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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019

Secret recipes, live lobsters, and 20-hour days: A day in the life of a festival food truck

The story behind your midnight chips.

Image: Home Fries via Facebook

OVER THE PAST few years, the grub at Irish festivals has evolved from filthy feeds to more creative and high-end fare.

Gone are the days when you had to make do with curry chips. Nowadays, you can feast on everything from falafel to poutine to lobster rolls.

But what are the logistics of running such an enterprise? We spoke to three food truck owners – Fred Peretti of Lala Poutine, Ferdia MagLochlainn of Home Fries, and Julia Hemingway of Julia’s Lobster Truck – about everything from the sourcing of ingredients to dealing with well-lubricated punters.

Lala Poutine

Fred Peretti is the man responsible for bringing poutine to Ireland. Having originally worked in the financial industry, the French native pivoted to the food industry during the recession. He opened a chicken rotisserie food truck called La Rotisserie in 2012, which proved popular.

Not long afterwards, an acquaintance introduced him to the concept of poutine. Poutine is a traditional Canadian dish consisting of chips covered in cheese curds and gravy.

“It’s the best comfort food in the world,” explains Peretti. “It’s very popular in Canada to have before you go out or even after you go out.”

Peretti and his friend decided to partner up to start a poutine business in Ireland and Lala Poutine was born. They initially encountered difficulty finding some of the ingredients in Ireland, namely the cheese curds.

“Curds were impossible to find so we managed to get someone to make them for us on order,” he says, refusing to divulge any further details.

He adds that all chips are freshly cut while the gravy is roast gravy. (It’s suitable for vegetarians and also gluten-free.)

Over the last few years, Lala Poutine has built up a presence at festivals like Body & Soul, Knockanstockan, Electric Picnic and more.

Catering at festivals is time-consuming work with the days typically starting at 7.30am and continuing until 5am the following morning. Peretti says he will usually have a staff of five working the stall over the course of the day, but even that leaves little time for clocking off and wandering around the festivals.

“Last year we were in Mindfield at Electric Picnic and the arena was closing at ten, so we had a good chance to experience the festival,” he notes.

So what’s it like dealing with customers in the wee hours?

“There is always one, you know? ” he laughs, referring to potential troublemakers. “Sometimes we get a bit of abuse, but generally people around will calm them down.”

Asked about how many units they sell on an average day, Peretti says he can’t estimate and notes that its dependent on loads of factors, including weather and positioning onsite.

This summer, Lala Poutine will be keeping busy at festivals like Townlands Carnival, All Together Now, BARE In The Woods and Electric Picnic. Just don’t ask him for his secret recipe.

“If you give me the recipe for Coca Cola, I’ll tell you that,” jokes Peretti.

Home Fries

In recent years, Home Fries has become a regular feature at music festivals across the country. The brainchild of Ferdia MagLochlainn, Home Fries was founded in 2014.

“It came off the back of a couple of small independent Irish festivals, Vantastival and Spirit of Folk,” he explains. “I had been doing their crew catering for a couple of years and naively thought setting up a food stall of my own wouldn’t be too much extra work.”

After a period of experimentation with different dishes, MagLochlainn recognised that his fried potatoes were quickly becoming the star of the show and Home Fries was officially born.

“It was also at this time that I found and renovated the vintage caravan, which has become an integral part of our brand,” he adds.

Indeed, preparation for any festival usually begins with the caravan.

“Firstly I have to make sure that the caravan is looking its absolute best,” he says. “It’s quite small compared to some of the really big units you see, so you have to make sure it is looking its best to stand out from the rest.”

“It’s 50 years old so it constantly needs maintenance work done. Recently I had to get a whole new axle fitted as the old one had seen better days.”

Then comes the staff rotas, health and safety inspections, and setting up on site. One of the trickiest elements of preparation is calculating how much stock to bring.

“Space is limited, so you have to get the balance right,” he says. “You never want to run out of something, but also, you don’t want to bring home 10 kilos of cheese.”

Once the festivals get underway, he typically has twenty hour days, starting at 8am.

“The day starts at about 8am, when you take deliveries, start boiling the potatoes and  begin prepping the different sauces.”

“We have a very popular breakfast option with Home Fries, beans, sausages and a fried egg that we usually start serving at 10am. We don’t open before that as people tend not to get out of their tents.”

“Then the rest of day is spent boiling, chopping and sautéing the baby potatoes to serve with our regular menu.”

They continue serving dishes until approximately 4am. Because of that, MagLochlainn says he rarely gets to experience the festivals as a punter.

“By the time the caravan is cleaned after service it could be 5am by the time you get to your own tent so that only leaves a few hours sleep before you get up and do it all again,” he says. “Because of the long hours, I never really get to experience much of the festival myself, I rarely leave the area around the caravan except maybe to get some coffee to perk myself up.”

Those long hours mean they encounter all sorts of people at festivals.

“We see people at their best and sometimes their worst,” he says. “From the glittering excitement of Saturday night with make-up and sparkles to the raggedy Sunday morning breakfast queue, and every stage in between.”

It’s hard work, says MagLochalinn, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

“A well-run food truck like a well-run festival might seem to be running effortlessly but that is just a front,” he says. “Behind the scenes it’s long hours, little sleep and big risks.”

Julia’s Lobster Truck

Lobster and oysters may not seem like traditional festival food, but Julia Hemingway has been bringing Julia’s Lobster Truck around to festivals for years now.

“I’ve always been cooking since I was eighteen,” she says. “When I first moved to Ireland twenty-three years ago, I started working in a lobster bar in Leenane. Back then, we used to just run down to the pier, pull the lobster up, run back up to to the kitchen, throw it in a pot, cook it and serve it. Everything was so fresh.”

Having spent years toiling in restaurants, she started Julia’s Lobster Truck. Her aim? To serve accessible and affordable seafood.

“Because I live right by the sea in the West of Ireland, I know all the fishermen,” she notes. “I wanted to cook all their amazing ingredients simply and affordably.”

On Julia’s Lobster Truck, customers can buy barbecued lobster and lobster rolls, as well as other seafood like crab, oyster and mussels. At Body & Soul this year, she served barbecued mackerel with fennel salad.

“It varies really,” she says.

She brings her truck to places like Kinvara, Liscannor and Bellharbour during the week. This summer, she will go to festivals like All Together Now and Electric Picnic, among others.

As one can imagine, there is a great deal of preparation involved when it comes to sourcing fresh seafood and cooking it onsite at festivals.

“It’s intense,” laughs Hemingway. “It’s really, really intense.”

“All my ingredients are super fresh. There’s a lot of prep. The lobster roll is probably my most popular thing. So I have to pick up lobster and cook it and stuff it there and then. I used to bring live lobster to the festivals and prep it throughout the weekend. There’s a massive amount of preparation.”

She picks up all her ingredients from around Co Clare and Co Galway before setting off.

“There’s a lot of running around,” she says. “A lot of driving.”

“Then I come back and I have to start working.”

In the days before she sets off, she’ll usually work around the clock from 7am – 11pm. At the festival, she’ll usually start her day at 8am and commence trading later in the morning. Staff will usually take over for the evening shift at 4pm, but that can change if things are “manic”.

“At the Picnic, it was all day and all night,” she recalls.

Hemingway says she also has to be precise about how much stock she wants to bring to festivals, particularly as profit margins are so low with lobster.

“Every year you learn,” she says. “Every event you learn. You kind of think, ‘Right, I’ll sell forty portions of this a day. A hundred portions of this a day.’ It’s all guesswork.”

“Also I need to sell out of lobster because I don’t want to go home with lobster. Because then it’s a loss, a massive loss.”

“So basically I never bring enough lobster. I decide I want to sell forty BBQ lobster and a hundred lobster rolls, so I just get enough for that.”

Hemingway sells her lobster rolls for €12.50 while BBQ lobster goes for €17. It’s a little pricier than other festival food, but still in keeping with Hemingway’s mission to make fresh seafood accessible and affordable.

“Fresh, quality ingredients are top of my list and I will never deviate from that,” she says. “That is my ethos.”

More: ‘It’s disruptive, but in a good way’: Meet the Irish families whose homes double as festival venues>

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Amy O'Connor

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