The Food Network’s new reality competition show, The Great Food Truck Race, premieres next Sunday, August 15, and as Grub Street NY reported earlier [Spoiler alert regarding the finalists at that link!!] it features local chef Laurent Katgely and his Spencer-on-the-Go truck, the mobile spinoff of Chez Spencer that he launched in 2009. Host Tyler Florence describes the show to the Times as “Cannonball Run with food trucks,” and we grabbed a minute on the phone last week with Chef Katgely to talk about the success of the truck, the kooky French hot dog machine they’re getting soon, and about his chaotic few weeks of shooting the show.
How did you end up becoming involved with the show? Was there some kind of audition process?
Laurent Katgely: No. I just received a call last November about going around the country with the truck, taking some time off to shoot this show, and I thought it sounded fun, so I said yes. And then they just called back this spring and said, okay, it’s time.
How many places did you go with the truck? Where did you start?
Well you have to watch, but I can tell you we went to a lot. We started in Los Angeles. On our first challenge they gave us the wrong idea about where we were supposed to go, and we ended up having to race someplace else, outside of L.A. It was basically just a truck race.
What was the toughest cooking challenge you had to do?
We had a quarter cow, side of beef, inside the truck - it was 250 pounds or something. We had to hook it up on the ceiling… I was wearing a poncho and I had to break it down, butcher the whole thing, get the filet mignon and everything - it was physically the toughest one but also the most fun. We had to do this dish, and there was a surprise judge - Jesse Vera, who’s the one who operates the truck usually in San Francisco, was taking the orders, and John [Desmond] was doing the dish - we worked together at Boulevard years ago and he’s my on-call guy for special events and stuff like this.
Were you the only one doing any kind of French food during the show?
There was one other person who tried doing crepes — I’m not going to say they were French crepes, but they were crepes. We were the only ones doing French cuisine though, yes.
How was Tyler Florence as a host or a judge?
It was great to see who he actually was. I don’t watch TV and I didn’t really know who he was. He was a very nice, very down to earth guy. He’s more hosting the show than judging.
Did you recognize any of the judges, like Nate Appleman?
I know a lot of the names - I should have known, maybe but I honestly didn’t know most of them. People would say oh such and such won an award, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, really?’
When did you start Spencer on the Go?
Last year, around April or May of 2009. I used to see these Mexican guys selling tacos in a truck right around the corner from the restaurant at 14th and Harrison, and I started talking to them, just kind of joking about making caviar tacos. And then I went looking and found this truck for sale, and we didn’t really have a business plan, we just sort of went to take a look at it, and then just went ahead and tried it.
The first day we opened was a complete nightmare because we had too many people. We were cooking the way we cook in the restaurant. We had all this fish - we were trying to make too many things to order. I yelled at a few customers, closed at 9 p.m. We stopped and realized we had to do things differently - the propane in the truck was not the same as city gas, the water pressure was not the same. We changed the menu by the second day. No we do basically all the prep at the restaurant, so there’s very little cooking that has to be done on the truck. If you’ve been a restaurant for twenty years but street food is a whole different ballgame.
How much time do you personally work on the truck?
Last week I was in the truck once — I did the first two or three months and now I mostly let Jesse handle the operations.
How has the menu changed over time?
Initially we didn’t have any sandwiches, and now we have one with lamb cheeks, and a slider with truffles. The escargot lollipop was the original hit, so we’ve kept that. The quality of frog’s legs was really going up and down, and the price, so we had to stop serving those all the time.
What’s next for the truck?
We’re waiting on some equipment from France to add to the truck - there’s this hot dog machine that steams hot dogs in the middle and has big spikes all around. You put your baguette on these spikes, heating the center and if you have a good baker it makes the outside crispier. You dip the hot dog in Dijon and stuff it inside the hole made by the spike, and it’s like a baguette dog.
We also have a couple of mini ovens coming, and we’re getting rid of the griddle and deep fryer soon.
Are you taking part in any of the upcoming food festivals?
Yes - the one in Oakland [Eat Real Fest] - we’re supposed to be going there. We might join the Golden Gate Park Park thing on the weekends. We’re talking to Rec and Parks about that. They want to put about five or six trucks together on the weekends, so that could be fun.
The Spencer on the Go truck can be found parked at 7th and Folsom Thursday through Saturday evenings, until supplies run out.
Related: Food (Truck) Fight: Putting Griddle to the Metal [NYT]
Spencer On The Go To Open Thurs; For Real This Time [Grub Street]