Cantine California offers different flavours from the window of a truck in the culinary capital.
The proud and prominent gastronomical success of France has set the standards high for years and years. With a history of tradition and an almost elitist crowd, French kitchens produce fantastic four-course meals for elegant dinners in beautiful dining rooms.
But what happens when a hungry French man doesn’t want to sit in a luxurious restaurant? Where does he turn when the weather is fantastic and he wants to eat outside? He might pack himself a picnic, which would be simple yet satisfying, or he might search for a food truck. If he’s in Paris, his options include food trucks like Cantine California, an American-style food truck operated by Jordnan Feilders and his team.
Before diving into the French food truck population, let’s take a look at the history of eating from a “vehicle” in the United States. People were eating from food carts, essentially the original food truck, in the 17th century, but in 1866 a rancher named Charles Goodnight created the first kitchen on wheels. He outfitted a US Army surplus wagon with kitchen amenities in preparation for a cattle drive. Goodnight took his wagon with him and served cowboys hearty meals of beans and salted meats while they moved across the west.
Fast forward a few decades, and you’ll find food trucks serving blue-collar workers and construction sites. Mexican immigrants brought the taco truck tradition with them to California, which eventually evolved into a “hip” scene. The recession in the early 21st century left a lot of chefs without a job and customers with a lot of pennies to pinch. Food trucks require little start-up funding, so chefs began creating their own. This delighted diners who wanted better quality food than what the standard chain restaurant offered.
These factors helped the growth of the food truck popularity. According to the research firm IBISWorld, the food trucks and carts industry grew 8.4 percent from 2007 to 2012. They currently make up a $1-billion (€7.4-million) industry in the US alone. The most successful food trucks focus on niche dishes — tacos and burgers being some of the most popular.
With this history behind him, the desire to serve delicious food, and a French wife, Feilders opened a food truck in Paris. Hailing from the west coast of the US, Feilders opted to serve California-inspired food. In 2012, his truck, Cantine California, became the first truck to serve hamburgers and tacos made with organic French products.
Feilders believes in good quality products, so he put the effort in to source as many of his ingredients from local vendors — except for the flour tortillas he imports from Mexico for his authentic tacos. All of the meat is biological, which boosts the flavour of the juicy burgers. Feilders and his team developed a solid menu of four burger options and two types of tacos; vegetarians appreciate the veggie burger and the possibility of leaving the meat out of the tacos.
Emma Laurent, who has lived in Paris for three years and been a vegetarian for five, said “It’s nice to have vegetarian options that are fresh and delicious and easy to access. That’s the best part.”
Recently, Feilders and his team added a new burger to their menu. “The Grizzly” burger is made with the usual biological beef, and is then topped with comté (a special French cheese), sautéed mushrooms and mustard. After reading the addition to the menu, one of the last customers of the day said, “Hey! That’s my nick name. I’ll have that. Can you add corn?”
Smiling, Feilders punches the order into his electronic device. Less than 10 minutes later, a food tray with “Grizzly for Grizzly” is put on the truck’s counter where Feilders collects it and serves it to the customer. Feilders stands outside of the truck to take orders, which he then sends digitally to the chefs because it is illegal to serve food from vehicles in France. When the order is complete, the food is placed on the counter and a member of the team says “service,” which signals Feilders to collect the food. It’s a system that works and keeps Feilders busy.
“Normally, on a day like today, I would have a second person working,” said Feilders. “But it’s just me.”
A day “like today” has perfect weather — blue skies and sunshine — and a location in the midst of weekly Raspail Market with plenty of company offices surrounding the area, full of hungry employees. Cantine California serves anywhere between 100 and 200 burgers during lunch hours. While the majority of the customers are Parisians embracing the food truck trend, about a third of them are American expatriates happy to find food that reminds them of home.
“The tacos de pollo are delicious,” said Sarah Gaines, an American who has worked in Paris for seven years. “It’s so great to see diversity emerging in the food scene.”
Most French foodies seem to approve of the diversity Gaines mentions. But Alexis Dubois, a life-long Parisian citizen, doesn’t. “Food trucks are the death of France,” Dubois said. Ironically, he was standing in line at Cantine California, waiting to order, so perhaps he was speaking sarcastically.
So, will food trucks survive and flourish in Paris like they have in American cities? Only time and the French stomach will tell.