Quick, I'm hungry - call the engine
Will Mitchell's Fire Truck is like a super- duper, gourmet reincarnation of beloved old pie carts. But there is no gluggy pastry and mince passed over the counter from this shiny retro-cool little red fire engine kitchen. Michell is more into smoked and pickled seasonal vegetables with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, or soy-marinated groper smoked on a barbecue and served with a toasted seaweed dressing. Or goat, tender and tasty. He's very partial to goat, both cooking it and eating it.
Says Michell: "A lot of wild meat I like. Goat's more economic than lamb. You're in the realm of $30-plus to make money on it. Lamb is priced out of reach. Goat is a good option. It's one of the most widely eaten meats in the world - Nepal, India, Central and South America. There are no sheep, they've got goats. I think it's an undervalued meat here."
He found the fire truck, a 1960s Bedford TK, on Trade Me. It had once shuttled importantly backwards and forward to fires in Rotorua. Today, it is Wellington's most eclectic food truck, boasting two gas hobs on which meat is reheated and fresh vegetables cooked on the spot, and it trucks around to events.
"We have an American-style smoker barbecue we cook meat on slowly. I like doing Asian-style goat, marinating it in miso and seaweed to season it, and then we slow-smoke it on the barbecue, whole goat, eight or nine hours, and then shred all the meat, so beautiful and tender and falling off the bone. It's strong but not overpowering if you cook it right."
The big smoker barbecue trailer does not always trundle along with the fire truck. It is usually used earlier in the preparation stage, and Michell does most of this in a commercial kitchen.
Michell started his venture with partner Kim Eddington earlier this year.
"The philosophy was local, seasonal produce cooked with influences from our global travels, just doing something a bit different, keeping it fresh and interesting."
Fresh and interesting just about sums up their whole approach to life. British-born Michell met Wellington-born Eddington when he was cheffing at The Providores in London, co- owned by Peter Gordon.
"Kim ran front of house. It was the classic story - chef and waitress meet."
The next classic story was that her UK visa ran out and the pair set off in 2005 on a working jaunt through Europe and eventually Australian restaurants.
"It's great to travel as a cook. We ate our way around the world, and that shows in the kind of food I cook, very eclectic."
They eventually ended up in Christchurch Spanish restaurant Estudio-S in time for the big quake and subsequently lost their jobs when it was forced to close. For a couple of years Michell ran the kitchen at La Boca Loca in Miramar and Eddington worked front of house.
"Then we thought it was time to do something fun ourselves. The food truck is fun, a cost- effective way of cooking food in our way without all the overheads. Plus I get to drive around in a fire truck all day."
THAT truck, says Michell, had several lives, last as a coffee cart in Wellington that stopped operating in 2010.
"It was more stationary at that stage. It sat on its Cuba and Webb street base making coffee."
Michell refined the coffee vendor's conversion of the truck and tussled with a dicey radiator.
"You have to spend half your time fixing a 50-year-old truck. Fortunately, it's relatively simple mechanically. If you follow the noise you'll probably find out what's wrong. I'm learning, and I have a trusty mechanic on speed dial. It's a fun thing to drive."
Michell intends customers to have more than just a "filling up" experience when they buy food from the truck. And he and Eddington want to keep moving.
"We could quite easily find a piece of land and park the truck up but we want to be moving and changing."
Finding somewhere to park on the move is his biggest problem. On council land he needs a permit and on private land, permission.
He has been able to park the truck on private land close to upmarket city bars Hashigo Zake and Goldings in the early evening and on Saturday mornings heads out to Ontrays Food Emporium in Petone where the foot traffic is likely to be foodies. The truck will be outside City Gallery tomorrow [July 3] for the gallery's Tuatara Open Late night.
"We've been to the City Market without the truck and parked the truck outside. City Market is our target audience."
Last weekend they ventured to the Martinborough Olive Harvest Festival - "a nice test for the engine".
But his dream is to be able to set up, say, outside Parliament, just for the lunch hour. That, says Michell, is the sort of thing that happens in the burgeoning food- truck world overseas, especially the United States.
There, as here, customers keep track of their favourite trucks via social media. "In the States, that's how food trucks survive.
"Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, they all have good food truck scenes. It's a lot easier for trucks to park up where they want to in the States, less bureaucracy than here." He has heard that on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC, a raft of food trucks arrive at lunchtime and the office workers "come out, get the food, and the trucks are gone in an hour".
"It's a whole different world out there. In Sydney a few years ago the council got behind it and pushed out licences and encouraged people to be clever and inventive. One in Sydney had a living roof on top - herbs on the roof of a truck. We think it's quite an attractive thing for a city interested in good food in a casual environment.
"Getting the truck and health certificate is easier than finding the sites. I'd like to be able to put the truck outside Parliament for an hour at lunchtime and be on my way.
"It's not that simple, and it's not necessarily the council's fault. There's a lot more to consider than pay your parking and go for it.
"Summer will be better."
City Gallery will remain open from 5pm-10pm for Tuatara Open Late tomorrow The Fire Truck will be parked in Civic Square from 5pm.
Fear not about the possibility of bugs in trucks. The Wellington City Council requires food trucks to be licensed similarly to food stalls or cafes and adhere to the same high hygiene standards. Mice, grubs and unsafe greebies may be even more rare in food trucks than in sit-down restaurants. A survey in food truck heartland, the United States, carried out by libertarian public interest law firm The Institute for Justice and called Street Eats, Safe Eats: How food trucks and carts stack up to restaurants on sanitation, found food trucks had the same or fewer violations than restaurants. The research, which looked at 260,000 food safety inspection reports from seven cities in 2009-12 was intended to address the myth that travelling kitchens and their wares are dirty and unsafe.
The Dominion Post