23 | Jan | 14

Richard Johnson

Street Talk

I’ve been a student of restaurant jargon since I waited tables one summer in New York. I remember panicking the first time I heard “fire table six!” – it was, as it happens, just an instruction for the chef to get cooking. And when the kitchen was “in the weeds”, I soon learnt that it meant the brigade were buried under a pile of food orders. But – like every other aspect of the restaurant business – jargon is now taking to the street. Street food is getting a language of its own.

Britain is spawning a new class of ‘streateries’ – places where you can now eat-on-the-go. And they are changing the way we engage with food. Dominic Cools-Lartigue, who founded London’s Street Feast, calls it ‘strazing’ – or street grazing. “It’s proved to be a popular option at Street Feast – with our traders offering up smaller portions. ‘Strazing’ is something I’ve heard the regulars say. Mainly the early-20’s locals. After saying ‘Hi’ to me, they say, ‘Right – it’s time to go strazing’.”

American food writer, historian and critic John T. Edge has included some of the jargon in his brilliant Truck Food Cookbook.

1. Ventrification – the gentrification of the street food vending game.

“If, as I would argue, the modern version of this [street food] phenomenon begins with taco trucks” says Edge, “then as chefs and chefly folks step in, there’s an inherent gentrification in both the way the food is delivered, the price of the food, the sort of food. You know – you see foie gras slowly creeping in on tiptoes”.

2. Nonstaurant – a non-traditional restaurant in a non-traditional setting.

3. A B&M –a bricks and mortar restaurant, as opposed to one that moves.

But British traders have a language all of their own. It often seems to be an adapted American jazz slang – like we still imagine the American street food scene is somehow more authentic than ours. In tweets, and on blogs, our traders are talking about ‘bringing it’, ‘slamming it’ and ‘slinging it’. “I often hear traders talk about ‘smashing it’” says Abiye Cole of Big Apple Hot Dogs, “but in my case that mostly seems to apply to parts of my gazebo, my cart or my body.”

It can get a little blokey. When the handsome Nick Friedman from Jamon Jamon shouts “On the pass”, it means he’s spotted a beautiful woman at the stall. If his team agree, they shout ‘Send that, chef’ – if they disagree, they shout “Send that back, chef’. It mimics food on the restaurant pass – either it’s ready to go out to a customer, or it needs more work. “I’m sure it’s completely infantile” says Friedman, “but the street is a great place to look at beautiful people. Men and women.”

Other words and phrases are specific to what the traders are trading. Rich Shanks, for instance, runs Engine on London’s South Bank – and he has given his hot dog menu a distinctly canine feel. When the grill gets up to temperature he lets the crowd know “The bitch is on heat” – before he starts to plough through the orders. If ever he falls behind, he shouts “It’s getting like Crufts in here” – all part of the patter. And making sure everybody remembers your name.

Street food runs on humour – and the dignity of the human spirit. Take ‘the snack exchange’. Felicity Luxmoore of Jabberwocky Streetfood first came across the concept at last year’s Leamington Spa Food festival. “Sometimes if you have been cooking your own food all day” says Luxmoore, “then the last thing you want to do is eat it. Instead we like to plate up a few of our finest snacks and go wondering around the festival in search of something nice. Niceness found, we offer a swap.”

Some traders don’t get that sense of community. Like the ‘creams and greens’ – the caterers who serve frozen burgers and microwaved pies out of their cream and green trailers. “It’s frustrating when you see them producing awful food, and not even smiling” says George Rhodes of Churros Bros. “It’s just ‘Give us your money’.” If you asked them to serve your burger Debbie McGee’d (cut in half), they wouldn’t understand. They just don’t speak the same language.