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Patrick Harris says the food truck business has taught him to expect the unexpected. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Prepping ingredients before a day on the Boka Truck Photo by Martha J. Miller
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One of Boka’s Asian “takos” with Korean beef bulgogi, sweet-and-spicykimchi with sesame aïoli and fresh herbs. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Thursday-night food truck courts at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery are a hit with both vendors and customers. Photo by Ash Daniel
Patrick Harris cannot find the blade attachment for the food processor. It is a Friday morning, and he is rummaging through a tangle of whisks, spatulas, and spoons housed in plastic tubs on the bottom shelf of a metal prep table. As the chef and owner of Boka Tako Truck , Harris and his staff prep for their day at Kitchen Thyme, a commercial kitchen on West Broad Street that's for rent by the hour to food entrepreneurs, small businesses and, increasingly, food truck operators. I've just finished asking Harris (for the second time) to talk me through a typical day of food truck life, but his answer is cut short by his hunt for the missing processor blade.
When I arrived earlier that summer morning, he'd warned me that today would be demanding. The normal Friday lunch service for both of his trucks, followed by the evening food truck court at the Virginia Historical Society for Boka 1 and a private event booking for Boka 2, would make for a busy day, verging on frantic. Since starting with one truck two and a half years ago, his business has expanded to include two trucks and a cart, with lunch service throughout the city daily and dinner service at one of the food truck courts.
Harris started the regular food truck courts in April in the parking lot at the VHS on Tuesday and Friday evenings and since then, they've spread to mutiple other locations. For a while, he partnered with GrowRVA on organizing the courts, but they have ended that arrangement and developed separate fall schedules, which do not include the VHS.
The first time I ask him about his typical day, the conversation goes like this: "First, I come in and get everyone set up for the day," he says. Then he stands suddenly. "I'm sorry — I have to go in the other room. We can walk and talk if you want ..." He takes off through the swinging door that leads to the commercial prep kitchen. By the time I catch up, he's talking to an annoyed-looking man wearing a trucking-company uniform.
"Do you own this green truck?" the man says, pointing out the back door. "Uh, green truck?" Harris responds. "He's not here. He's not part of our operation." Harris is referring to the owner of another Richmond food truck that also preps at Kitchen Thyme. I poke my head out the back door and soon understand the man's put-out expression. The trailer of his massive 18-wheeler is about to make devastating contact with the back right-hand corner of the green truck. The driveway around the back of the shopping center is narrow, and a less-than-stellar parking job by the green truck's driver the night before resulted in a too-tight fit for the semi this morning.
Melissa Krumbein, owner of Kitchen Thyme, soon enters the kitchen and pulls out her cell phone to call the owner of the green truck. Harris then darts away to check on the progress of Niki Gibbs, his prep cook. A recent graduate of Culinard, Virginia College's culinary institute, Gibbs packs kimchi, shredded Chihuahua cheese, chopped cilantro and other ingredients into plastic containers that she stacks in piles. Each colorful tower of ingredients will go out on Boka 1, Boka 2 and the cart for lunch service today. I walk over to where Harris has begun searching for the processor blade and try my "typical day" question again. "If something breaks, I have to fix it. If something breaks down, I have to call a tow truck," he says. "Stupid s_ _t like this."
Harris later asks me to leave the cursing out of his quotes. "I cuss a lot, sorry," he says. "It's like a mild version of Tourette's." After a brief pause, he continues with a laugh, "I try not to cuss a lot … sometimes." But a censored Harris wouldn't be the Harris I spent the morning with — a man with a colorful vocabulary, strong opinions on food and his business, and unflagging self-confidence.
"You've gotta take into consideration that I got into food trucks because I didn't have any money," he says. "That's not necessarily where my food belongs, but that's what makes it so unique." Harris did not attend culinary school, and in our conversations, he's quick to shrug off its necessity, rattling off a reading list that includes the culinary classics and his time spent working for chef Alain Ducasse at Adour in Washington, D.C. "When you've read Le Répertoire de La Cuisine and you've read Escoffier and the [Culinary Institute of America's] student cookbooks," he says, "… and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee front and back because you want to — and it took you four days instead of four semesters, which is what it normally takes people in college — and you retain the information, it gives you a competitive edge."
Call it chef bravado if you want, but Harris believes that the Boka brand has a bright future, perhaps even a brick-and-mortar restaurant down the line. "Why do I not have a restaurant right now? The main reason is I don't want to give up ownership of my company," he says. "I'm going to get my money together, and I'm going to start me up a restaurant when it's time." He continues, "You only get one shot at this. You don't want to screw it up."
Harris and I part ways around 11 a.m. when I leave Kitchen Thyme to join two of his employees at Boka 2's downtown lunch location, which turns out to be a relatively slow and punishingly hot two hours wedged next to a flat-top grill. But throughout our morning together and into the evening, Harris continues to work his way down the prep list (or what he describes as, "Checklists, checklists, checklists. That's the name of the game.") He writes the day's specials on a whiteboard for staff to read, makes edits to the employee schedule, drives to a nearby storage unit to pick up extra coolers and tables for the private event, gives an impromptu lesson on gluten-free menu items to his staff, calls a vendor about a payment, and ensures the food needed for that evening's private event and the VHS food truck court is prepped and waiting upon both trucks' return that afternoon.
All of which is to say: There is no "typical" day for Harris. "I've learned to expect the unexpected," he says. "Those are the best words of advice I have and the only way I've kept my sanity."
Whether you're a seasoned food truck fan or a ripe-for-the-pickin' rookie, gather a group of friends and hit one of Richmond's evening food truck courts for an inexpensive dinner al fresco. A weekly schedule of locations can be found at foodtruckcourt.com or at growrva.com . Below are five other trucks and/or carts worth trying because of the quality of their food and inventive menus. Can't choose just one? Make it a food crawl by sampling a little something from each.
Food Truck Crawl
With a wood-fired brick pizza oven on wheels, Pizza Tonight is a mobile food spectacle well worth the wait. Although you can choose from a variety of toppings, place yourself in the hands of the experts by opting for one of their specials. The Pig and Fig — prosciutto, Gorgonzola and a sweet schmear of fig preserves — gets my vote. Visit them online ( pizzatonight.com ) and follow them on Twitter ( @Pizzatonightrva ) for the latest locations.
Headed by Jennifer Mindell, former chef and partner of Café Gutenberg, Rooster Cart is the answer to your vegan prayers. Dishes like soy chorizo tacos and tofu bánh mì will please even the meat and dairy eaters in your crowd. Find Rooster Cart on Facebook for daily locations.
Get your "meat in tube form" (as Anthony Bourdain would say) from chef Neil Stevens, who serves up SausageCraft sausages and all-beef hot dogs from Croftburn Farm piled with creative, from-scratch toppings. Also serving soups and sandwiches with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients, Sustenance can be found online ( sustenancerva.com ) and on Twitter ( @sustenancerva ).
Another food truck court regular, Thai Cabin dishes out traditional curries, noodles and refreshing lettuce wraps stuffed with tender meat or tofu and piled high with crunchy bean sprouts. Find Thai Cabin on Twitter ( @thaicabin ).
The kid in me finds it impossible to pass up even plain-Jane vanilla, but when that vanilla is dunked in melted chocolate and rolled in potato chips, it's love at first lick. Find Mister Softee online ( mistersoftee rva.com ) and on Twitter (@ MisterSofteeRVA ).