Once they were the future—food trucks, bringing innovative new tastes to the hungry masses of the Loop and other places where drab fast food dominated. It was Phillip Foss with Meatyballs Mobile and Matt Maroni with Gaztro-Wagon who led the movement to change the city's laws and attitudes toward food trucks and make them the center of street-level culinary innovation, way back in 2010.
Foss and Maroni were also two of the first food-truck burnouts, both switching back to a brick-and-mortar life after a year or so. In Foss's case, he went back to fine dining in his own way, turning his food-truck prep kitchen on a dead-end south-side street into a permanent nighttime pop-up restaurant, El Ideas. (He also went through a divorce precipitated, in part, by the impossible lifestyle of fine dining at night and food-truck prepping in the morning and service in between.) Now El Ideas has a Michelin star and Foss is a semifinalist—the first shortlist—for Best Chef, Great Lakes, in this year's James Beard Foundation awards.
And to celebrate that, last Thursday Foss took the Meatyballs Mobile back on the road for the first time in two and a half years. I went along with him and his girlfriend, Akiko Moorman, as he and his balls (variations on that joke being an integral part of the brand) returned to the world they'd helped create.
"We were sitting around one night and we were talking about the Beard announcement. And you know, none of this would be here if it wasn't for Meatyballs, this crazy little food-truck idea, which was born from conception to being out on the street literally in two weeks' time," Foss explains as he lays out 300 wrapped Meatyballs sandwiches on his prep table and warms them in batches. "It's been such an unlikely experience to see the casual concept turn into a fine-dining concept—sometimes I just have to take pause, in a little bit of disbelief, that I am where I'm at right now."
The truck is parked in the loading dock, propane burners slowly warming its shelves. Foss's plan is to visit six of the spots where he used to do business, five downtown and one at the University of Chicago (not originally in the plans, but after he announced his locations, he got a lot of requests from there on Twitter). Then he'll swing by the other restaurants of chefs who got Beard attention in the first round and drop off sandwiches for them and their staffs.
The big difference between today and the old days is that he's not selling anything, just giving them out in honor of El Ideas' success. "The people of Chicago are the ones who made that happen, so the thought was, maybe I'll just take the food truck out, and that turned into, let's just give it away as a thank you," he says.
Moorman, who only met Foss after he was back in fine dining, says she was surprised when she saw that it was a small coach with food sold from racks, rather than a larger van. "I'd never seen the panel food truck except in Flashdance. I'm from New York. Food trucks, you stand inside and serve people out of a window."
"Don't knock my city," growls Foss.
"Didn't you get that legislation passed?"
"Yeah, actually you can cook on trucks now. You still can't park anywhere, though," Foss says.
"How many tickets do you expect to get today?" I ask. Tickets for doing what food trucks do were, and probably still are, an inescapable part of the experience, and one of the things that drove people out of it.
"Seeing how I'm not selling anything, it's debatable, but . . . at least one," Foss says.
Talking about the legislative fight and the wave of food-truck enthusiasm three years ago is bringing back forgotten memories for Foss. "I've had all my ball jokes in my head again and ready to disgust everyone in the city. Our mission statement to get our balls in the mouth of every Chicagoan has just been rekindled," he says. "I'm only sorry I don't have chocolate salty balls today. Everybody loved my chocolate salty balls."
The truck is loaded shortly after 11 AM and that just leaves one essential food trucker's duty: tweeting your imminent arrival. Foss announces that he'll be at a corner near the Merchandise Mart at 11:30. "One of the most important parts of having a food truck is being completely obnoxious on Twitter," Foss says. "I'm already good at that, but it has to be part of your business—"
"It doesn't have to be. You're making a personal choice," Moorman interjects. "A personal lifestyle choice—"
"It's got to be part of your marketing strategy. If it's not, I don't know how anybody's supposed to find you. I don't know how food trucks operated before social media," Foss says.
The three of us squeeze into the front of the truck and take off to the grind of its ancient gears. Driving up the Eisenhower to downtown, Foss notes that the prep kitchen's location was great for getting into downtown fairly easily, but has proven to be more of a challenge for fine dining. "I know it's a weird place for a restaurant, and cabdrivers will always ask their customers twice if that's where they really want to go. Sometimes they won't even drive down the alley."
"There was a cabdriver who said, 'What is this?,' and I said, 'It's a restaurant," says Moorman. "He said, 'Oh, I thought you were going to rob me.'"
We make our way to Hubbard and Orleans; Foss parks and tweets his location. A man and a woman walk up to the truck, and Foss goes into his spiel.
"All right, guys, who wants meatballs? We've got three kinds—we've got buffalo chicken, original meaty, and barbecue."
They both ask for the original, and Foss whips open a paper bag. "Ball sack?"
"I'd love a ball sack," the guy says, then, ball in hand, introduces himself as the proprietor of a Twitter account called FoodTruck50, which started after Foss had already hung Meatyballs up. So he's excited to get a chance to try it—his 91st food truck, he says. (You can read his account here.)
A few more wander up, but it's not exactly the deluge of warmly nostalgic customers Foss was hoping for, and the arctic weather isn't making standing outside waiting for them any more rewarding. After a couple of minutes with no further customers, we move on to the north side of the Tribune building, which he thinks is a food-truck stop these days.
Instead, the crowd is even sparser here; the only person to walk up as we arrive is a mutual friend. Occasionally someone walking down Michigan Avenue glances our way, but no one wanders over. He gives away only three or four sandwiches.
"I would not have imagined that this would be the case," Foss says. "I mean, everybody's exploding about it on Twitter, lots of buzz, lots of buzz—apparently people aren't that hungry."
"They want to tweet food more than they want to eat food," I say.
"Unreal," he says.
By the time we get to our third stop, near the Aon Center and Illinois Center, it's after noon. Finally we get a genuine lunchtime crowd, which demonstrates one of Foss's points about the food-truck life—that you have a very narrow window in which to do business and it's easy to be thrown off by circumstances (traffic, a ticket) and lose the whole day. But he's happy at last to see that people remember Meatyballs, and a few say they've been to El Ideas since then.
There's a similar crowd at Monroe and Wells. Foss is back in his element, making ball jokes to the customers and taking in the fond memories of his freewheeling, or at least four-wheeled, food-truck days. This crowd is the biggest and liveliest yet, enjoying even on this frigid day the one clear promise of food trucks—that you may be trapped in an office, but a food cowboy will ride up and feed you something warm and delicious in the great outdoors. Something that tastes like . . . freedom.
I decide at this point to take off for the day, but I've only walked about 20 feet when I see a parking-enforcement van pull up. I back up to a cluster of newspaper machines and try to make my camera as inconspicuous as possible to record Foss getting his first food-truck ticket in two and half years. The two employees in fluorescent yellow vests walk forward, look at the brown sedan that Foss is standing in front of, and begin writing it a ticket—paying no attention to the illegally parked truck, or to the man handing out sandwiches to a crowd happily munching away on the sidewalk.
James Beard Foundation Awards nominees were announced this morning in Chicago; Phillip Foss did not receive a nomination for Best Chef, Great Lakes.