TORONTO - James Cunningham loves being on the cutting edge of the curbside food experience with his show "Eat St."
"The stuff that's coming out of the windows now of food trucks is just phenomenal," says the host of the Food Network Canada show, which launches its fourth season on Monday with back-to-back episodes.
"We've done hundreds of shows already and we're just really scratching the surface. There's just so many trucks out there. ... It's grown exponentially."
Mobile food palaces are popping up everywhere. Many of the trucks featured in the new season were not even in existence a couple of years ago, Cunningham points out.
"People say it's a trend. It's definitely not a trend. From what I've seen they're here to stay," he says. "It's really reshaping our urban landscape."
Cunningham has just published a companion cookbook, "Eat St.: Recipes from the Tastiest, Messiest, and Most Irresistible Food Trucks" (Penguin Canada), which features 125 recipes from vendors on wheels.
"I'm very excited about it because I think I'm the first human being to write a cookbook who can't cook to save his life," says the Toronto-based standup comic.
"I just have absolutely no skill at it, but my brother's furious about it because he's a full-on trained chef and I wrote a cookbook," he adds with a laugh.
Included in the book are salads, vegan items, soups, smoothies and desserts, along with sandwiches, burgers and "your carb-loaded, your carb-heavy stuff."
When he put out a call for contributions to the cookbook, Cunningham was inundated with hundreds of recipes from food truck owners.
"They're such great characters and they love what they do. They're so passionate about their food," he says.
"The bottom line, the common denominator with every food truck owner that I get is that they want to make people happy."
Cunningham, who recently turned 40, marvels at the meteoric rise of food trucks. The phenomenon really got started during the economic downturn in 2008 when chefs who found themselves out of work turned to leasing food trucks.
"The offerings went from being hotdog carts and fry trucks and burger trucks to now you have lobster rolls and ceviche and seafood and soups and salads and really incredible Korean shortrib tacos, fusion, really high-end gourmet stuff coming out of food trucks," he says.
In the new season of "Eat St.," produced by Paperny Entertainment and also airing on Cooking Channel in the U.S., 120 new trucks from locations including Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, Dallas, Phoenix and Minneapolis will be making an appearance. In the past, the production crew has travelled as far as England and Hawaii.
Though "Eat St." is Canadian and an attempt is made to feature trucks from this country, there are far fewer food trucks than in U.S. cities, but "the ones we do have are really good."
Cunningham, who calls Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, the "mecca" of food trucks with really inventive entrepreneurs, laments the lack of food trucks in his hometown. While Portland, with a population of some 600,000 has more than 600 food carts, the Toronto area (including Hamilton and St. Catharines, Ont.) has a paltry 10.
"I'm really disappointed with Toronto. Let's get some food trucks at the CN Tower. Let's get some food trucks at City Hall. Come on. It's a great thing for your local economy, we just see time and time again," Cunningham said, though he does admit weather is a factor. While trucks in the southern U.S. can operate year-round, mobile diners are by necessity seasonal in many parts of Canada.
Social media has also played a role in the growth of food trucks, with owners able to contact their fans and build a following using Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and others.
"They tweet their location ahead of time and when they pull up they may find a lineup of 30 or 40 people waiting to try their food," Cunningham says, adding that "Eat St." has launched a new GPS-enabled app that allows viewers to find trucks in their area.
The cookbook also includes an index with information about how to find the featured trucks.
"A food truck is an event. I call it a gourmet flash mob. ... Basically people walking by, it's a beautiful day, the sun is shining and guess what? Gourmet food trucks, people stop and want to take their photos with the truck, with the food. You're standing in line; you're talking to other people. It's really a social happening."
It's a completely different experience than going to a restaurant where there is a wine list, full menu and a waiter to take care of you, Cunningham says.
"It's a testament to North American entrepreneurship, it's a testament to phenomenal cuisine, it's a testament to just having fun outside and a new social aspect of it."
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