Just over a year ago, a staff meal was created that was unlike any other. It was Staff Meal, incarnate—a four-wheeled, gas-powered symbol of culinary freedom (and glorified getaway car for Boston fine-dining Chefs Adam Gendreau and Patrick Gilmartin). “At some point we just sort of got fed up working at restaurants,” says Gendreau, who met Gilmartin when their respective 10-year fine-dining paths crossed at Rialto. “We were tired of doing what every other person in the industry is doing.”
Where other chefs might have turned that creative frustration into a pop-up gig or even a radical career change, Gendreau and Gilmartin went mobile with a food truck. “We’ve always enjoyed taking whatever mise en place we have hanging around, putting it in sandwich or taco form, and handing it out to other cooks on the line with us,” says Gendreau. So they figured out a way to do that for a living, putting that on-the-line, on-the-fly, pantry-crossing creativity center stage with their "Wild West" answer to a gentrified restaurant scene: the Staff Meal truck.
Even with nitty-gritty tell-alls like Kitchen Confidential, the idea of “staff meal” isn’t really known to the general public—not as well known as, say, some of the more risqué uses for the walk-in. But the guys weren’t looking to feed the general public, at least not foremost. “Our original intention was to open up late at night and target bars that cooks hang out in,” says Gendreau. “As a cook who went to bars, I always wished there was a truck like that waiting outside.” While a few draconian Bostonian (ahem) food truck laws made that sweet dream impossible, it didn’t deter Gendreau and Gilmartin from going aggressively “cheffy” with their concept (by the time we got there, they’d already sold out of their fried chicken skin and pâté taco). But as tends to happen wherever delicious things are being sold ridiculously cheap, the public did indeed take notice.
“We’ve developed a reputation for what we do,” says Gendreau. “The people that seek us out tend to already be expecting what we’re doing. We’ve found people along the way who are maybe frightened of what we’ve got going on to start with, who gradually become more adventurous.” That is, adventurous enough to try the aforementioned chicken skin taco, or their bi bim bap sandwich, made from a bi bim bap stew that at times contained pig’s head and even tripe. “Whatever we saw, we’d put into it.” (Strangely, the public could not handle an Italian Hero Taco: “People were like ‘that’s too weird, I’ll take the General Tso’s Duck Tongue.’”)
Our tasting (again, regrettably gribenes-free) was a sampling of three tacos: a take-out-gone-glam Chinese Sausage Taco stuffed with lap chang, fermented bean aioli, fried rice, fried shallots, garlic, and tempura crumble; a Crab Stick Taco with house-made apple butter that ate like crab rangoon for the rich and famous; and the Bicol Express, Staff Meal’s answer to New England’s dearth of Filipino restaurants (the region has only one of note, by Gendreau’s count), dosing stewed pork with coconut milk and bagoong, a traditional fermented shrimp paste.
If you’ve noticed an Asian tendency, you’re not wrong. (After our tasting, Gendreau and Gilmartin retired to a nearby Chinatown haunt to devour dim sum and beer). But the menu isn’t actually aligned with any one culinary idea, and that’s part of the Staff Meal genius. “The menu has items from the Titanic-as-street-food to Escoffier—roasted duck, turned into a taco,” says Gendreau. “We’re constantly surprised at what people are willing to eat.” With the food truck now entering its second year—albeit in Boston’s admittedly troubled food truck culture—Gendreau and Gilmartin will likely continue testing boundaries. “It’s whatever we feel like doing,” says Gendreau. In other words, sweet freedom, gas prices pending.