There can be only one winner of Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race." But, according to host Tyler Florence, even the seven teams who don't take home the state-of-the-art mobile kitchen and $50,000 prize aren't leaving the cross-country competition empty-handed.
"This is food truck boot camp, a rock-and-roll business show. We take [teams] from knowing very little about operating a food truck to being road-ready tested and vetted operators in about six weeks," Florence explained to Yahoo! TV exclusively via a telephone interview from his San Francisco home base. "When we release them out in the world, especially the top four teams, they are probably more capable than most operators out there with experience, because they've had it all thrown at them at a fast and furious rate. We've helped them turn unbridled passion and a good idea into a competitive, marketable brand, and that journey is fantastic to watch."
As someone who knows how hard it is to get a restaurant off the ground, Wine Enthusiast Magazine's 2011 Restaurateur of the Year says being part of a show that helps dreams come true feels pretty fantastic, too.
"The bar to raise the capital to build a four-walled restaurant is just too high for most people, and even if you get a location and start a restaurant, it's a struggle to run. I mean, I'm famous, and it's still a struggle for me, so imagine how hard it is for some supertalented but not wildly connected chef. The 'Race,' and food trucks in general, is their opportunity to get a foot in the industry, be their own boss, and showcase their food. I'm proud to be part of a show that helps people take hold of their own destiny and where there is a chance for a real outcome. [Teams] fight like they are being chased by a tiger. You feel the energy, and you fight with them as you watch."
He believes food trucks are a playing field-leveling culinary trend. "It isn't white tablecloths and molecular gastronomy. It is solid, good food that means something to the chefs personally. It's an entrepreneurial spirit and a new genre of restaurant that is adding creativity and diversity to the industry. It's also quality for everyone. If you had $7, would you rather give it to the clown or to a food truck where the CEO of the company is cooking after getting back from the farmers' market?"
Florence promises that Season 4, which premieres Sunday, will be the "most epic road trip" yet. It's also the longest at 4,181 miles. It starts in Los Angeles at the Hollywood sign and ends in Washington, D.C., in a finale that incorporates the U.S. Capitol building. Along the way, teams stop in San Francisco, Portland, Idaho, South Dakota, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago (where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and NFL icon Mike Ditka join in the fun).
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"We've tracked a very different route this season, and the scenery is stunning. We went places I'd never been before and places that have never seen food trucks. It was amazing to bring this cultural revolution to people and watch them have a good time," he said. "We had the best weather we've ever had, the best teams we've ever had, the same level of high-energy fun, diverse and creative dishes, and some really rugged challenges. I felt a little bad sometimes that they were so rugged, but then again, so is life in the food industry on a daily basis."
Most of the tasks and curveballs were created to coincide with the leg's setting or to re-create common food truck predicaments like flat tires, absentee workers, parking problems, technical difficulties, missing ingredients, or local laws. "We did our research on the most common problems food trucks deal with. We are putting teams in many fish-outta-water situations. They learn to compete in different markets with different clientele, needs, price points, and ingredients. We also wanted challenges to feel very local and celebrate what makes that town or that part of the country special. I'll spill the beans on Idaho. There are a lot of potatoes involved!"
The first episode finds our intrepid food truckers slinging their meals on wheels in the fancy-pants 90210. Their menu consists of only one signature dish, and that dish must be sold for $20 or more. They then head north to the Bay Area, where they have to pick a different signature dish to sell. "Beverly Hills is a very, very tough place [to have a food truck]. It is a very small town, parking is a nightmare, and the people are very picky. But the teams really brought it and did some very interesting stuff. Whether it is Beverly Hills or small-town Idaho, there is the same shock factor when you see seven food trucks lined up within a couple of blocks of each other, 45 people running around, and nine cameras. It feels like a carnival."
And just like carnies, the contestants bring the drama when they come to town. This season's teams are Aloha Plate (Los Angeles and Hawaii), Boardwalk Breakfast Empire (Sea Bright, N.J.), Bowled and Beautiful (Los Angeles), the Frankfoota Truck (New York), Murphy's Spud Truck (Los Angeles), Philly's Finest Sambonis (Philadelphia), the Slide Show (Los Angeles), and Tikka Tikka Taco (St. Louis).
"Philly's Finest Sambonis make great TV and the Frankfootas from Brooklyn are a thick schmear of TV gold. We have some real characters, and the infighting is at an all-time high this season," Florence said. "There are a lot of teams, even good teams, that implode from the inside out, and the erosion ultimately adds up to their demise in the competition. If you can keep your team together, you have a pretty good chance of getting far even if you've got a mediocre product."
Florence does have one issue with the series. "It goes by so fast. It's only seven episodes, and we have such a good time that I'm always left jonesing to go do it again. Every time we wrap, we get a little teary-eyed."
Surely, that is a good sign that production on Season 5 will get the green light. "We take it one season at a time and usually decide around December after the show is over, but we've got some ideas we're kicking around like a best of North America where teams from America, Canada, and Mexico race from Montreal to Mexico City. Or we've thought about going to different cities, finding their top five established food trucks, and having them race over two or three days within their city. Each episode would be like a finale stage. It's all hypothetical at this point, but if we do 5, I think it's gotta be big."
"The Great Food Truck Race" premieres Sunday, 8/18 at 9 PM on the Food Network.