Stepping off the ferry onto Toronto's Ward's Island on a sunny, gorgeous, warm July day was the perfect way to spend an afternoon. What made it all the more idyllic was the sight of two food trucks with delicious smells wafting from them.
Food trucks on the Island -- what? They were there for a taping of "Food Truck Face Off," the newest offering from Food Network Canada. Each episode of the Canadian original series spotlights four teams battling for a huge prize: their very own customized food truck for one full year. Two teams make it past the first round and in the end, the team that makes the most money from two days of selling wins.
Some of you -- heck, most of you -- might be thinking, "Do we really need another food competition series?" And I'm here to tell you, when it's like this one, then yes, yes we do.
Hosted by Jesse Palmer ("Recipes to Riches," "The Bachelor"), and featuring judges Zane Caplansky, Steak Shapiro, Alpana Singh, Andrew Gruel and Robyn Almodovar, "Food Truck Face Off" is more than just people competing to win a cheque. It's about changing lives.
"Ultimately in shows like this, it's on the Food Network so the food gets you to watch the show," Palmer, whose whose day job is as a college football analyst for ESPN, told HuffPost Canada TV. "But it's the human stories that keep people drawn in. I really think that's going to come through and people at home are going to see a different side. It could be what separates this food show from a lot of other competition food shows."
Palmer, who cites his mom's great cooking for his love of food, adds: "There is a huge human link, the stories are incredible, the emotions are palpable. We've had more crying on one episode than we had in two seasons of 'Recipes to Riches.'" (Thankfully not more than "The Bachelor.")
Watching the taping (of an episode that will air in the new year), it was interesting to see how everyone -- from Palmer, to those getting a chance to try the delectable culinary offerings and even just curious folks meandering by -- took in the food. And I knew the judges, in particular, would have their hands (and mouths) full trying to pick a winner. I was one of the lucky ones who got to take part in the show, ordering my dish, eating it (OK, OK, wolfing it down) and sharing my thoughts with the producers (when my mouth wasn't full, that is). It's a tough job but, hey, someone has to eat it.
Speaking of tough, running a food truck isn't a cake walk. And nobody knows that better than Caplansky, who launched "Thunderin' Thelma," the first modern food truck in the city of Toronto.
"People think if you own a food truck, it's a license to print money. No. It's a license to work hard," says the owner of the beloved Caplansky's Deli. "It's like any other business; it takes time to learn it. You're going to lose money at first. Food trucks have a unique challenge: all the same challenges of the restaurant business, plus finding locations, mobility, engine problems, generator problems, staffing, getting staff to and from events. How much am I going to sell? You don't have big walk-in fridges you can hold your food in. So if you run out of food, you've lost potential sales. If you bring too much food, is it going to spoil? It's a tough business."
So winning the competition is definitely a head-start, but not a sure thing. Caplansky explains it's up to them what they decide to do after their year with the truck is up. "If they want to keep leasing the truck, they can do that. If they want to buy the truck outright, or run screaming from it, they can do that too. Some people might try it and find it's not for them. Other people may find it's fantastic, or they might love the business but not the truck." It's all a learning curve.
As for the food truck situation (or lack thereof) in Toronto, both Palmer and Caplansky aren't exactly thrilled with it. Palmer calls it a "great food city" but believes until it becomes more mobile-friendly, cities like New York, Austin, New Orleans, L.A. and Miami will always be further ahead in the food game. Caplansky agrees but is hopeful that "Food Truck Face Off" can help advance the city to where he knows it should be.
"This is a postcard for Toronto. It's showing the best views of the city, food trucks, food," gushed Caplansky. "This is a vivid demonstration to the city of Toronto of how well this can work. But as a show, it's about the food, it's about the business, it's about passion and enthusiasm and it really is an exciting, competitive food show."
Food trucks are no longer hot dogs and chips and ice cream. All you have to do is watch "Eat St." or walk the busy streets of big cities to know that you can find almost any type of cuisine on four wheels. And the food doesn't just speak for itself; it's also a reflection of the owner's style, personality and passion. "Food Truck Face Off" takes it a step further. Viewers will see exactly how and why a food truck comes about, its humble beginnings, its inspiration, and how some dreams are turned into realities. Try it. You'll like it. In fact, I bet you'll dig in for seconds.
"Food Truck Face Off" premieres Sunday, October 12 at 8pm ET/PT on Food Network Canada.