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Chefs Join the Street Food Movement

Chefs Join the Street Food Movement

Solvej Schou | Associated Press

According to Jackie Terrebonne, Gourmet’s special projects editor, a wide variety of street food recipes have cropped up in new cookbooks by noted chefs, including John Besh’s “My New Orleans: The Cookbook” and David Chang’s “Momofuku,” named after his New York restaurant chain featuring ramen and ssam, a type of Asian burrito.

The Culinary Institute of America, one of the nation’s premier cooking schools, is even hosting a conference — “Frontiers of Flavor: World Street Food, World Comfort Food” — in California in November.

“If you told someone 15 years ago the Culinary Institute would organize a national conference on street food, you would have been laughed out of the room. The concept of food is changing,” said Greg Drescher, the conference’s organizer.

American food up until the mid ’90s revolved around dishes from Europe, Drescher said, with notions of culinary excellence tied to schooling in France, then Italy. Foods considered “ethnic” were on the periphery.

Then chefs and food writers and enthusiasts started traveling beyond those European borders.

“A lot of people went to South Asia and discovered this incredible world of outdoor street food. Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, India. It’s as though you’ve been watching color television for the first time,” Drescher said. “A street food vendor has one shot at impressing the customer. It’s often quite creative and complex. Those people are doing one or two dishes for 20 to 30 years. They’ve gotten really good at what they’re doing.”

The nation’s immigrant communities also have helped make street food more commonplace. In Los Angeles County alone, several thousand food trucks and carts — many run by immigrants — operate around the city.

In New York, Middle Eastern food stands are staples, as are carts selling arepas, South American corn meal patties. In Chicago, said Bayless, the spicier the street food the better, from regional Mexican fare to Puerto Rican.

Guatemala native Irma Alvarado, 51, moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and started selling her pupusas at farmer’s markets two years ago. She learned to cook the thick meat, cheese and vegetable-filled breads while helping to care for her 11 brothers, and began working as a food vendor at age 15. Sales at her roving L.A. stand have increased four to five times since last year.