The smell of deep-frying on the breeze is either tantalizing or frustrating, depending on your level of hunger.

El Gastronomo Vagabundo food truck

Image credit: Sid Friedman

El Gastronomo Vagabundo’s vintage-style sign, blazoned on the side of the year-old food-truck, is just barely visible through the hungry throngs.

Tamara Jensen, one half of the team behind the cheerful white truck, takes orders at the truck window and calls them in to Adam Hynam-Smith, Jensen’s partner in business and life. Hynam-Smith plates the lunchtime chow, deftly juggling coriander sprigs, tobiko aioli and chili corn fritters.

Wait a minute—plating? Coriander? Tobiko aioli? What kind of bizarro-world  food truck is this?

Not such an unusual one, actually.

Food trucks are a growing trend

Jensen and Hynam-Smith are part of a gourmet food truck trend that’s been building in the States for the past couple of years and has caught on in the last year or so in Ontario.

El Gastronomo Vagabundo (which means “The Gourmet Vagabond”) was the first of its kind in southern Ontario, and now joins a handful of trucks throughout Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara dedicated to quality mobile food—everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to towers of deli meat to cupcakes—and showing what’s possible to produce in a tiny kitchen on wheels.

In fact, the mobile food trend has caught on to the extent that the National Restaurant Association in the US reports that 30% of chefs predict that food trucks will be one of the top trends of 2011.

Why a food truck?

Jensen and Hynam-Smith say the decision was largely economic—a food truck requires much less start-up capital than a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

El Gastronomo Vagabundo tom yum soup

Image credit: Joel Smith Photography

“If you want to open a restaurant, you need investors—because you need at least half the year of lease payments covered, plus you need to have money for the first few weeks or months of produce orders,” says Hynam-Smith, who has the background to know exactly what he’s talking about.

A trained chef who hails from Australia,  he learned his craft working in some of the country’s best-known restaurants.

But just because the start-up costs are lower than a restaurant doesn’t mean a food truck’s going to be an immediate money maker.

“The cost is relative to the price of the food,” explains Hynam-Smith. “In a restaurant, when you’re creating a menu, your costs—labour, overheads, everything—gets costed into each and every dish. Liquor sales gives you your revenue—and we don’t have that luxury. It’s all about numbers with a truck—and that comes down to streamlining and figuring how much you can put out in a short period of time.”

Then there’s the issue of energy,and the impact of a food truck on the environment.

Although power usage in a food truck is lower than in a conventional restaurant, it’s still not quite peanuts. And while Hynam-Smith and Jensen would love to go completely green, that’s proven a little impractical.

“We’ve been throwing around the idea of solar panels for a few years,” says Hynam-Smith. “But it’s expensive—we’d need a couple of years just to pay it off—and you’ve got a lot of challenges being in Canada in terms of weather and damage in the winter. They don’t run efficiently when there’s under cloud cover—you get less power out of them.”

Image credit: Tamara Jensen

Food trucks that use solar power do exist—check out San Francisco-based Sunny Vibrations—but they tend to stick close to cities in California and other consistently sunny locales.

Biofuel conversion is another energy-saving measure that’s on El Gastro’s wish list, inspired by US-based trucks, like Green Truck and Frysmith, which run their trucks on recycled frying oil.

Again, though, expense is a challenge. And meeting it would take outside help. “We’d love it if someone would say, ‘Hey, we’re a biofuel company who manufactures engines—put our logo on the truck and we’ll give you the engine,” says Hynam-Smith. “Those sorts of things would be hugely beneficial to both parties.”

On a food truck, there’s more to energy efficiency than solar power and biodiesel

Jensen and Hynam-Smith approach the issue of energy and sustainability from a perspective that’s both hyper-local and global.

El Gastronomo Vagabundo food truck

Image credit: Joel Smith Photography

“Because we don’t have the luxury of doing a biofuel conversion, we try and take off as much of our footprint as possible,” says Hynam-Smith. “We’ll buy from farms all within a short drive, where we  can go and pick up all our own produce from them. It supports the community that way, and that cuts back on how much traffic there is on the road. It’s a little thing, but the more people who do that, the less trucks are on the road driving up crap from Mexico to Canada.”

They adjust their menu to suit the seasons, with winter focusing on curries and soups that use root vegetables, and summer taking full advantage of Niagara’s brief but diverse growing season with gourmet tacos and composed salads.

And for the stuff they can’t source locally, Jensen explains they do business with local, independent suppliers. “We don’t want to order from big suppliers in Toronto,” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense when we can just go to someone here and have that relationship with them.”

Along with reducing the time their food spends on the road, Jensen and Hynam-Smith serve their food on biodegradable service-ware, and use napkins made from recycled paper.

Goodbye, grease wagons

While they’re working on reducing their carbon footprint, Jensen and Hynam-Smith are also on a bit of a mission to educate people about the possibilities of street food—and stamp out, once and for all, the image of food trucks as “roach coaches.”

“Here we’re brainwashed to think that something made on the street, whether it’s from a cart or a truck, is dirty, unhealthy and going to make you sick,” says Jensen. “Every time I read an article in a Canadian magazine about food trucks, inevitably someone comments online that eating from a food truck is unhealthy and you’re going to get sick. It’s so frustrating, because they don’t realize that our truck is a kitchen–it’s registered with the health department, it’s inspected regularly, it’s probably cleaner than the home kitchen of that person who’s commenting.”

Image credit: Joel Smith Photography

The pair would like to see more people have a sense of adventure when it comes to food. “We’re up against the mentality that food trucks are chip trucks,” says Hynam-Smith. “People come up to the truck and say, ‘Do you do fries? Do you do burgers and stuff?’”

Jensen breaks in. “Open your mind and try new things!”

One tempura prawn taco, please. Extra tobiko aioli.