Chef Shack brings curb appeal to summer eats
One Saturday last January in downtown St. Paul, music blared from a boxy, white trailer parked by the side of the road. A blond dancer, clad like an L.A. clubber in a tight mini-dress and purple Ugg boots, stood on its roof, shaking her sequined booty. I cut through the Winter Carnival crowds and made a beeline toward her, dodging a pack of unicyclists and a truckload of cheering (or leering?) Vulcans. Why warm my mitten-clad hands with applause, when I could do the same with a bag of fresh-from-the-fryer cardamom mini-donuts?
Inside the trailer, pastry queen Carrie Summer flamed a small torch over a dish of crème brûlée. As she handed the dessert through the window, I knew street food in the Twin Cities would never be the same. I cracked its crust with a plastic spoon and nearly wet my snow pants.
From the halal chicken carts of New York City to the crepe stands of Paris, street food is a vibrant component of urban culture. While vendors in Southeast Asia hawk everything from dehydrated squid to skewers of roasted bat, here in Minneapolis, street food amounts to three Nicollet Mall hot dog vendors and a few renegade merchants with portable coolers of queso-coated corncobs or mango with chili powder. Frankly, if you're looking for variety, you'd be better off Dumpster diving.
Short summers are partly to blame for our lack of street eats, as are the downtown skyways, where restaurants the size of concession trailers live one story above the nearly deserted sidewalks. But another reason, according to Summer, is skittishness about cleanliness and ingredient quality. "I think Midwesterners have an innate fear of trailer food," she says.
With Chef Shack, a mobile kitchen operated by two local culinary pros, Summer hopes to dispel these misconceptions at the Mill City Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings and White Bear Lake's Marketfest on Thursday nights. Summer and her savory counterpoint, chef Lisa Carlson, each have 20 years of experience working in notable fine-dining kitchens in Minneapolis, New York, and San Francisco—as well as a knack for throwing extravagant underground dinner parties. The two met seven years ago, when Carlson opened Café Barbette and hired Summer as her sous chef. They worked together again recently at Spoonriver, where Carlson remains the executive chef. Summer just started a new job overseeing pastry for Taher Corporation's Wayzata and Alaska Eateries.
We've seen chefs with haute-cuisine pedigrees focus on humbler fare before, with great success—David Vlach, formerly of the French Laundry, helped open the Town Talk Diner; Alex Roberts, of Restaurant Alma, launched Brasa Rotisseria; and Bill Baskin, of Cosmos, now cooks at the Red Stag Supper Club. But the Shack gals, taking a cue from other mobile kitchens—the rival New York City sweetmobiles Dessert Truck and Treats Truck, and Seattle's Airstream-based Skillet, for example—are the first in town to approach street food with any sort of culinary seriousness.
Every Saturday, Summer and Carlson wake up at 3 a.m., hook up the trailer, and haul it to the Mill City market (as a former big-rig driver, Summer handles that task; "She's more of the trucking gal," Carlson says). Even though they prep the food the day before in Spoonriver's kitchen, it still takes a few hours to set up the propane tanks and get the generator going before the market's 8 a.m. opening.
Summer, Carlson, and a few "Shack boys" (a crew of guys about Ashton Kutcher's age who help with the hauling and cooking) squeeze into the mobile kitchen, which is equipped with the usual (albeit smaller) appliances—sink, refrigerator, freezer, hood fan, and so on. Though heat sources are more limited than in a typical restaurant kitchen, with a little ingenuity Carlson and Summer turn out a rotating menu of summertime classics, prepared with a chef's eye for detail and standards for high-quality ingredients.
Carlson handles the savory selections, sourcing meats from several of our best local purveyors, including grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills and pork from Tim Fischer. If you've never had the luxury of a bison burger for breakfast, roll out of bed and hit Chef Shack some morning. While most ground beef patties act mainly as a vehicle for their toppings, this one has a lightly gamey, peppery flavor that's tasty enough to eat undressed—though I'd never suggest passing on the homemade condiments, which include ketchup, pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, and ramp mustard (the greenish slurry tastes much better than it looks). Carlson alternates between serving pulled pork sandwiches and ribs, both of which are as tender as tulips, sauced with moxie, and served with a side of raisin-studded coleslaw. The ribs, however, elicited my only complaint about the entire operation: Trying to attack such a rack with a plastic spork is like being asked to send a man to the moon with a wheelbarrow.
Carlson's vegetable sides include a heftier version of Barbette's famous hand-cut fries; tomato/watermelon gazpacho topped with poppy seeds, olive oil, and diced avocado; and grilled asparagus served with frothy lemon aioli. Grilling gives the spears such a nice nuttiness, it seems a shame to prepare them any other way. If I had a nickel for everybody who stopped me and asked, wide-eyed, "Where did you get the asparagus?" as I walked from one end of the market to the other, I could have turned right around and bought another one.
Summer's signature creations, Indian-spiced mini donuts, are good enough to forget all about the health kick that brought you to the mostly organic, upscale market in the first place. Summer's single machine can hardly keep up with demand. "People are crazy for them," she says. The Eastern flavors add a certain sophistication to the state fair classic, but it's their pillowy texture, which Summer attributes to carefully calibrating the liquid based on the humidity, that makes them irresistible. Summer also makes a luxurious chocolate mousse with cocoa nib brittle, but her most stunning accomplishment, in my book, is making crème brûlée interesting again. Her version is topped with caramelized bananas, triple-chocolate coconut cookies, and softly whipped cream—and it was easily the best dessert I've eaten in months. Restaurants with actual kitchens: There's no excuse for using Reddi-Wip when a wee little trailer serves the real thing.
Summer says that "cooking whatever we darn well please" is one of the things she and Carlson like best about the trailer, along with meeting customers face to face. "The thing about being a chef is that you never really get to talk to the guests and get feedback," she says. "It's a treat and a pleasure to hand food right to the guests in the window. We get a lot of satisfaction from watching them eat."
In two short years, Mill City has become something of a holy day for the crunchy crowd. Compared to other Twin Cities' markets, its patrons seem less focused on getting a week's worth of grocery shopping done than having something to do on the weekend. They might grab a coffee, listen to some live music, scour a rack of locally made clothing, and stroll across the Stone Arch Bridge before it even occurs to them to pick up a carton of eggs or a bunch of cilantro. Some argue that these extraneous activities dilute the market's farmer-driven mission, but I think prepared-food vendors like Chef Shack play an essential role. They get people to see what they might actually do with a pound of ground bison, besides feeling warm and fuzzy about helping a local farmer for about two minutes, and then sticking the meat in the freezer and forgetting about it indefinitely.
So far, Summer and Carlson have had little difficulty persuading Mill City patrons to pay whole-package prices for individual hot dogs. Their challenges have come more from convincing city regulators not to be nervous about made-to-order foods. I don't know about you, but I'd sooner bet my stomach on a seasoned chef working with raw meat than on a teenage carnie who's more concerned about texting his girlfriend than heating up a frozen Sysco patty.
Summer sees the Chef Shack as an "evolving art project" and hopes to incorporate entertainment with future culinary offerings. She thinks more street food would improve downtown culture by boosting civic energy and helping deter crime. She and Carlson say they'd love to be able to park the trailer at the Metrodome, Loring Park, or outside any bar at closing time, if they could get permission. In any case, if they're looking to add another spot to their list, I'd like to request my front yard.
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