Heather Shouse is the senior food and drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago, as well as the Chicago reporter for Food & Wine magazine. Shouse has contributed articles to CHOW, Rachael Ray, Men’s Journal, Playboy.com, and Draft magazine. She has edited and coauthored multiple editions of Time Out Chicago Eating & Drinking Guide and contributed to the Native’s Guide to Chicago. Food Trucks (Ten Speed Press, April 2011) is Heather’s first book, combining her passion for travel and eating, the two things that make life worth living.
The Recipe Club caught up with Heather in the Windy City to talk about her upcoming Food Trucks book tour and the unique food cart selection process in Madison, Wisconsin.
On April 19, I’ll be celebrating the release of my book Food Trucks here in Chicago with my friends, family, and hopefully a couple hundred street food enthusiasts who will make their way to Goose Island for what’s shaping up to be the city’s first food truck summit. (I’m also hoping the party brings out the beer geeks to try the Belgian-style saison I brewed a couple weeks ago; follow-up on that front is now on my site.)
Hungover or not, I’ll embark on a three-week tour around the country the following day, stopping in various cities to team up with trucks featured in the book for events that should be a bit more fun than the typical bookstore reading. I’m hoping that in the process of revisiting most of the cities I hit while researching the book I’ll come across plenty of new trucks, carts, and trailers (second edition!?), but one place where I know exactly what to expect is Madison, where the mobile food industry is run by a guy who might just be the country’s only street food “curator.”
In a role similar to the tastemaker who handpicks what makes it onto the walls of art galleries and museums, Warren Hansen is Madison’s official street vending coordinator, a position he’s held since 1998. There are only forty spots to be had throughout the city–specific sites either on the Capitol Square or the University’s Library Mall–and Hansen ultimately decides who gets them.
Each fall, Hansen oversees a “Food Cart Review,” dispatching a team of about twenty-five city employees, local food writers, and prominent community members to visit each existing cart over a five-day period. (Wannabe food carters get a trial day to set up and compete as well.) The reviewers wear official-looking badges, identify themselves, and take copious notes as they eat their way through the cart’s menu and inspect every inch of the 10- by 12-foot mobile kitchen. Carts are awarded between 0 and 40 points for both the food and the “apparatus,” as well as between 0 and 20 points for “originality.” Seniority points are also factored in, with one additional point per year in operation. Finally, points are tallied and the rankings determine not only who gets to return the following season but also who gets dibs on prime spots.
Scoring based on originality and Hansen’s own system of working directly with the vendors has created one of the most diverse street food scenes in the country, which Hansen cites as a priority since Madison started regulating food carts in 1988. “We did not want cookie-cutter hot dog carts on every corner,” he says. “And with this method, we won’t have them.”
(For specifics on who’s serving what, check out the awesome Madison carts map illustrated by Sarah Watts, below.)
Do you have your own favorite food truck? Tell us in the comments section below!