This article appears in the May issue of 400 Life.
On a Friday night in the summer, Giovanna Rosenfeld is about as far away from Paris as she could possibly be — literally and figuratively.
Rosenfeld went to culinary school in Paris in the early ‘90s which jumpstarted a career in fine dining. When Rosenfeld returned to the United States, she worked in a three-Michelin star restaurant. Eventually, she owned her own French bistro.
Rosenfeld and her husband moved to Atlanta for his job, but another restaurant experience didn’t appeal to Rosenfeld. She wanted something more interactive.
“As a chef in a fine dining restaurant, you’re pretty much relegated to the back of the kitchen,” Rosenfeld said.
So she thought of a food truck. In 2010, she started one called Immovable Feast (a play on Ernest Hemingway’s memoir) that served French bistro food and crepes. She sold the truck in 2012 but quickly returned with something more fitting for her new surroundings: The Deep South Biscuit Co., her gourmet biscuit food truck that will be one of the vendors at the city of Cumming’s Fridays at the Fairgrounds community event this summer.
“Really funny contrast when you think,” Rosenfeld said.
But the work is hardly easier than her fine dining days, Rosenfeld said. A little easier, yes, but hardly. Events require days of hurried preparation. Managing all the variables of an event — from booking to inventory to travel to service — is a balancing act of art and science.
400 Life magazine talked with Rosenfeld and Curt Czajkoski, co-owner of Big C’s Chicago Kitchen food truck, another Fridays at the Fairgrounds regular, about what it takes to pull off feeding hundreds of customers in a day, much less make it in an increasingly crowded food truck industry.
On a recent Saturday, Czajkoski’s truck was at the YMCA in Brookhaven for a soccer tournament. They planned to serve breakfast and stay through lunch.
Czajkoski had scheduled the event two months in advance. He handles that part of the business. It suits his background. Czajkoski grew up in Chicago but worked in the corporate world in Atlanta for more than 25 years before retiring.
Czajkoski had long noticed that there were few options to eat authentic Chicago-style food. His son, Chris, had been working in restaurants, and so the two decided to combine forces and start a food truck that would “serve food that I grew up eating in Chicago,” Curt said, like Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza, Italian sausage and bratwurst.
They opened Big C’s in 2016, and Curt quickly learned the right questions to ask of those requesting their service for an event: How many people are expected to attend? What other food options will be there? Are you willing to guarantee a certain amount of revenue?
“It’s a really important part of the food truck industry,” said Curt, who is a board member of the Food Truck Association of Georgia. “We’re a small business, and we need to be able to make money.”
In the heart of Buckhead, Rosenfeld is busy smoking briskets.
It’s the day before the first Fridays at the Fairgrounds event, which is a full day of work for a food truck. Rosenfeld will soak chicken overnight in buttermilk, salt and pepper for the Deep South’s chicken biscuits. The brisket is for the ‘Texas Smokehouse,’ a biscuit with chopped brisket, blue cheese coleslaw and thick-cut dill pickles.
Otherwise, the day is filled with making minor preparations, like strawberry jam and her own barbecue sauce from Cherry Coke and a dash of chipotle.
The next day — the day of the event — Rosenfeld is back in her commissary kitchen, which is required by the health department, on Roswell Road doing the heavy lifting: baking biscuits, cooking bacon, making lemonade and sweet tea, stocking the truck, etc.
Just how much to prepare depends. After nine years in the business, Rosenfeld has a formula that works for her: the number of people expected to attend the event divided by the number of food trucks equals the number of potential customers that day.
“You just learn after being some place,” Rosenfeld said.
When Rosenfeld was the head chef and owner of her own restaurant, the busiest night of the year was New Year’s Eve. She’d serve six-course meals meticulously plated on China to around 250 people while managing a full staff.
Rosenfeld has served as many as 1,000 people at a food truck event, but it’s a simpler process than her fine dining experience.
“It’s very different than throwing a biscuit in a red-and-white checked boat,” Rosenfeld said.
Still, it’s hectic. Events are usually slow to start, Rosenfeld said, but it quickly builds, and “then all of a sudden you look up and you have a line of 20 people, and it kind of stays that way.”
Rosenfeld keeps four or five people working on the truck to manage the rush. Rosenfeld works the cash register taking orders, and she always repeats the order loud enough for Deep South’s cooks to hear.
“That way, mentally, they can start working on the order before there’s a printed ticket,” Rosenfeld said. “It helps flow better.”
The end of a Friday night is usually the beginning of the next day’s event. Czajkoski and the Big C’s staff can usually clean up within 20 minutes after an event ends. Then they’re on the road and back to their commissary kitchen within an hour. They’ll do minor cleaning, gather dishes, unload food into a walk-in fridge and freezer, check inventory and divide tips. They might stop for propane or some supplies from Restaurant Depot.
There are other pitfalls. Crowds aren’t always what they’re expected to be. Weather can be unpredictable, and so can a truck’s reliability. Big C’s truck once broke down and missed a week-and-a-half’s worth of events. He tries to be proactive about getting the truck maintained regularly, but it has more than 100,000 miles on it.
“[Problems are] going to happen anyway,” Czakjoski said.
The food truck industry is competitive, Czajkoski said, and so he puts a premium on customer service.
“Sometimes we’re tired and we’re ready to go home,” he said, “and the customer says, ‘Hey, can you stay another hour?’ … If you say no, the chances of them inviting you back are probably slim to none.”
But the payoff is big too.
For Rosenfeld, she gets to meld her former world of fine dining with her new Southern roots while interacting with customers.
For Czakjoski, he gets to proselytize the merits of Chicago-style cuisine to Southerners.
For their customers, they get some good food.