James Oseland

Two weeks later, James Oseland is still contemplating why the chefs had such an offal time.

on Jul 8, 2009

It’s been a couple weeks since the offal street-food episode aired, and I still catch myself wondering, "Why did these amazingly talented chefs have such a hard time with this challenge?" I mean, offal and street food go hand in hand all over the world, from Florence (where my favorite quick lunch is a sandwich from one of the many tripe carts around the city) to Morocco (where calves’ feet stew is a fortifying street-food breakfast). And besides, offal and street food have both been enjoying a renaissance here in the States. So, what was the problem?

To their credit, all the chefs were deft and enthusiastic when it came to working with their assigned organ meat. Things fell apart only when they stepped up to the carts. It seemed to me that many of these chefs would have had no problem whatsoever crafting hearts and lungs and other innards into fancy restaurant dishes, but when presented with catering to a crowd on the street at Universal Studios, they were flummoxed.

Granted, the whole concept of street food is a bit elusive. If you go to certain places in Southeast Asia, “street food” can be anything from elaborate meals of curries and stir-fries to simple fried noshes. In Mexico, the range is just as broad. Because offal is inexpensive and widely consumed in homes in those parts of the world, it fits right into the casual nature of street-food meals. In fact, many of the dishes in The Fifth Quarter, Annisa Helou’s awesome cookbook devoted to offal (the name comes from il quinto quarto, which is how Italian butchers refer to innards) are street-food classics.

In Europe and America, street food has typically amounted to not much more than a hot dog or maybe a gyro (or, if you’re lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, a taco from a taco truck). But nowadays you can find vendors in cities across the States who sell Belgian waffles or dosas or porchetta sandwiches or barbecue. Though they’re the exception to the rule, they’re extremely popular, and for good reason. The cooks do one thing really, really well.