POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 4, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 3:49 a.m. HST, Jun 4, 2012
PARIS >> An artisanal taco truck has come to Paris. The Cantine California started parking here in April, the latest in a recent American culinary invasion that includes chefs at top restaurants; trendy menu items like cheesecake, bagels, and bloody Marys, and notions like chalking the names of farmers on the walls of restaurants.
In France, there is still a widespread belief that the daily diet in the United States consists of grossly large servings of fast food. But in Paris, American food is suddenly being seen as more than just restauration rapide. Among young Parisians, there is currently no greater praise for cuisine than “tres Brooklyn,” a term that signifies a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality.
All three of those traits come together in the American food trucks that have just opened here, including Cantine California, which sells tacos stuffed with organic meat (still a rarity in France), and a hugely popular burger truck called Le Camion Qui Fume (The Smoking Truck), owned by Kristin Frederick, a California native who graduated from culinary school here.
“I got every kind of pushback,” said Frederick, 31. “People said: ‘The French will never eat on the street. The French will never eat with their hands. They will never pay good money for food from a truck.”’ (Her burger with fries costs 10 euros, about $13.)
“And, ‘You will never get permission from the authorities.”’
But Frederick did, and so the scarf-wearing hipsters were lining up at her truck on a recent Sunday evening. As vintage clothing shops propped open their doors nearby and two young men strummed guitars outside a gallery, the smell of onions caramelizing wafted out over the cobblestones.
It could have been Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Los Angeles, but the truck was parked at the north end of the Canal St.-Martin on the Right Bank
“It’s against my religion to wait for a burger,” said Guillaume Farges, who was near the front of the line, which began to form at 5:30 p.m., though the truck wouldn’t open until 7. “But for this one, I make an exception.”
American chefs are at the helm of some of Paris’s hippest restaurants, like Daniel Rose of Spring, Kevin O’Donnell of L’Office and Braden Perkins of Verjus. And the city’s collective crush on high-end hamburgers continues: Parisians are paying 29 euros, or just over $36, for the popular burger at Ralph’s, the Hamptons-Wyoming-chic restaurant in the palatial Ralph Lauren store.
“Younger Parisians are really into the New York food scene and the California lifestyle,” said Jordan Feilders, 28, who started Cantine California in March. “There’s a good trans-Atlantic food vibe going on Twitter and Facebook.”
Feilders was raised in France, but his family has roots in Canada and the United States, and he was living in Los Angeles before moving back to Paris last year to inaugurate the truck. From the start, he said, his vision included stylish visuals, American cupcakes, and fresh tortillas.
The truck is chocolate brown and decorated with bright phrases like “Fresh Cut Fries” and “Real Cheese.” In designing it, Feilders said, he chose for it to “speak” in English.
“We drive by the Louvre every day,” Feilders said. “And I imagine the kings and queens of France looking out the window, thinking, What the heck was that?”
Many Parisians have never eaten a soft taco, much less one stuffed with succulent pork carnitas and chipotles in adobo — which, along with the masa harina for the tacos, Feilders imports directly from Mexico.
For other ingredients, instead of shopping at Rungis, the enormous wholesale market outside Paris that caters to chefs, he has cultivated direct relationships with suppliers, like a cooperative in the Poitou-Charentes region that distributes certified organic beef and pork, and a mill in the Rhone-Alpes that sells the organic flour that goes into his cupcakes. (The cream cheese for the frosting, however, is Philadelphia brand.)
After rejecting many brioche and baguette variations as burger buns, he found one with the right combination of lightness, mildness and chew at a bakery that caters to Muslims. This Tunisian “Ramadan bread” also has sesame seeds on top, just like a proper American bun. And to get the right texture for the burger itself, he grinds in an additional measure of fat, creating a patty much juicier than the normal French ground-beef mixture.
On a bright morning last month at the Marche St.-Honore, a weekly market in an elegant residential section of Paris, several sleekly dressed women struggled to lift the thick burgers to their mouths gracefully. (In French restaurants, and sometimes even fast-food joints, burgers are eaten with utensils, not hands.) A few brave souls were trying to eat tacos with a knife and fork.
“C’est pas trop epice,” said one, encouraging a tentative friend — “It’s not too spicy,” high praise from the chile-fearing French.
Street food itself isn’t new to France. At outdoor markets, there is often a truck selling snacks like pizza, crepes or spicy Moroccan merguez sausages, cooked on griddles and stuffed into baguettes.
But the idea of street food made by chefs, using restaurant-grade ingredients, technique and technology, is very new indeed.
Gilles Choukroun, a chef and outspoken advocate for the globalization of French cuisine, said that about five years ago chefs here began to pay attention to street food, as they saw their counterparts in New York, Los Angeles and London trying new ideas outside the confines of a restaurant kitchen.
“The French understand that many new cuisines are coming to light in your country,” he wrote in an email in French. “There are more and more young leaders in the U.S., creating a truly new and interesting cuisine.”
In April, he served his own interpretations of cheeseburgers and milkshakes at an outdoor event called Street Food Graffiti, a “gastro-rock” homage to the film “American Graffiti,” which still enjoys cult status in France.
But American chefs, not French ones, managed to get the first food trucks rolling here.
Frederick waded through the thick red tape of four separate Paris bureaucracies: the business licensing commissariat; the mairie de Paris, or the local municipal office; the prefecture of police; and the authority that oversees the markets. Unlike some food trucks in the United States, the ones here are not allowed to troll for parking spots, or roam from neighborhood to neighborhood. They are assigned to certain markets and days.
Since the truck’s opening day, Frederick said, it has sold every last burger on every shift. And it has received the kind of publicity most chefs can only dream about. Its first weeks were covered obsessively on the many English-language blogs — Hip Paris, David Lebovitz, Paris by Mouth and Lost in Cheeseland — that chronicle the food scene here.
Many of the truck’s patrons are American expats, but even more are young Parisians enamored of the informality of New York-style noshing. “We see it on all the police shows on television,” said Sophie Juteau, who was among the first in line for Le Camion Qui Fume’s dinner shift. “Eating from the ice cream trucks, the hot-dog carts: that is, like, our dream.”