As I gradually progressed to approximately five to eight spaces behind the front of the seemingly never-ending line for the Roli Roti rotisserie truck at the Ferry Building farmer's market last weekend in San Francisco, Thomas, the chef, did something quite unexpected... Wielding a Hattori Hanzo steel blade, in two calculated yet dangerous chops he severed two small bite size pieces of his artfully roasted, carved and spiced porchetta and handed them gently to my line mate and me. Bewildered and excited, we popped these tiny morsels into our eager mouths and in one instant and with the quick swoop of his knife, he killed all regret we had harnessed for waiting in the twenty five minute line.
The sandwich, sure, it was superb. But the samples, blessed by a personal and intimate connection with the chef, stuck out in my mind as something beyond, something intangible but something I could definitely taste.
It took me back to a Thanksgiving dinner, preparing a feast with my parents while my Dad was secretly chipping off small samples of the turkey while Mom wasn't looking to "make sure it tasted alright."
Last week, Roy Choi took my order and gave me menu recommendations right off the Kogi Truck in LA. Yes, Roy Choi the acclaimed street food chef and icon. Roy Choi the man who just graced a full page of the Wall Street Journal. He took my order and helped me decide. Cool.
My mind then wandered to a sushi chef. How he elegantly prepares elaborate rolls and concoctions, exacting thinly cut pieces of fresh fish right before your very eyes. Could sushi have ever gotten so popular without the creation of a sushi bar? Could sushi have risen to epic proportions of loyalty through waiters, a menu, and a hidden kitchen? No way. The best food is almost always an experience. This explains why Zagat has three columns when rating a restaurant and only one of which actually rates the food.
Another one of the main appeals of street food comes from the idea that the kitchen is one with the restaurant. The open kitchens of restaurants like Momofuku or The Slanted Door take you on a culinary journey before you even sit down. You are eating in their kitchen. You are invited. Sit down (or stand up) and eat.
This is not a diss on waiters, in fact my aunt is one of the nice old ladies at Factor's Deli serving you matzo ball soup and telling you stories about how Mel Brooks once sat at "the corner booth right over there." That's an experience too, especially when you're sitting under a signed movie poster.
With street food, even if there is a cashier in addition to the chef, the distance increases to no more than a few feet between you and the preparer of your meal. And over and over again, when examining the attractiveness of street food and why we love it, the experiential nature of the direct relationship of chef to customer explains a lot.
So maybe chefs won't be taking your order and hand feeding you every time you eat, but when they do, it sure tastes good.