If you have bought an item from a UBC food truck this month, you’ve had a taste of chef Steven Yzerman’s hospitality. Since the beginning of September, Yzerman has managed the food trucks and catering divisions of Student Housing and Hospitality Services.
Yzerman describes himself as a “mobile chef.” While his office is located next to the commissary kitchen, located in the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, he routinely traverses the campus in his Might-E-Truck. “I’m very conscious about getting out to all the food trucks every day to make sure they’re performing (up to) expectations.”
Beyond the day-to-day operations of the trucks, Yzerman is currently developing a new menu for all five outlets. While he hopes to bring his expertise and talent to the forefront in the new menu, he recognizes the longstanding tradition behind each truck.
“We’re doing at least a 50 per cent menu change for all the food trucks, [but] there are definitely staples at the food trucks. [For example], everybody expects that you can go to the Hungry Nomad and get a really good poutine. Those items are never going to change, but the flavour profile may alter and change.”
For the Hungry Nomad, Yzerman is incorporating products from the UBC Farms to keep with the “foragey, local forest vibe.” With the Roaming Bowl, Yzerman is taking inspiration from Asian street food and wants to offer “healthy, fast, snacky items.” He wants to elevate the Thai by making it more authentic and turn the School of Fish into an Oceanwise seafood feast unparalleled by the other seafood options offered on campus. “[With the Doghouse] we’re planning to take some different components from the other trucks and create new dogs,” said Yzerman.
With shows like Master Chef and Hell’s Kitchen monopolizing TV ratings, industry outsiders may envision menu renovation as a fun, creative process. According to Yzerman however, chefs spend much more of their working hours in an office, not the kitchen.
“From a purchasing and inventory standpoint, it’s a business. It’s not for fun like you see on TV — creating a dish and that’s it,” said Yzerman. “[The menu] has to be cost effective, relevant to which truck it’s going out on and you need to have the inventory behind it.”
Despite these grueling administrative tasks, Yzerman tries to make the job fun for himself and his staff. For Yzerman, cooking is an activity in which the stove stokes not only the flavour of food, but also the bonds between cooks and customers.
“There’s something deeply human when you’re cooking. We have the opportunity, every time we come in to work, to cook food with our friends [and] that’s the way I look at it with my team,” said Yzerman.
Putting the restaurant on wheels presents unique challenges and opportunities, which Yzerman relishes facing.
“I love it because it’s like having five diverse businesses all at once. That offers a lot of flexibility for creativity, which you don’t get in any other culinary environment. It being in a retail capacity is really fun as well.”
Indeed, his voracious appetite for fun and success imbues the unremarkable aspects of his job with a virtual, Sims-like quality. App developers aware — if Yzerman ever learns to code, his first application could be a smash-hit game.
“You can easily create a video game out of my job — Food Truck Tycoon, or something like that — where you get to design your own food trucks, menus and send them out into a little imaginary world where people could buy from them.”
It’s fun, but reality is no game. Years ago, Yzerman was a dishwasher “sweating bullets till 2 a.m.” That experience taught him the importance of respect and integrity in the kitchen — lessons that now inform his leadership as a chef.
“With food, you immediately deal with people’s health. I need to make sure that [my staff are] taking that into consideration that you’re not offering just a really awesome, enjoyable service, but that you’re offering sustenance to people, which needs to be respected.”
But quality of food is just one aspect of the food trucks business. As the majority of his customers are incredibly price-sensitive students, Yzerman makes sure that the items offered by the trucks are affordable, even on a student’s budget.
“This isn’t a major food conglomerate that’s here to take over the universe. Our mission in hospitality at UBC is to — above all — offer a sustainable service to students, faculty and visiting guests,” said Yzerman. “We are confident that our food costing processes reflect industry standards.”
Yzerman wants customers to engage in dialogue with the food trucks team. “I encourage people who love the food trucks to continue offering feedback [to my email].” There is also a new survey campaign, Spill The Beans, which you can complete online or at any of the five UBC food trucks.