It’s 4 a.m. on Saturday morning and I’m sitting behind the wheel of my car, drowsily heading to northeast Minneapolis. I’m scheduled to meet Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer, the chefs who own and operate Chef Shack, the acclaimed Twin Cities mobile kitchen. The two women have managed to create a loyal following with their gourmet fare, and they’ve agreed to let me tag along with them for a day at the market. So here I am, heading to meet them for an 11-hour day, and on just three hours of sleep, I begin to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
When I arrive at their kitchen – a catering facility where they prep the majority of their food – the sky is still black. The only thing setting this place apart from the industrial buildings that surround it are the brightly colored Chef Shack mobiles parked in the lot. As I approach, Chef Carlson steps out of the trailer with a tired but welcoming smile on her face. We exchange a handshake and she leads me into the kitchen, where Chef Summer is preparing for their 5:30 a.m. arrival time at Mill City Farmers Market – one of two events for the day, one of five for the weekend.
They finish packing the trailer and Summer drives away as the sun begins to make an appearance. Carlson declares, “It’s all happening!” and shows me around the kitchen, giving me a tour of the walk-in cooler they share with several food vendor friends of theirs. The cooler is packed with sweet potato puree, beef tongue, pulled pork, and a whole slew of complementary gourmet condiments that they regularly offer their customers. Carlson explains that they source many of their ingredients locally and sustainably. The beef comes from Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Cannon Falls, the pork hails from Fischer Family Farms in Waseca, and the vegetables are from a number of local growers, including Tiny Planet Produce near Osceola, Wisconsin, as well as other vendors at the farmers markets they frequent. After the tour, we finish making the brown rice for today’s Thai Green Curry and head off to the market.
Just Enough Cooks in the Kitchen
Chefs Carlson and Summer have been cooking for a combined 42 years in Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco. Most recently, Carlson donned the chef’s whites at Spoonriver, where Summer worked as the restaurant’s pastry chef. The two met in 2001, when Carlson opened Café Barbette and hired Summer as her sous chef. As colleagues and partners, their relationship now spans nearly 10 years, with the past four spent building Chef Shack.
Chef Shack evolved from Urban Donut, an Indian-spiced mini-donut stand Summer started at the Mill City Farmers Market in 2007. Within a couple weeks, the donuts became a crowd favorite and Carlson came on board to help serve the Indian-spiced treats. In the fall of the same year, the chefs used their earnings to purchase their first trailer, and by spring 2008, their mobile kitchen business – the aptly named “Chef Shack” – was in full swing. Peddling restaurant-quality food at farmers markets was such a success that the ladies were able to expand their business; in 2009 they purchased two more food trucks, and this year hired two full-time sous chefs. Now, with three trucks, a well-trained staff, and loads of experience under their belts, the chefs are staking their claim in the land of street food, a growing movement in cities like Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Let’s be clear: Chef Shack is not your run-of-the-mill hotdog stand. Its ever-evolving menu includes pulled pork nachos, beet salad with peach vinaigrette, and a soft-shell crab sandwich with Carlson’s pickled ramp tartar sauce. When in season, the crab is flown from Maryland every week and delivered directly to their trailer. Chef Summer often complements the savory menu items with her famous ice cream concoctions, ranging from beet, to goat’s milk, to saffron sweet corn, all of which are known to sell out well before noon on a market day.
A Day At the Market
As we arrive at Mill City, the sun is coming up over the Mississippi while early risers trek over the Stone Arch Bridge. This is the view from Chef Shack’s back window – not a bad place to work on a Saturday morning. Chef Summer has already begun to adorn the Shack, setting out the sandwich boards and stringing paper lanterns above the trailer’s order window. It’s 6 a.m. and Chef Shack is the only vendor in sight. While the slacker in me wonders why they don’t sleep an extra hour, Carlson tells me that they like to have lots of time to prepare for the day. After working in kitchens for 22 years, I figure that type of discipline is ingrained in her, and probably part of what makes their business a success.
Over the next couple hours, the ladies go about their exhaustive routine, prepping the food, setting out the condiments, and posting messages to Facebook and Twitter to tell their followers what’s on the menu and where to find them. As other vendors begin to arrive at the market, I continue my discussion with the chefs inside the Shack. We talk about the street-food movement taking shape in the Twin Cities, which was boosted this past April by the Minneapolis City Council’s unanimous vote to expand mobile food vending downtown. I point out that more vendors are getting into the game and ask how this affects their business. Without hesitation, Carlson exclaims, “Bring 'em on! They only make us better!” This the-more-the-merrier attitude epitomizes the chefs and their thriving business on wheels. One look at Chef Shack’s Facebook page and the many posts about their street food comrades, and it’s easy to see their support for other vendors in creating momentum for street-food.
When the bulk of their prep is complete, Carlson proclaims, “Mama's tired!” before meandering off to buy a chai. Summer asks me to chalk the menu on the sandwich boards and I gladly accept, happy for a way to help. Then I realize that they are serving 14 menu items today. I begin to write...
At 8 a.m., a few anxious customers step up to place orders, and the day begins. As the sous chefs holds down the fort, Carlson makes several unexpected trips to their kitchen, and Summer jets off to a beer festival – Chef Shack’s second event of the day. The chefs are accustomed to dashing all over the Twin Cities before most of us have even climbed out of bed.
When Carlson returns, she asks me to take a stroll around the market before the rush begins. We grab a two bags of donuts and head out to spread Indian-spiced love to other vendors. Carlson exchanges greetings and hugs with familiar faces, while striking up conversations with new ones. She is excited to see everyone and the feeling is palpably mutual.
We arrive back at the trailer just in time to start serving food to a line of customers. Grinning from ear to ear, people place their orders while Carlson and her sous chefs take almost no time to fill them. I stand at the back of the kitchen in awe, as the phrase “well-oiled machine” pops into my head. Gleeful customers order warm donuts and Malcolm, who is on donut duty, can barely keep up. Malcolm has known Carlson since she hired him at Café Barbette when he was just a teenager. (He affectionately calls her “Mama Goose.”) As he bags up the donuts, his fiancé, Liz, assembles crab sandwiches and calls out orders.
Carlson and her staff know many of their customers by name, and they spend the next several hours entertaining them while they cook, hooting and hollering from inside the trailer. Customers cheerfully take in the spectacle, and I get the feeling that they aren’t there just for the food. Many of them pose for photos in front of the shack with family, friends, and mini donuts, obviously enjoying the entire experience.
It’s now lunchtime, and nearly 30 hungry market-goers suddenly form a line. The Chef Shack crew is rapidly filling orders in what feels like a 110-degree trailer. I begin to think these chefs are crazy and Carlson explains that street food vendors are “adrenaline junkies" who thrive in this kind of environment. A few minutes later, she asks me to make food deliveries to various vendors, compliments of Chef Shack. She tells me that some of the vendors are in need of a pick-me-up, so my task is to put smiles on people’s faces, something that I find truly rewarding, and something Chef Shack does every day.
As the day comes to a close, we begin to dismantle the shack. Everyone looks a little exhausted, but there’s still much work to be done. Somehow, I feel energized, which I attribute to the bag of donuts, the cup of tomato watermelon gazpacho, and the two sweet potato tacos I’ve consumed today. I help Carlson and her staff pack up, knowing that they have to do it all over again tomorrow, and I feel a sense of deep admiration for their commitment to making this mobile kitchen, and street food, a reality.
After putting in 11 hours, I’m back behind my steering wheel, this time heading home. I find myself looking a little like Chef Shack’s customers, grinning from ear to ear, and I begin to wonder where this cheeriness is coming from. Then it dawns on me that what I experienced today was more than just the business of food preparation. It was also the business of building community through awe-inspiring dedication and ridiculously hard work. For four years, Carlson and Summer have been committed to cultivating relationships with the people who produce their ingredients, the vendors at the markets and on the streets, and the customers who desire to be a part of this magical thing called “Chef Shack.” They are finding people who are passionate about food, drawing them to the market with their families and friends, educating them about the importance of eating locally and sustainably, allowing them to experience food in delicious new ways, and giving them the opportunity to congregate with others who also appreciate what they eat. Yes. That is something worth smiling about.
You can find Chef Shack at these Twin Cities locations:
- Downtown Minneapolis, at 5th and Hennepin – Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays
from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
- St. Paul, at Mears Park – Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
- St. Paul, Minnesota Public Radio Studios – Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
- Mill City Farmers Market – Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Northeast Farmers Market – Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Kingfield Farmers Market – Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
- Uptown Market – Sundays from 1 1a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Village Farmers Market – Mondays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Sarah Rykal, by day, works as a sustainability coordinator for a small university in Wisconsin. And by night, she's a food-loving music geek who writes, hikes, gardens, and dabbles in documentary filmmaking. Her current obsessions include Swiss chard, guacamole, and any band with a banjo.