WASHINGTON – James Cunningham is a stand-up comedian in love with food — but he is rarely behind a stove. Instead, Cunningham is in front of a camera, traveling across North America, looking for the tastiest meals and snacks from food trucks.
Cunningham is entering his fourth season as host of The Cooking Channel’s popular show “Eat St.”
In recent years, the show has gained a following thanks to the boom in the food truck industry, which provides innovative cuisine at affordable prices and convenient locations.
“I’d walk on the street with my fellow comics, we’d eat at hot dog trucks and I thought that was it when it came to food trucks,” Cunningham says. “But then the 2008 food truck revolution came and food trucks just blew up.”
Cunningham credits the food truck revolution to the abundance of talented chefs who were put out of work after the economic downturn in 2008.
When given the option of either trying to start their own restaurant or starting their own food truck, many chose the latter.
“You have these highly skilled chefs doing whatever they want,” Cunningham says. “You have this carte blanche attitude towards food, and all this fusion and experimentation that you can’t find anywhere else. That with the advent of social media created this explosion of popularity.”
Cunningham stresses that without the rise of social media, food trucks may never have latched on to public consciousness.
“These entrepreneurs — or ‘cheftrepreneurs’ as we call them — are really social media savvy,” Cunningham says. “They use Yelp, Twitter, Facebook; they’re doing something different, they have a different concept and they have great personalities.”
Social media caters to the nomadic nature of the food truck industry with up-to- the-minute locations and alerts. It also allows food truck chefs to reach their customers with their own personal form of advertising.
Social media is how Cunningham and his crew scout potential food trucks to feature on “Eat St.” They monitor online buzz, follow local food bloggers and send scouts into the featured areas.
“I think eating from a food truck is like a food truck flash mob,” Cunningham says. “A food truck is a happening. It’s really a social experience more than just a meal.”
After each episode, Cunningham says he is bombarded by emails from viewers asking for recipes. To appease the hungry masses, “Eat St.” recently released a cookbook — called “Eat Street: Recipes from the Tastiest, Messiest, and Most Irresistible Food Trucks” — which includes recipes from Cunningham’s adventures.
“We wanted to provide a taste of the show. In the book we wanted to have variety, not just North American comfort food,” Cunningham says. “We’ve got burgers, naan, vegan stuff — I’ve never come across a food truck I haven’t liked.”
“Eat St.” has profiled several D.C. area food trucks in past episodes, including Sauca, DC Slices and Rebels Heroes. The recipe for collard greens from D.C. food truck Fojol Bros of Merlindia is featured in the show’s new book, as well as DC Slices’ pesto chicken pizza.
“The one thing about the show is we have fun,” Cunningham says. “I’m not the star of the show. It’s not about me it’s about the food truck owners and the food.”
Season 4 of “Eat St.” premiered on Monday, April 8.