12 September 2012 by Elaine Lemm

Street food: urban – and urbane

Food vans have gone gourmet. With its own awards this weekend, and an event hosted by Jamie Oliver, street food is cooking with gas. Elaine Lemm sees a bandwagon rolling

Street food_food truck

Street food with style on London’s South Bank. Photo by Garry Knight

In any definition of  ‘dude food’ from before 2010(ish) you would have encountered words such as ‘male’, ‘meaty’ and ‘machismo’. Go looking for it, and you would have bumped into a style of food that belonged to the ferocious cook: men gathered round testosterone-fuelled barbecues; a world of late-night food trucks, kebabs and vindaloo.

Whizz forward a couple of years, and the unobtrusive word ‘gourmet’ has quietly slipped in. Forget the burger from a van. The unassuming sausage in a bun can barely appear in public now unless it declares its provenance and is wrapped in wholegrain goodness. The kebab now comes from Turkmenistan and is served in a bowl.

The food is hot, cheap and exciting. Dude food has met the New Man and is now more gently called ‘street’ food. Along with underground supper clubs and pop-up tea rooms, it’s one of the hottest food tickets around.

How the transformation began

America lays claim to the transformation of our takeaways. Certainly, stateside, gourmet food trucks have been giving restaurants a run for their money. In reality, the route to our revolution had its beginnings in the emergence of the farmers’ market and the collective craving for quality and local products, as well as the escalation of food-and-music festivals.

All hold a captive audience wanting to be fed but no longer willing to eat rubbish.

From takeaway to truck

The takeaway has been part of the British psyche for centuries. Warm eels, fish and chips and pasties are just a few of our delicacies. Hot pies and peas are an institution on the football terraces. But the revolution has morphed that pie from an innocuous lump of protein wrapped in carbohydrate to a package containing responsibly sourced meat, served with respect. On the street you will now find trucks, carts and wagons selling crêpes, falafel, yakitori and more.

For the entrepreneur willing to dip a toe into this pond, it is a financial no-brainer. To set up a restaurant, consider investing your life savings and a colossal chunk of your soul and sanity. A food truck can be up and running for as little as £3,000, plus a health and hygiene certificate and insurance.

You will still have to hand over a large piece of ‘you’, as you get out of bed at the crack of dawn to prep for the day, drive to the venue and get busy cooking and selling. However, when a festival such as Glastonbury can bring in as much as £10,000 a day for a good food experience, this is not to be sniffed at.

Not unexpectedly, the big-boy chains are wanting ‘in’ on the action. At the same time, numerous chefs are abandoning their sweaty kitchens to take their food offerings to a pavement near you. The result: ‘street’ food now has its own awards, with last year’s finalists including a pink VW campervan serving freshly brewed tea and handmade cupcakes; a polished Airstream trailer offering exquisitely cooked pork shoulder; and a Vietnamese street café.

This weekend an impressive panel of judges, including Gizzi Erskine, Anthony Worral Thompson and street food poster boy Yianni Papoutsis (whose burger van, MeatWagon, gave birth to London’s hippest restaurant, MEATliquor) gather to select 2012′s victor. The prize is a collaboration with M&S’s new product development team.

Jamie Oliver is getting in on the act too, inviting the finalists to park up outside his London restaurant Fifteen and create “the brightest and best street food market that Britain has ever seen“.

But when the fuss has died down, where will you find the best of the street food? Well, get out your phone. This movement is the child of social networking. #streetfood on Twitter and, er, hit the road.

Elaine is a trained chef, has run her own restaurant in Yorkshire, is editor of NY Times’ About British Food, and has written widely on food and wine. Follow Elaine on Twitter.

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