering some appealing cuisine to previously neglected parts of town. The three I visited do so with food as simple as Chef’s Cuban sandwiches—which suggests there might be something to the film’s advice that we abandon pretensions to adult sophistication.
Perhaps the least pretentious of the local trucks is Mainely Burgers. The pale yellow truck sits up high, so you can peer up at the counter like a child. Its operator is a real food truck bro. As I tried to discretely snap a photo he leaned out, yelling “Yeah! Put that on Facebook, man!” The burgers feature a patty just big enough for its pillowy-white potato-roll. Cooked medium-well, they have a good texture, avoiding too fine a grind. Among their specialty burgers was one that combined sour and sweet in the form of a huge schmear of tangy mayo and thin slices of apple. The thinnish fries are a great-looking brown, and lean toward crunch. They are served with a choice of appealing sauces, like a mustard-mayo house sauce and a pesto mayo. Its hot crunchy grease covered in cool slippery grease—so good.
Bite into Maine was one of the area’s first trucks, and they have a prime location to show for it—in Fort Williams Park. It’s more of a trailer really, a nice metallic retro one. They specialize in lobster rolls, and make good ones, with lots of tender claw meat on a traditional split bun. The “picnic” roll pours hot butter over the meat as it sits on a layer of tart coleslaw, which adds some crunchy texture. You can also customize a traditional roll with a choice of specialty mayos, including a sharp wasabi. The main side is a potato salad with lots of chive and a zing of sour.
CN Shawarma’s sparkling blue truck is one of the newest in town. Like Bite Into Maine, it’s run by a friendly couple, and has grabbed a great location—usually on the Eastern Promenade. They call themselves an “Arabian BBQ,” which I am not sure about, but I was glad to see some actual rotating meat—the only such vertical spit I have seen in Maine. On it piles of spiced chicken simultaneously marinate and roast, waiting to be shaved. Instead of a pita they use a thicker flatbread, but the sandwich has enough flavor to stand up to it. There is little or no tahini, and the well-seasoned meat, a saffron yellow, mostly speaks for itself. This works a bit better for the chicken then the falafel, which could use more spice. Both sandwiches are animated by the sharpness and crunch of pickled beet. A fattoush salad mixed some minty flavor with bitter greens, and a thin just-sweet dressing.
One of the adulthood’s most painful responsibilities is paying for a restaurant meal, and engaging in actual conversation that befits the occasion with the person across from you. While Portland’s food trucks won’t necessarily resolve our infantile anxieties, at least we can get some good food for about $7 (lobster rolls extra), sit next to our companions on some grass, and eat in silence. Chef Casper eventually escapes his truck to launch a new restaurant backed by the blogger who savaged him. The central fantasy of the film is that becoming a good adult and father is a simple matter of teaching a kid to make a sandwich. (Much more convincing is the chef’s initial admission that “I am not exactly dad material”). But not far behind is the food truck fantasy of instant success and easy riches. In reality, food trucking probably involves working very hard to make things look easy and serve simple food that soothes the anxious child within. If only there was a way to get Scar Jo to spoonfeed it to us.