The Great Food Truck Race

The Great Food Truck Race

To a real degree, whether or not you like a reality show depends on whether you like the subject matter at the center of the show. Obviously, sometimes, this can work against a show. People who are hardcore music fans are probably not big fans of American Idol. But if you have a passing interest in, say, fashion, then Project Runway probably appeals to you, and if your interests run more toward cooking, then you likely have an interest in Top Chef. There's obviously something to be said for execution - I have basically no interest in fashion whatsoever, but the best seasons of Runway held my interest - but it helps if the subject matter has something of a home-field advantage heading into the show.

So I should say that when I give The Great Food Truck Race a B, it's merely because I'm kind of obsessed with food trucks. They're among the most vibrant and interesting things in food culture out here in Los Angeles, and every week, it seems, there's word of a new one that wanders the streets of LA, serving up authentic French cuisine or one million variations on the hot dog or falafel waffles. I volunteered to take The Great Food Truck Race because I think there's a really compelling show in here. Serving up genuinely good food in such a tiny space must create all sorts of logistical headaches, and the idea of combining The Amazing Race with Top Chef is a surprisingly good one. (I can only hope that next year, the show takes the food trucks to Asia or something, then sends them on a race across three continents.)

But when I give the show a B, it's also kind of a disappointment. I think there's the makings of a truly great reality show in this one, but the series feels a bit too timid to embrace what would really make it stand out: the cooking. The main question you have to answer in a show like this is just how good of food one can actually make in such a confined space, but the series is too often deliberately vague about the kinds of food that the cooks prepare. The show dips in and out of seven different food trucks, and it suggests that, say, the guys of Grill 'Em All, an LA-based hamburger truck, can make ALL KINDS of hamburgers, but then it never really suggests just how they prepare so many different kinds of sandwiches in their truck or, indeed, what ALL KINDS OF HAMBURGERS even means. When you look at their menu on their Web site, you get a better sense of the kinds of risks they take with their cuisine, and that's a sense the show never gives you.

The show also has a tendency to lose track of many of the competitors, even though there are only seven teams competing. Early on in the episode, it becomes clear that the series is mostly going to follow the Ragin' Cajuns - for they boast an irritating man and an attractive blonde woman - the Nana Queens - who meet a truly unfortunate mishap when they run out of propane and can't use it to make their hot wings - and Austin Daily Press - a team that struggles to find a good location from which to serve their sandwiches and has to resort to bold business gambits to attract eaters. The other four teams fall so much by the wayside that I forgot one of them (Spencer on the Go) even existed, and when the top spot went to a team the show hadn't checked in with in some time, it was hard to share in their excitement.

Some of this may stem from the fact that food trucks remain a primarily West Coast phenomenon. There are food trucks all over the country, of course, but the truly daring ones tend to be clustered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, probably because of the ability to serve street food like this virtually year-round. But doing a show about a bunch of laidback Californian chefs is likely not going to be to the enjoyment of most of the viewing audience, so we get to spend lots of time with a loud man from Louisiana who yells a lot and a bunch of Texans who are similarly laid back and would probably fit in quite well with the gang from Crepes Bonaparte. The show needs to find drama, and it tends to focus on the teams that are having trouble, not those that are making cash hand over fist.

But what's compelling about the show is the strategizing to make that money. An inordinate amount of time is spent on choosing the proper location, choosing the proper way to attract clientele, and figuring out just where to put down roots in the new city where the trucks have settled in (San Diego, in this episode, and Santa Fe in the next). All of this could be frustratingly the same from moment to moment, but the show finds a way to depict just how this sort of strategizing becomes destiny in the race and, similarly, in the food truck business as a whole. It's one thing to have a great product, but you have to know exactly the right spot to sell that product and exactly the way to sell it. The Nom Nom team is pretty easy to mock with their overenthusiastic bullhorn shouting and their decision to try to find a way to appeal to gay people, but their methods work, and they're the only team to crack the $1,000 barrier in the two days they're allotted in San Diego.

That's another thing the show gets right: The sense that these teams are having to rebuild their business every time they settle into a new city. To a very real degree, this is true. Food trucks are an unconventional enough way to sell food that it takes time for word to spread about their wares. (I can't tell you how long I thought LA's famous Kogi BBQ was an actual restaurant, rather than a truck. There's a reason the LA Street Food Festivals, where all of the trucks park in the same area, are such big hits.) Even if the series doesn't quite nail down the sense of what it must take to make good food under these conditions, it gives a sense of how hard it must be to try to essentially start up a new business and make a wad of cash in just two days. The Great Food Truck Race ends up being more for MBAs than graduates of culinary school, but it's good enough at depicting the business side of the restaurant biz that it's worth a look.

Stray observations:

  • Kogi, by the by, is probably my favorite LA food truck, but I am by no means an expert.
  • The dominance of the West Coast in terms of food truck culture is even reflected in the show, where out of the seven teams, five are from California and four are from the Los Angeles area. (Spencer on the Go is from San Francisco and seems less like an actual food truck than a catering extension of a physical restaurant.) The other two teams are from Lafayette, La., and Austin, Tex., suggesting that food trucks will take a while to catch on in colder weather climates.
  • It was really too bad to see the Nana Queens eliminated, as I greatly enjoyed their interplay and banter. But they were the ones stupid enough to apparently forget to fill the propane tank before leaving.
  • The host - Tyler Florence - acts as though sending the teams to San Diego is going to be the great leveler between the not-from-LA teams and the from-LA teams, but it's immediately apparent that the LA-based teams have a better sense of San Diego neighborhoods and geography than the other teams, who stumble at times. The show may be more interesting once it decamps to entirely different regions of the country.
  • "The only guy who looks confident is banana man. I just think he doesn't even know what's going on at this point."