DESSERT TRUCK: BRINGING GOURMET SWEETS TO THE STREETS
America is a country of pioneers, and Jerome Chang, born to Taiwanese immigrants, can justifiably be considered one of them. In 2007, Chang became one of a handful of trailblazers forging the way for a new class of gourmet food carts, with Dessert Truck. The now-iconic vehicle, painted with the brand's whimsical logo, serves delicious, epicurean sweets of a caliber typically found only in top-tier restaurants.
A mouth-watering sampling of the sophisticated desserts offered on the truck includes Warm Molten Chocolate Cake with an olive oil ganache center, roasted pistachios, and vanilla ice cream; Goat Cheese Cheesecake with rosemary caramel and quince; and Espresso Panna Cotta with coffee-lavender ice cream, Nutella, and caramelized almonds. The crowning achievement, though, is the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Bacon Crème Anglaise, recently featured on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Dessert Truck's version was declared the winner in a blind taste-test by the public.
Like all pioneers, Chang faced many difficulties and challenges. Street food of the day was limited largely to hot dogs, pretzels, and halal food; there was no model for vendors serving high-end food on the street. "I basically set up a business model by myself," he says. Everything, from the concept to the permits to the food preparations, was new territory to be mapped out. "Even finding the right packaging was hard, because no one thought of gourmet desserts in an ice cream context, where you could walk down the street and grab something you could enjoy on a nice day," explains Chang. And despite its overwhelmingly popular reception on the streets, the truck weathered many setbacks, including a shutdown ordered by the New York City government in 2009, until the team worked out the kinks.
And while New York City still wrestles with establishing a system capable of accommodating the growing number of, and increasing demand for, food carts, street cuisine continues to evolve dramatically from its humble beginnings. High-quality food on the streets of Manhattan today is commonplace. For his part, Chang will accept only partial credit for the transformation⎯he believes it was inevitable. "There was a desperate need for good food to be affordable and accessible to people. If Dessert Truck hadn't come along, something else would have."
Chang's drive to democratize desserts in this country was influenced by his ties to Asia. On trips to his family's native Taiwan, he was inspired by the abundance of fantastic food available outdoors. "In Taiwan," he says, "the best food is on the streets and in the night markets. In New York, the best food is expensive, and it requires you to get dressed up and make reservations. That's why I wanted to start Dessert Truck."
As a chef, Chang is excited about the growing culinary movement that places emphasis, first and foremost, on the food. "All around the world, especially in East Asia and Taiwan," he says, "people don't care where their food comes from as long as it's properly prepared in a clean setting and it tastes great. Here, we have been focusing too much on the superficial elements of dining out. That's changing with the way we are paying more attention to how we source ingredients and how [dishes are] made, and food trucks are just a part of that movement."
Looking back, Chang recognizes that growing up as a first-generation American has always had an effect on his career. Raised in an affluent suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, by East Asian immigrant professionals, expectations were high in his family. His parents would have liked him to attend medical school; he went to law school instead. "Law school was a compromise," he says, and in accordance with the agreement, he earned a law degree and became an insurance defense lawyer.
But Chang was never satisfied with the life of a lawyer. "I always knew I needed to do something creative," he says. So in 2004, after one year of practicing law, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute's pastry program. After graduation, he worked his way up to the position of pastry sous chef at New York City's famed Le Cirque restaurant. Even with that success it was not easy for his parents to come to terms with their son's career choice. "It was the most shameful [profession] they could think of, and they come from a shame-based society," Chang says.
Even in the face of his parents' resistance, Chang attributes much of his success with Dessert Truck to qualities instilled in him by his parents. "Their work ethic and high standards helped a lot. I didn't expect anything but to work like crazy," he says. "It sounds simple, and maybe I am playing into stereotypes, but it's true. I've seen it in a lot of other Asian pastry chefs in New York as well."
These days, Dessert Truck is running reduced hours of operation, with the team⎯which includes Chang's wife, Spanish-born Susanna Garcia, and French-born Vincent Joura⎯ working mostly out of their brick-and-mortar café, DessertTruck Works, on New York City's Lower East Side. And while Chang doesn't miss the headaches that come with operating solely out of a vehicle⎯legal, mechanical, and otherwise⎯he does miss the closer customer contact he has when "on the road." "People are more excited; it's dressed down and friendly. Working in a truck is just more fun."
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Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.