Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These

Time has been moving like a freight train and there has hardly been time for a stop along the way, more or less an update. Which has now turned into a long one.

It’s been mentioned by a couple of friends/colleagues that I belong on the highway preparing the style of cuisine I have developed through my career instead of on the side of the street in sub zero weather. It is flattering & appreciated, and there have surely been times where I’ve longed for the familiar comfort (and of course controlled chaos) of a traditional kitchen and restaurant. However, the longer I have been going at this, the more I feel enthused it’s right. Until I am able to find some sort of a niche for lofty cuisine for the long haul, I have no issues with putting down all most of my culinary fussiness for laying down the laws in street cuisine.

Additionally, for the first time since I have been married, I have been home for dinner almost on a daily basis to play husband and daddy. At the tender age my girls are, it doesn’t mean I’m seeing them more than I did when I was working evening hours, but if there hasn’t been yet, more dividends will be found as they grow. The bottom line is that the balance has shifted on my professional teeter tot & I have become more selfish about being there for them as Daddy, than I am about my goals as a chef. To that extent, it is interesting stepping back and watching the culinary scene from the outside looking in. My shift on the map has offered a somewhat new perspective on the mecca itself. In the big picture I don’t believe it means much, but it is interesting how quickly one goes from being in the center (or just off center) to being on the outside looking in. Though this doesn’t worry or bother me and hasn’t done much other than fill me with the desire to create my own path, I will say it is now more tempting than ever to put down all scruples and say whatever I feel about everything. I do however have bigger fish to fry at the moment and don’t want to come off as contrived for the sake of causing waves. Perhaps my balls aren’t as big as I give them credit to be, but Mama said it’s not a good idea to burn bridges. To be sure, I have also not ruled out jumping back into the center of the arena, and have and will entertain offers. For now though, I feel that who I am as a person shines through more clearly in front of the masses on the street instead of from behind the scenes through a cuisine & blog only relatively few are able to approach/understand. Still, expect to see an outlet for loftier cuisine at some point.

Slinging my ballsy street cuisine off a truck has had its moments… on both ends. For those unaware, I have gotten this business going on my own meager savings and have been trying to patchwork together a successful business model. I’ve been making it so far and I have ambitious plans to date to grow it further. I have had a few ‘almosts’ with potential investors, but am still looking for a single individual/group to spring the relatively small amount it will take to make a serious go of this model and future endeavors (email interest to thepickledtongue@gmail.com).

In the meantime I have no qualms about contuining in the manner I have, and little by little, it will come together. Press has been phenomenal, but my rep from the newly formed F.U. Public Relations Company has not really been pulling his wait. I’ve tried firing him, but every time I look in the mirror I can’t help but bring him back onto the team. We’re just going to have double down and re-focus. Aside from all of the great local media attention, we’re slated to be in Esquire and Travel and Leisure. These are thanks largely to  friend and butcher apprentice Ellen Malloy & her ground breaking, low cost, recently launched digital PR initiative called Soapbox.

On my own account, we were also recently mentioned in The Wall Street Journal. As a little side story, the journalist of the WSJ piece first contacted me while I was at Lockwood on the topic of my involvement in launching the movement to bring food trucks to Chicago. But since I already promised the story to Mike Sula told in this Chicago Reader article – and am a man of my word – I wound up selling her on  my Asian carp initiative instead (also originally penned by Sula) in the Chicago Reader. As another little segue – if anyone with any kind of 2011 James Beard Award influence reads this – it should be considered that two of his original pieces were essentially picked off by the Wall Street Journal… not bad!

Back to present day since I don’t suspect any James Beard nominations for myself this year (unless there is a category for “Chef with the Biggest Balls, Great Lakes Region”). Numbers are down slightly due to the weather, there have been big fines, and a careless postal truck that clean ripped off the side door of the truck during a service at the Tribune Tower. More disturbing is that both the mailman and myself were shocked to learn it was my fault due to having it open in the path of traffic. This caused me to go postal at the cop shop, where I have come to be known simply as, “Mr. Meatyballs.” Joking aside, these instances are threatening to cripple the entire enterprise.

A sad moment in the Adventures of the Meatyballs Mobile.

In other ways, the whole venture kind of reminds me of fishing: You search around for a spot that feels right and then stand around and wait. And as with fishing, there is a very fine line between partaking in a meaningful activity as there is to standing around like a complete asshole waiting for something to happen. The biggest difference is that fish don’t start hitting the line by tweeting your location. It has taken some time to get the word out on what it is that I am serving and the whole idea of warming Chicagoans up to serving off of a truck in the first place, but slowly word is starting to spread… and mostly by word of mouth and not the Twitter feed.

The high so far in the whole experience had to be the first time there was a deep line waiting for me to arrive to my location. A close second was on my return from being sidelined with truck issues and the Red Eye feature that came out of the day. The low point had to be that first morning in that article in which I couldn’t sell a goddamn donut despite my wife making them until 4am, and a looming fear that nobody would show up for lunch with a journalist along for the ride. The award though has to go to the time a dude walked up to the truck during one of my first and only dinner services, called his girlfriend to see if she had heard about The Meatyballs Mobile, hung up, and walked away without a word or acknowledgement. Shmuck! The venue may have changed, but my inflated ego hasn’t.

I have also formed/reasoned a new philosophy on using commodity meats & products, though I bet this will ruffle the feathers of the all things natural/organic community.
The thought is this: Most believe that there is good karma that comes from using animals that were raised and slaughtered humanely and treated with respect while living. Though I believe this as well – and love being able to follow the lineage from inception to digestion – and also can’t argue that the flavor is almost always better (except perhaps with prime steaks), I have come to the karmic conclusion that I may actually be getting some brownie points for lovingly creating something with an animal that has been disregarded during it’s life and slaughter. I’m banking on it that there could be something redeeming about lifting it up after it’s dead. Kill me if you wish, but the Lord knows I’ll need all the help I can get to cross the pearly gates, so that’s my philosophy and I’m sticking with it. And – at least for now – I will sell my product for a more reasonable price in the process. What I have learned through a case study by the just formed F.U. Marketing Company (Foss Unlimited), this is what my client base is most concerned about.

Another good thing about this project is that I have been involved in it all: from preparations, to sandwich building, to keeping books, doing dishes, changing the fryer oil, and obviously slinging the balls on the street. Coming from a union environment where I spent as much time in the office and supervising as I did behind the stoves, I have managed to lose about 15 pounds off a frame that wasn’t too pudgy to begin with.

On the flip side, bills are piling up now that health insurance is no longer covered by the hotel and there have been many challenges and even some damaged relationships along the way. I have learned/confirmed once again that most friendships in life are one crisis away from fading into oblivion. Without equivocation, this has been the most challenging transition I have ever made and has left me at times as alone & desperate as I have ever felt. I’m not going to get into all the details here (but they delve deeper than professional level & my marriage is doing fine, thank you). No cause for concern though… I’m a deep cat and little by little my deranged mind seems to be putting some sense of sanity behind this goofy game of life… at least until the next turn.

Oddly, a career goal of having a segment in Art Culinaire came to fruition after leaving the fine dining arena, but that may be a perfectly fitting swan song. Expect the issue to land (along with a bunch of related blog posts) in late January. Beyond those forthcoming posts – and maybe a ‘Best of The Pickled Tongue’ -I’m contemplating – this site may go into a deeper hibernation. Just scrolling down the home page of the blog shows a ton more words than cuisine, and that wasn’t really the idea of this. As such, I created a cuisine category so the food doesn’t get lost altogether on newcomers to the site. But then again, who knows? When I look back on 2010 and the aforementioned food truck story, the Asian carp experiment, turning forty, organizing bathtubs of booze for a good cause, ending a run (in an absurd and yet to be disclosed manner), subsequent pop ups, and a fly by night launching, when looking forward to what’s to come in 2011, one need only to turn to John Lennon for insight when he sang, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Strange days indeed… most peculiar Mama…. WHOA!

7 Responses to “Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These”

  1. Aaron says:

    Chef,
    As a Chicago dining consumer I love how candid you are in our posts. I have great hope that things will keep getting better for you on the food truck scene. I’ve had the following thought I hoped to share. Take it as you will, I am not in the industry but simply admire your work. Having looked at your schedules weekly for the past couple of months I notice a lack of visits to the college campuses. Your food is perfectly priced for the student who wants the top taste experience but who can’t afford a dinner at Michelin Star restaurant. It is also the “get-em hooked when they’re young” philosophy shared by many industries in their early years. Once winter break is over Loyola, DePaul, UIC and UC all have lots of hungry mouths who are also social-media addicts. They are also all outside of the resto-dense area of downtown, providing you with less competition. This is just a thought, take it or leave it as you wish. I hope things continue to look brighter for you, your family and your meatyballs into the new year.

  2. Badresa says:

    I’m so glad to hear that it’s the blog, thought it will be missed, and not the truck that will be experiencing a deeper hibernation. I’m forever doing my best to spread the word about the amazing food trucks that come by my office for lunch. I promise to continue that effort, as long as you promise to continuing bringing me the meatyball sandwich, which is superior by far, but the closest thing I’ve ever eaten to my Grandma’s pan fried mushroom soup burgers. It’s so comforting I could cry. thanks for everything you do.

  3. Thanks for sharing your outside-lookin’-in perspective, Phillip; this is one of the most genuine stories I’ve read all year. You’re not only the source of fantastic street fare, you’re an inspiration to anyone who aspires to launch their own food biz on the unforgiving streets of Chicago. I hope you soon find an investor who is your equal in terms of diligence and honesty. You deserve that much, at the very least.

    Keep fightin’ the good fight, brother. On, Wisconsin!

  4. Jeannie says:

    Phillip,
    Sorry, just read this, getting caught up… Thank you for such an honest post, and am throwing all the positive energy your way for the MB mobile!!!!!!!! Life is short, so the time with your girls is well worth it, and it sounds like you are well aware of that…but will continue to encourage my friends to seek out the MB mobile and I will keep a Twitter eye out as well… U go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Happy New Year!

  5. Delane says:

    I think what you are doing for Chicago dining culture. I’m a huge fan Meatyballs and try to spread the word as much as I can.

  6. Chelsea A says:

    I must say, I’ve had only two Meatyballs sandwiches, but I’m hooked. I just recently joined Twitter for the express purpose of following your whereabouts (I’m a much bigger Facebooker; I know all the ins and outs of that place, but virtually nothing about Twitter. How terribly old school, I know).

    I can only imagine the craziness that is your life and this endeavour. There are many of us behind you, and ready to help. All the best!

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