Saturday, April 21, 2012

University of Chicago: My Streets, My Eats

My Streets, My Eats was a half day seminar at the University of Chicago Law School on street vendors. Experts from all over the country discussed the opportunities and laws that govern street vendors today.

From shared kitchens to the 2008 impact of Kogi BBQ on the food truck revolution to the twitter trucks of today, social media has been a huge game changer.
Trying to get the outdated vendor laws changed in Chicago is a balance of policy and politics. Just ask Alderman Willie Cochran from the 20th ward who is an advocate for mobile food truck reform.
The history and assessment of the food climate in both New York and LA made you appreciate what community builders local street vendors are. Sean Basinski backed that up as founder and director of the Street Food Project and a street vendor himself, having sold burritos from a push cart at the corner of 52nd and Park in NYC.
Dr. John Garger, a national expert on the economic impact of the street vendor, brought a lot of great insights to the discussion and I will continue to follow his work. Someone that I thought would simply rattle off statistics was actually really exciting to listen to.
Also great input from Justine Large, chef de cuisine at Big Star, Greg Kettles, Deputy Council for Los Angeles and founder of Open Air Market Network, Samm Patrichos, operator of Spice Smart Mobile Foods, Gabriel Wiesen, who founded Chicago’s first mobile gourmet food truck and Heather Shouse, author of Trucks: Dispatched and Recipes from the Best Kitchen on Wheels, Senior Food and Drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago and Chicago reporter for Food and Wine Magazine.
Everyone brought an interesting dynamic to the program and there was not a lightweight in the bunch.
My love affair with street food goes back to Guadalajara when I was in my early twenties. I began eating off the street for two reasons- I discovered that the food was good but also very cheap – a critical issue for a student.
The stands I ate at cooked everything fresh so the food experience was always high-quality. They were also super clean. Soon, I discovered a string of 7 food carts – one for each day of the week.
The thing I loved most about the street vendors is that they taught me how to cook. Every day I got a free lesson on how to prepare Mexican food. I studied their techniques and to this day some of the best Mexican food I make came from lessons    I learned in the street.
I support street vendors because they make an enormous contribution to the cultural and economic fabric of a city. Just look at Maxwell Street Market.
I went down again this morning just to remind myself that some of the most authentic and delicious Mexican comes from the food vendors at this market.
The market bears out the deep connection that Mexican families have when going from church to the market every Sunday. The social aspect of the market is by far the most significant element of all along with the food.
My relationship with the vendors at the Maxwell Street Market was casual at best until recently. Now that they have seen my photos and videos and realize that I am just trying to tell their story, they have let me in.
I am also a frequent diner at XOCO and Frontera Grill. The bean-to-cup chocolate is genius and cannot be duplicated anywhere. The Jicama Street Snack: Jicama, cucumber, pineapple, fresh lime, and crushed guajillo chile is a recipe I have tried to make at home but just doesn’t taste the same.
Whenever I need a fix, I head to one restaurant or the other depending on my appetite that day. Rick Bayless has established his brand as the best there is when it comes to classic Mexican and I buy in because of the quality of his food.
I’ve never thought of Maxwell Street as being competition for XOCO or Frontera Grill and I am sure that Bayless doesn’t either. It’s just a different type of food experience. It really gets down to how much I am willing to spend that day and what I’m in the mood to eat.
So what’s the City of Chicago’s position on changing what apparently are the worst street food laws in the country?
Mayor Emanuel says he is committed to reform so all eyes on him.
I would hate to have to book a flight to LA just to get the experience. Have you seen the cost of flights these days?
Stay tuned and Bon Appetit!