London Street Foodie on tour: visiting Peugeot’s new food truck in Paris
It is early April and I am in Paris, standing inside Carreau de Temple, a colossal mid-nineteenth century steel and glass structure that used to be one of the city’s largest traditional covered markets and what is now used to host cultural events.
In front of me is a gleaming red and silver vehicle. Inside it is a state of the art kitchen and inside that is a young chef cooking something. Next to him stands a DJ behind some decks and, on a door emblazoned with a famous car manufacturer’s logo, there is a TV screen showing what looks like a restaurant menu. A second later, this turns into a camera and I can see a live demonstration of what the chef, Sven Chartier of celebrated Parisian restaurant Saturne, is cooking. Once he has finished, he passes a smart wooden tray of food down from his kitchen into the hands of a beautiful waiter – surely a model the rest of the time – who brings it over to a group of elegantly dressed people standing around an umbrella.
After picking at small, smart morsels of things like freshly made madeleines, grapefruit segments, an egg shell filled with whipped egg and a pot of homemade granola, they move over to an equally state of the art trailer where they are handed a tiny cup of coffee. I try the delicious breakfast as well as the short, sharp coffee and, later, I eat Sven’s lunch, which is a startling mixture of modern, fresh, floral dishes as well as a pork burger. A lettuce wrap (above) that looks like nothing from the outside is an explosion of simple punchy flavours, including fennel, basil, pistachios and goat’s cheese.
I have accepted an invitation* to come to the French capital for the unveiling of a new design concept by Peugeot – of a food truck. The plan is that it will be shown at Milan Design Week (where it has now been) and after that, if someone wanted to, they could commission one of their own. In short, I am staggered by the whole situation. As someone who has relentlessly followed the London street food scene, and others abroad, finding their trucks, vans, market stalls and all the food to go with it, since 2011, it feels somehow disloyal standing in front of this polished mobile restaurant with its glossy exterior, practically Michelin quality food, and a lot of money behind it.
Isn’t this at odds with what the modern, westernised idea of street food is all about? My experience of writing about the scene here is of spirited entrepreneurs, cooks and in some cases trained chefs setting up their small mobile food businesses on often not very much money at all. Their trucks and vans are for the most part not new, but brilliant, renovated old wagons like school buses, ice cream vans, horse trailers, and VW campervans. Often these are painted in loud, garish colours to make them stand out in a crowd, their branding is engaging, and their unpretentious – and in some cases seriously excellent – food is often served in cardboard boxes to people who can eat it sitting on stools, on benches or standing up. Parts of it are polished, and certainly the prices have shot up in recent months, but largely it’s rough-and-ready, for anyone to take it or leave it.
This great wagon wants to be seen for different reasons. Sure, those at the Peugeot Design Lab want to challenge our perceptions of the brand by making an impressive design statement, but they also want to project a futuristic vision of street food, and to ask questions that I feel have already been answered.
So at this point my question is: can I be convinced by Peugeot’s food truck idea?
But after a chat with the designer I begin to understand the thinking behind it; now I think there are some questions we need to ask of our own London street food scene, which I’ll come to at the end.
Interview with Cathal Loughname, head of Peugeot Design Lab:
I have recently learned that Peugeot has a history of making not only cars but also pepper grinders, boats, plane engines and more. So why did you decide to venture into street food?
“It was right that food was next. Gastronomy is not a world we’ve been heavily invested in for 200 years. We still sell more pepper grinders than cars – and the Peugeot brothers started because they inherited a mill – so food is in our DNA, but we wanted to do it in a new way.”
But why did you to choose to design a street food truck?
“Today the food truck is just a mobile kitchen. But we wanted it to be a mobile restaurant. When it’s open it creates an amphitheatre-like space, where the tables can be moved around and it creates a volume. The system is completely adaptable. We wanted to control and innovate the client experience – so there is the camera filming the chef, who is as low as possible to the people, and we’ve thought about the service area, the tables, the cutlery. People are not just milling around. They are protected. Because with food trucks, the only thing that’s changed is that the quality of the food has improved. A food truck can be more than what it is today.”
So what do you think food trucks are today then?
“I’ve researched all over, in China, and everywhere I’ve been. And today food trucks… they’re not backward… but they are all the same in the sense that they still remain just for preparation and there wasn’t one that took on the challenge of the looking after the client as well.”
How did you pick the chef?
“We wanted a French chef, someone relatively young, a chef with potential who is also prepared to innovate. You know, what am I making with the food truck? Innovation is not limited to the food truck itself.”
My conclusion is, first, that what Peugeot has done clearly pushes the boundaries of what a food truck can be, what food can come out of it, and how it fits into its environment. I wouldn’t mind seeing it at an event here or trundling around, say, Covent Garden, but if Peugeot began making lines of food trucks, we might have a problem.
Second, thinking about the London street food scene, I can think of a few markets that, while they host good trucks which serve decent grub, don’t have any chairs or seats or anywhere for the customer to stand once they’ve got the burger in their hands. You have to dally around slightly awkwardly, hoping you won’t drop everything down your shirt. Now, in some cases, I realise getting dirty is part of the fun. But eating sitting down with your friends is also part of the fun, and I wonder if we need to move on now, whether we need to think about the whole picture. It’s become all to easy these days to come up with a cool truck concept, but I wonder now whether traders and market managers need to be more inclusive when planning their set-ups. I know I want to enjoy the whole experience.
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*I was not paid to come on this trip, but my travel and overnight accommodation costs were covered.