Behind the Pass: a daylong stage with El Gastrónomo Vagabundo, the GTA’s food truck pioneer
Earlier this year we sent regular Dish contributor Renée Suen to complete a one-day culinary stage at fine dining institution Splendido under the tutelage of then–chef de cuisine Patrick Kriss (he’s since moved to Acadia), where she witnessed everything from the tedium of picking herbs to unexpected caviar orders. This time around, we sent Renée, an ambitious home cook with no real professional experience, to check out something completely different—a day in the life of El Gastrónomo Vagabundo, the pioneering GTA food truck. Will her day at Splendido translate to a mobile facility? How will the truck’s chef (and Restaurant Takeover star) Adam Hynam-Smith, who has a reputation for having a fiery temper, respond to her? Will she learn how to navigate the tiny space without accidentally knifing anyone—all while impatient downtowners wait for their ceviche? Find out below, and check out our behind-the-scenes gallery.
I do a quick check of everything I need to survive the day’s stage. I’m wearing the three easy-to-remove layers of clothing that Tamara Jensen, El Gastro’s co-owner and operations manager, advised me to don. Apparently, there’s no temperature control when you’re working on a truck, which means that depending on the season, it can swerve between hot and cold unpredictably.
I arrive two minutes late (there’s a movie filming downtown that blocked my route), but Adam is unfazed. This could be because he’s distracted with prep, which has been going on since the day before (the crew’s day began at 6 a.m. so they could beat the rush in from St. Catharines, where they’re based).
I meet Pay Chen (TV host, writer and producer), who’s helping out with service today. Adam gives us each a bandana to put around our “scones” (translation: head).
Pay and I wash our hands, get a quick tour of the facilities and are warned about how precious water is on a truck (no waste!), before being briefed on the day’s menu. We’re introduced to Trevor Janisse, who’s already busy preparing the pork belly for the twice-cooked Biltong tacos, and told that we’ll be joined by Rachelle Cadwell of Dough Toronto and Beast, who’ll be bringing in her doughnuts to sell on the truck. Pay and I then get our not-exactly-glamorous assignment: prep work at the cold station.
My, this looks familiar. I find myself thinking back to Splendido as I inspect all the herbs, looking for imperfect leaves.
I learn the most important word of the day: “behind.” The tight work environment means we’re all going to pass behind each other with spillable items, hot food and, mostly importantly, sharp knives. For some reason, I keep wanting to step back every time I hear the word (not a good thing). Food Truck Eats organizer Suresh Doss swings by to check on us; he’s a little nervous because the Blue Donkey truck hasn’t arrived yet.
Rachelle texts Tamara to say she won’t get to the truck until closer to 11 a.m. (i.e., show time). I look over at Trevor and he’s already cleaned up his prep station.
Tamara is on lime duty. The juice gets collected for the ceviche course, and the drier limes are cut into wedges for the papaya salad.
The guys start preparing the seafood for the scallop and salmon ceviche. It’s a popular dish that doesn’t require heat to “cook” and can be pumped out quickly during service. I ask Adam how he determines the amount of food he needs to prepare for each service, and he tells me he looks at what he can make in an hour and just multiplies by the hours of service. He says he would have to sell 29 ceviches (at $10 per order) to break even on the day for the dish, but that doesn’t include additional costs like payments for the truck, gas, maintenance, utilities, off-site kitchen and food storage rentals, licences, insurance and inspection fees. Adam notes that his ingredients might be little pricy (Tamara estimates the cost at 30 per cent of the gross) but supporting sustainable products and local, independent businesses is part of El Gastro’s values.
Pay and I are shown how to prepare the papaya salad, and while it’s not difficult, we find ourselves constantly forgetting—and asking each other—what goes into it.
A visit from the health inspector! There’s huge stack of paperwork that includes licences for the truck owner and assistant to operate in Toronto (this is required for each municipality) and on the site. Apparently this happens at every single service.
Rachelle arrives with huge trays filled with gorgeous fresh doughnut holes. She tells me she’d pre-cut the dough the night before, but had been making the final product since 7 a.m. She’s late because she didn’t like one of the icings she made so she redid it (this is on top of working the evening service at Beast Restaurant the night before).
Showtime! Tamara opens the order window and starts to take orders. A pile of chits is passed to Adam, who starts to call the orders: “Two taco! Salad! Ceviche! Taco!” It’s a little nuts. My mental abacus is on full alert, although my first task is bagging doughnuts (not exactly rocket science).
Everything is running like clockwork, everyone is in their zone. Adam yells a sharp “behind.” I take half a step back in reaction, but realize he meant he was passing behind me. Close call.
Adam starts to drop F-bombs as some of the larger, more complex group orders come in. The line’s getting restless now.
Oh, sheesh. A TV crew boards the truck to catch Adam and the team in action. They try to squeeze into the tight space with their bulky equipment despite the fact that we’re all in the middle of service and there’s a growing line of customers.
I notice Rachelle is really churning out those ceviche orders, which, next to the tacos, are the day’s most popular item. She’s got some kind of multi-tasking system going where she prepares the seafood and mixes the final product at the same time. Thank goodness she’s the one on that station.
Despite the insanity, Adam gives Tamara a quick hug. Aww. (The pair is engaged to be married next year. There’s a giant tip jar by the order window to contribute to the big day.)
The chits start to pile up. A couple items are missing from one of the big orders (not my fault, thank goodness). Adam tells everyone to “fucking wake up.” I also learn that “all day” means that an order needs to be filled out ASAP.
The first vegetarian salad request comes in, and without skipping a beat, Adam instructs us to prepare a batch of salad without shrimp, mixing it in another bowl to avoid any contamination.
I switch to salad duty. The taco station is in the weeds but the salad and doughnuts are going slowly. Pay decides that she’s going to be proactive in pushing the doughnuts, and takes bags of them to sell to those still waiting in line. Smart move: she comes back thrice to refill on orders.
I get my first official salad order and make it as I’ve been instructed. Before I even get the chance to serve it, Adam comes over to taste what I’ve made. It’s okay! Success! Adam asks if I was scared. I laugh and reply, “Maybe” (I totally was).
Adam tells Tamara to announce that the pork belly tacos, which are nearly sold out, are going to be replaced by potatoes wedges with sweet chili sauce. Wow, that was quick.
I recognize some familiar voices at the order window and turn to take a peek. Friends! I’m thrilled they came out to support the event and say hi to me. (After the stage, I’m dying to ask them if what I made tasted okay.) Pay has to run to another appointment, so I pick up all her duties.
Adam looks at my fourth vegetarian salad order and starts to say something’s missing before correcting himself with an “Oops, don’t listen to me.” Newly full of confidence, I reply, “Yes, chef! I’ll remember not to!” before biting my tongue.
Adam checks on one of the boxes of salad I’ve just filled and asks if I can add another pinch in the box. Sigh. I was so close to a near perfect score.
The ceviche orders pick up, and I’m asked to juice the required limes. I grab a knife from the counter behind me and quickly spin around to my station—but I forget to call “Back, knife!” and almost stab someone with it. I get a mini lecture about the importance of keeping the blade down and announcing my every move. I’m so embarrassed. I imagine what my junior high home ec. teacher would say.
I turn back to my task and encounter the driest limes known to man. Adam comes to the rescue by finding a citrus juicer for me after seeing me try to corkscrew a fork against the fibrous pulp. I’ve graduated now to balancing the responsibilities of salad making, lime juicing and doughnut slinging. Not bad.
Adam signals to Suresh that it’s time to cut off the line (there’s only enough food for about 30 more customers).
Tamara complains about her back, but there are only a few more customers to serve, so she pushes through.
The last order is filled! Adam prepares a couple extra boxes of the potato wedges to serve as the staff meal. Meanwhile everyone scrubs down the kitchen and packs away any remaining food (there’s not much). Some of the other food truck operators swing by with fresh food gifts.
I get home a little tired and a lot dehydrated, with hair smelling of grease, fingers stained with chlorophyll and hands reeking of lime and fish sauce. Adam and Tamara, for their part, still have to drive back to St. Catharines before their 10-hour day (with only three hours of service) is complete.
The day’s tally: 183 orders taken during a three-hour lunch service, for which our team cranked out 422 individual items. That works out to 2.3 items and 1.1 customers per minute. You often see complaints on Twitter and Facebook about food truck wait times, but a lot of people don’t understand that these trucks are real mobile kitchens. Every item is prepared to order. It’s not like a canteen or food court where everything is sitting in warming trays—it’s more like a restaurant without the tables, chairs and wait staff. In a small operation like this one, everyone has to wear multiple hats (server, cook, food runner), and if one person under-performs, everyone else feels it (including the hungry customers hoping to get back to the office). Efficiency is key. Vendors also have to deal with tight municipal restrictions that can affect the bottom line (neither Adam nor Tamara are salaried). These details can (and probably should) get lost when all you see is an order window. But make no mistake: working a service on a food truck isn’t some kind of leisurely pop-up jaunt.