With his rugged 6-foot-5 frame, decked out head to toe in green and brown Carhartt clothing and hiking boots, Josh Aronie could be an imposing guy. Instead, The Food Truck owner and chef has the rumpled and exhausted look of a parent who had a rough morning with his kid. Indeed, he did.
Josh’s three-and-a-half-year-old son Eli pushed him to the limits of his patience this morning by refusing to eat his breakfast and then pouring some dry cereal onto the floor where he discovered he could crush it with his feet.
“I don’t know what it was. Sugar in the kefir. I love my son, but . . .” Josh sighs. “I mean, I held it together. I’m not a yeller. I can think of maybe five times in my life when I’ve yelled at my kitchen staff. It really doesn’t achieve anything.” He sighs again. “It was just one of those mornings. And of course when Eli gets to day care, bam, he’s fine and I’m a wreck.”
Josh shakes his head and refocuses his attention to the task at hand: preparing food to serve anywhere from one to 100 meals on his wheels. The Food Truck parks in front of the Chilmark General Store and serves food from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“We don’t do a lot of cooking in the morning, just reheating and loading the truck up,” Josh says. He looks at the clock. “So it’s 9 a.m. now, the next time I look up it’ll be 9:30 a.m. and we’ll still be loading and will already be late. Nick, what do you think, one or two things of soup? Yesterday we didn’t sell much. So, I’m thinking one.”
Nick Barbera, his right hand man, agrees as he efficiently makes hamburgers by pressing meat into a small plastic 1/2 pint container.
“We’re going to run out of our first special — sausage subs — so I’m preparing the second,” Nick explains. He makes quick work of the project and moves on to chop a half a dozen or so heads of romaine into a pile of shredded lettuce, saving the tops of the romaine for sandwiches.
Josh and Nick met last year while working at Cafe Moxie in Vineyard Haven. When the restaurant owner abruptly decided to close its doors for the winter, Josh knew he wasn’t going to find work in January, so with the goodwill of many members in the community, he created work. The town of Chilmark gave him a food permit. Frank LoRusso, and Jennifer and Joel Glickman, the owners of the Chilmark General Store, agreed to let Josh park the truck in their parking lot. Peter Simon and Melody Cunningham, owners of the Irie Bites Food Truck, rented him their truck for the winter. And Jan Buhrman, owner of the Kitchen Porch, agreed let him to work with her in her commercial kitchen, which is where Josh and Nick are working this morning.
“At first, I thought it was just going to be me and the truck, but I soon realized it would be impossible to take orders, money, cook and serve the food by myself,” Josh says. “So I hired Nick. I also use a few other Moxie refugees on a part-time basis, too. I feel really lucky that this is working and I am able to give them work.”
As Josh talks, he bends over a baking sheet and spoons even dollops of cookie dough onto parchment paper.
“I’m not a baker. My wife Angela is the baker. She should be a professional baker. Her pies are incredible. I use her recipes for The Food Truck, but cookies are really about all I can handle.”
As he finishes his cookies, he tells an abbreviated version of his courtship with Angela.
“We ran into each other in an alley behind the Oak Bluffs Sharky’s and ended up talking all night. I can’t remember what we talked about, but that was it for both of us. Three months later we were married.”
Josh slides two trays of cookies into one of the kitchen’s two ovens and moves on to slicing red onions with a mandolin. “This is the scariest piece of kitchen equipment.” He gazes at his palms. “I don’t know how many times I’ve sliced my hand doing this.”
Four onions later, hands unscathed, Josh looks at the time. “Shoot, I forgot to put the timer on for the cookies! This is why I am not a good baker.”
He dashes to the oven and is relieved to find that all is well. He sets the timer for one more minute and heads to the kitchen’s giant walk-in refrigerator to pull out chicken, sausage, eggs, butter, cheese, milk and half and half to be loaded onto the truck. As he steps out of the fridge, he hears the timer for the cookies going off. “Ah, I did it again!” He rushes to the oven and pulls out the cookies, which look absolutely delicious.
For the next 10 minutes, Josh and Nick work together to load everything else they need for their mobile kitchen. It’s not just food that has to be loaded. Knives, cutting boards, kitchen towels, cutlery, food packaging, napkins, Saran Wrap, aluminum foil, even warm water for their warming table must be packed up and put in the truck. As Josh and Nick walk back and forth, they ask each other things like: “Did you get the tomatoes?” “Do you think that’s enough pico?” “Did we remember The Food Truck phone?”
At 9:45 a.m., Josh “unhooks from the mother ship” by unplugging an orange extension cord that runs from the kitchen to the truck’s generator. Then he gingerly pulls out onto the road, heading toward Chilmark. But as he makes his second turn, a giant vat of tortilla soup slides off one of the truck’s counters and lands upside down on the floor. Nick jumps in back and discovers that, miraculously, only about a half cup of soup is lost. Josh laughs.
“Every day there has been a first. This is today’s first. Yesterday it was that the propane went out in the middle of a rush. We looked down and realized we were cooking over a thin blue line of flame.
“The truck is different than working in a kitchen,” he continues. “There are so many variables. I mean just think of this winter’s weather. There have been days where I have been making sandwiches and snow is blowing into the truck onto the food.”
Josh did not set out to become a cook. He grew up in West Hartford, Conn., and went to Trinity College where he majored in creative writing with a theatre minor. After college, he moved to the Twin Cities to try to get a job in advertising. But, as he says, “I didn’t want to do my time as a copier before becoming a copy writer.” He ended up getting a job at a restaurant called Table of Contents. He credits this experience with changing the course of his career.
“I only worked there for a couple of months in the front of the house serving and managing, but it was an incredible place to work. I loved what they were doing with the food and every two weeks they’d have a staff meeting where everyone could throw out ideas for new menu items and the way the restaurant was run. It was inspiring.” But he missed the ocean.
“There is nothing like the sea weedy, salty ocean smell,” he says. “And I wanted to be closer to my family.” Josh’s mother Nancy, father Joel and late brother Dan all lived on Martha’s Vineyard. So in 1998 Josh moved to Martha’s Vineyard.
Since then, Josh has worked at the Sweet Life Cafe, Island House, Fishbones Grille, Red Cat, Zephrus and Saltwater. And he has helped start three very successful Island restaurants: the Park Corner Bistro, Sharky’s and Menemsha Cafe. Until he opened Park Corner Bistro with his friend Jesse Martin, he had, as he says, “Always worked the front of the house — serving, managing staff, bartending. I’d never been on the line. But there just were not enough of us in the beginning. Some nights, it was just Jesse and me working. I had to learn to cook.”
At Menemsha Cafe he began to hone his skills, develop recipes and define his brand of food, which he describes as “just simple good food that is just a little too involved to make at home.”
None of the restaurants he’s helped launch, along with Cafe Moxie, have become permanent homes for his food.
“I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s me, but I haven’t found the right place yet. I liked being on Main street in Vineyard Haven. But I love the truck. It’s what I was planning to do before the Moxie opportunity came up. But I guess it was meant to be, in one way or another, because here I am. Right now, I love the freedom that the truck gives me. I mean, I would be really stressed if we ran out of something at Moxie or anywhere else I’ve cooked because if it is on the menu, we should have it. But here on the truck, we only have so much space.”
Josh is not kidding about the lack of space. The truck’s kitchen is about seven feet long and five feet wide with a one-and-a-half foot aisle down the center. On one side sits a small counter, grill, deep fryer and a two-foot by two-foot food freezer. On the other side of the aisle is a warming table, two sinks (one tiny prep sink and another one for washing hands), a small counter that is just big enough to hold two coffee pots, a work counter and an area for the mise en place (aka the finishing materials for the sandwiches — lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pico, tahini, etc,) and two tiny refrigerators. The side with the counter has a window with an outside counter that flips up to hold half and half, sugar and utensils for his customers. There’s also a stool that sits at the back of the truck between the two refrigerators that, as Josh says, “is there for us to trip over.”
Upon arriving at The Chilmark Store parking lot, Josh greets Claire Phelan, “a Moxie refugee” who helps out by writing up tickets, and taking money and phone orders. Claire takes a picture of the day’s menu, which is written on the side of the truck and posts it to The Food Truck’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Today’s offerings: breakfast burrito with local eggs and sausage, falafel wrap, veggie wrap, hot chicken sandwich, sausage sub, hamburgers, chicken tortilla soup, French fries with lemon, salt and rosemary.
Todd Christy shows up with two carafes of his Chilmark Coffee, hands them to Claire and yells into the truck, “Guys, sorry I’m late.” And then he dashes off.
At 10:25 a.m., Josh says hello a customer at the window. “Good morning! Nice to see you! What can I get for you?”
And with that, Josh and Nick are in constant motion for the next three and a half hours. Even though it is about 20 degrees inside the truck, they wear T-shirts and have the truck’s fan on.
“This is the only kitchen I’ve ever worked in where I have not sweated,” Josh says. He and Nick work back-to-back, inches apart with Nick on the grill and Josh running the deep fryer for the French fries, finishing the sandwiches and talking to customers. Claire’s main post is in the truck’s doorway, but even at 22 weeks pregnant, she seems to slide around and between Nick and Josh, grabbing bags of food, napkins and coffee for customers.
As Nick predicted, they sell out of sausage subs. He pulls a pile of hamburgers out of one of truck’s two tiny refrigerators. Three customers in a row ask for hamburgers on greens rather than on bread.
“Everyone wants everything on greens today,” Josh says. “We’re almost out of lettuce.”
“That’s because you don’t know how to say no,” Nick responds. “You let everyone customize their order.”
Josh shrugs. “They should get what they want.”
A customer peeks her head into the truck and asks if she can have falafel on greens with extra sauce. Josh looks at Nick and smiles. “Of course,” Josh says to the customer.
Maybe it’s all of Josh’s years working with customers at the front of the house, but his kindness and warmth extends beyond his food. He has created an up-Island outdoor kitchen where people gather and have a moment to connect during their busy weekdays. Outside on an 18 degree morning, the Chilmark General Store’s parking lot is filled with 20 or so happy looking people; hanging out, drinking coffee, talking local politics (inevitable when all three Chilmark selectmen independently stop by for their lunches), sharing stories about recent ski trips and vacations to warmer climes, exchanging phone numbers, discussing summer camp plans, gardening tips and the seemingly endless snow.
Inside the truck, Claire takes three more orders for chicken on greens and they run out of lettuce. Josh calls a friend and asks him if he’d mind bringing some lettuce up to the truck. The friend agrees.
“Usually my mom does this, but she’s in Florida,” Josh says.
Next they run out of soup. Then they run out of hamburgers. Josh seems unconcerned, though, and continues to turn out beautiful meals.
“As I said, there is freedom in working on a truck. If we’re out of something, there isn’t much I can do except try to do better, anticipate and predict what people will want tomorrow. But then there have been enough days where I think, okay everyone is going to love the meatloaf, I have got to have a lot of meatloaf. And then nobody is in the mood for meatloaf. I know there is only so much I can do.”
But no matter what happens Josh is always trying his best, listening to his instinctive generosity. He double wraps sandwiches for people he knows are going to eat and drive so they won’t spill on themselves. He runs after an older woman who has ordered soup, but has forgotten to take a spoon. And when he’s been closed for 10 minutes and is already prepping the truck for the drive back to the kitchen, he makes a hungry carpenter a sandwich with a little extra chicken because, “he needs something substantial.”
At 2:15 p.m., they call it quits. Josh packs up as Claire and Nick count the tickets. Today, they’ve made 76 meals in three and a half hours. Josh smiles.
“The good news is that it didn’t feel like that much. It felt like 55.”
As they head back to the kitchen, Josh and Nick talk about tomorrow — what they need, what they feel would be good for a special. The conversation continues back at the “base” as they talk to Jan and her husband Richard Osnoss while unloading the truck and washing dishes. They mention the fact that there are only six weeks left — they have permission to use the Chilmark General Store’s lot until April 15. And they list all the things they’d like have on the menu before they close down.
“Do you think we could do fish on the truck?” Josh asks.
And suddenly the mind begins to wonder. If in the middle of winter with a borrowed truck and a skeleton crew Josh can create something so wonderful, what might he do next?