Chicago’s Food Truck War

If you’re checking your Twitter feed these days to find out where all the best Chicago food trucks are dropping anchor for lunch, you’re better off checking in with the City Council. If you haven’t heard, food trucks are illegal in Chicago. More precisely, for a food truck to be in operation in Chicago, everything must be prepackaged in a licensed kitchen before hitting the streets. So, while cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Austin have long embraced the food truck phenomenon, current laws prevent Chicago’s best from cooking, cutting, and prepping food on board a truck. But the fists (and boning knives and rolling pins and butane torches) have been raised. The Chicago Food Truck Revolution is imminent.

A few weeks ago, a standing-room only crowd of eager restaurateurs packed into an auditorium at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, hoping for a clue about to how to mobilize their movement. On the stage sat some of the hottest movable chefs from around the country. Ludo Lefebrvre of pop-up restaurant fame in Los Angeles stirred the audience with descriptions of his new fried chicken truck. Mary Sue Milliken, also from L.A., spoke enthusiastically about how the Border Grill Truck has driven up her restaurants’ popularity and sales. San Francisco’s Aaron Noveshen, co-founder and director of culinary development for The Culinary Edge/Mobi Munch/Pacific Catch, regaled guests with tales of a fleet of mobile food trucks zig-zagging around the city’s perilous streets.

Also on the panel sat Tiffany Kurtz, founder of Flirty Cupcakes, who for all intents and purposes runs what could be called Chicago’s first gourmet food truck. The audience listened as she explained how she got around Chicago’s tough laws governing mobile food. “It was difficult,” she explained later, “primarily just because there is nothing created or developed that tells you exactly what the requirements are for establishing a mobile cupcake truck. All the rules and restrictions are in various documents, are vague, and not easy to find.”

But just because the laws are tough doesn’t mean Chicagoans are backing down. Word on the street is that chefs from Alinea, Big Star, Urban Belly, Frontera Grill, Perennial, Graham Elliot, and Naha are raring to rev their engines. And gauging from the sheer amount of National Restaurant Association attendees climbing aboard the MobiMunch demo truck last month, there’s probably a handful more eager to get themselves a set of wheels.

Ray Villeman, founder of MobiMunch mobile trucks, has firm opinions about what it’s going to take for the city to get up and rolling. “Chicago, like other major cities that have embraced the gourmet food truck movement, will need to build a large consumer base of support, actively campaign to local politicians for change, and assist in crafting new ‘rules’ to coexist with the brick and mortar restaurants. Chicago should look at the example of other major cities that have overcome similar barriers and leverage lessons learned,” he says.

Aiming to do just that is Chef Matt Maroni, one of the leaders of the food truck revolution in Chicago. This week he opened a 13-seat sandwich shop in Edgewater called Gaztro-Wagon, named after the truck he hopes to get rolling once his proposal passes through city council. He has been working hard to build up local support through an organization he founded called Chicago Food Trucks.

“I never saw myself doing this, but when I started looking at a unique concept with little start up capital, I saw that food trucks and carts are what lacked in the city of Chicago,” says Maroni on how he got started not only with Gaztro-Wagon, but also with Chicago Food Trucks, an organization dedicated to getting this movement off the ground. “When I started looking into the legislations and codes is when I realized that I had a real opportunity to make a difference and bring this to light. So I did the research and worked about 12 hours a day for over a month gathering info and authoring the proposed legislation. I was unemployed at the time and it helped me get out of a rut and keep my mind busy. I took it on knowing that it may pick up steam or it may fizzle, but I know that as of now it is full of steam and Chicago is headed in the right direction.”

City Council meets this week to discuss Maroni’s proposed ordinance. If it doesn’t pass, there’ll be no roving short rib tacos like you can get from LA’s wildly popular Kogi Korean BBQ truck. There will be no Nutella and banana crepes like the ones the Le Gamin truck in New York spins out. Certainly, there will be no chicken and waffles like those from Lucky J’s Trailer in Austin, TX. If it doesn’t pass, it will be an embarrassment to the city of Chicago. But if it does pass, then LA, NYC, and all the other food truck cities better get ready for some fierce competition. Let the vendrification begin.

The New Old White House Chef

imageWhile President-Elect Obama may be enjoy the folksy bonhomie of wolfing down a chili halfsmoke with cheese at Ben’s Chili Bowl, there’s no chance those line cooks will be working the White House grills. Recent speculation ran wild as to who would chef it up for the Obamas. Would it be Obama’s favorite chef Rick Bayless, the drawing power behind Chicago’s Topolobampo and Frontera Grill? And what about the infamous Alice Waters of Chez Panisse who offered to be head of Obama’s “kitchen cabinet”? Well, the answer is actually none of the above.

As per White House policy, chefs may come and go, but a new administration does not mean a new chef. Bush White House chef Cristeta Comerford, the first female white House chef ever, was hired by first lady Laura Bush in 2005 and will now cook for the Obama clan. “The decision was anticlimactic, if not disappointing, reports the Washington Post. “[S]ome food lovers had cast Barack Obama as the next American food hero. While George W. Bush is renowned for his love of cheeseburgers, Obama understands the pain of high-priced arugula at Whole Foods. He not only favored Bayless’s restaurants, but he also was a regular at upscale Spiaggia and South Side institution Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, famous for its corn cakes. Here was a man who could bring organic and sustainable food to the political table.” But no. There will be no loud splash. In fact, traditionally, the White House chef needs three qualifications: to be an accomplished cook, have no ego, and be discreet — rare in the world of celebrity chefs. In other words, perfect for no-drama Obama.

Industry Insiders: Steve Haffner, Kayak King

Steve Haffner, the man behind the curtain at, reveals his jet-setting ways, mid-meeting bar games, and the destinations you should add to your globetrotting roster.

Where can we find you outside the office? I travel a lot, and I love the restaurant scene. La Esquina in New York is a great Mexican restaurant in the basement of a nondescript building. I like Rick Bayliss’ place in Chicago, the Frontera Grill. I love the bar scene at the Sanderson Hotel in London. It’s a good mix of Europeans, Russians, and the occasional expat.

Who do you admire in your industry? There are those larger than life types: David Neelman, who started jetBlue — he’s a serial airline launcher who has made money every time. He just launched Azul in Brazil last week, and he’s amazing. Another is Jeff Boyd of Priceline, who has been there for eight or nine years. He took a nice little company and made it outperform everybody in the industry. Now it’s worth $3.5 billion.

What is something that people might not know about you? One of the things is that I’m addicted to is bar games. We’ve got a pool table in the office, and we’re putting a basketball court in our new, larger office space. We break up our meetings and go play. If you do it enough at work, you find that when you play with your friends that you’re quite good at it. For instance, if you play somebody for the bar bill, you beat them.

Favorite destinations? My favorite destination is the Eden Roc hotel in Antibes, a magical place, enchanting. They used to take cash only, but now take credit cards. I love the Hotel Costes in Paris and the bar — it’s managed to stay on top for awhile now. The pool underneath it is great, but you can never turn the light on in the rooms. My favorite hotel in New York is the Bowery; it’s hipper than the Mercer, even though the neighborhood is worse, and the bar scene is fabulous. I had my 40th birthday at Setai in South Beach, and threw the actual birthday party at the Delano. Ian Schraeger’s ability to keep the quality up is amazing. Also, the Shore Club next door to the Setai is much more “go-go” than the Setai is.

Notice any trends in the travel realm that we should know about? I love that bars and hotels are focusing on service and making the experience different. There are now niche brands, boutique hotels and bars. You can get great deals at luxury hotels without sacrificing service. We’re going to the Ocean Club this year — the prices make it a good deal.

What are you doing tonight? Tonight is going to be a boring evening. Last night I was in Boston, and tomorrow we’re having a party at our house. Tonight, after we put the kids to bed, I’m taking the wife out to Paci in Westport. A French friend had his 40th birthday there with his boyfriend, and the host is from Naples, and he takes care of us.

The Restaurant Life of Barack and Michelle Obama

Now that Barack’s been elected to office, not only does he not have to pay for food anymore, but he can order whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, and deploy an armored motorcade to pick it up. Such is the gastronomical gift bestowed upon the most powerful man in the world. There are already rumors that President-Elect Obama will starve Oprah by stealing her preferred chef, Art Smith, and bringing him along to the White House. But a mere one man will not be able to satisfy Obama’s presidential cravings, and since he can longer casually slip into his favorite spots for some pancakes, he’ll be sending Secret Service agents to restaurants across the country to pick up his favorite grub. Here’s a rundown of some of the spots that Obama might order takeout from on a late night of saving the planet.

1. Topolobampo (Chicago) Celebrity chef has lured Bam to this froufrou Mexican eatery with his sopa azteca (pictured above) — a dark broth flavored with pasilla chiles and stocked with grilled chicken, avocado, Meadow Valley Farm hand-made jack cheese, thick cream, and crisp tortilla strips. Favorite dish, favorite restaurant.

2. Spiaggia (Chicago) The Obamas’ special occasion spot. What better way to celebrate a wedding anniversary (October 3) or a McCain ass-whipping (November 8) than with heart-stopping views of Lake Michigan at this four-star Italian gem. Last Valentine’s Day, the couple dropped a measly $700 on an eight-course meal.

3. Sylvia’s (New York) Barack once chatted up the Reverend Al Sharpton over some fried chicken (we presume) at this Harlem soul food institution. Also the site of one of election night’s biggest celebrations.

4. Sepia (Chicago) Michelle Obama, environmental crusader that she is, often dines at this West Loop hit, whose menu is replete with contemporary American cuisine using organic and sustainable ingredients whenever possible.

5. The Source (Washington DC) One of Obama’s favorite DC spots is a pillar of Wolfgang Puck’s fusion empire. Prime beef sliders with smoked onion marmalade and white cheddar to 1600 Pennsylvania, stat.

6. Casa Oaxaca (Washington DC) No word yet on whether the future Prez is yet aware of this authentic Mexican bistro, but he’s been known to nosh on the occasional roasted grasshopper. Oaxaca fries their bugs, but good grasshopper is good grasshopper.

7 Ben’s Chili Bowl (Washington DC) Chili will undoubtedly be an integral part in shaping how the Obama administration governs. Michelle says her husband makes a “mean chili” and follows a family recipe to get it done. But U Street residents will tell you that the meanest chili in town belongs to Ben’s, a vintage chrome diner, jukebox and all. Night-hawk drunkards should not be surprised to find a man in sunglasses and dark suit, asking his boss if he’d like chili cheese fries with that.

8. Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu) On a recent visit back home, Obama said that he “might” go to this local fave from a bygone era. And why not? Chili rice and BBQ beef sandwiches come in presidential portions, and prices are stock market low, because someone needs to save up for a new puppy.

9. Cosi (Everywhere) Leave it to McDonald’s addict Bill Clinton to assault Obama’s refined palette with generic flatbreads and pizza. The two dined on takeout from this chain restaurant specializing in sandwiches and salads. But, it is sort of comforting that two of the most influential men in the world, with the greatest restaurants in the world at their fingertips, chose to eat food for the people. Respect.