On the Road With Jerusalem's First Gourmet Food Truck

From a makeshift kitchen set up in a truck commanded by Israeli chef Assaf Granit, Jerusalemites have been treated to a month-long journey of mobile gluttonous revelry.

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While popular in North America, food trucks dishing out delectable morsels to pedestrians were until now an unseen sight in Israel's cities.

But now thanks to the project Auto'okhel (which translates to English as Autofood) and chef Assaf Granit from the well-known Jerusalem eatery Machneyuda, Jersualemites have been treated to a journey of gluttonous revelry for a month, from a makeshift kitchen set up in a truck.

Now, as part of the project, I am into it- but generally speaking I would have absolutely never wanted to work in a food truck, says Granit, aided in the cooking by kitchen staff from his restaurant.

We actually enjoy getting out of the restaurant and being close to the patrons, to prepare the food and see them eat it immediately, says one of the cooks in the kitchen.

Granit begged to differ. I am a misanthrope, he says. Contact with people is hard for me. He continues, I wrap myself in a facade when I serve people the food...It's easy to play the part when I am in the role of chef, but the moment it's over I'm out of there.

Perhaps he makes a quick getaway so everyone will chase after him. Granit and his cooks prepared 300 meals of Masala dosa, a South Indian dish consisting of a a cooked vegetable dish with a pancake underneath, accompanied by the sounds of Indian music, ABBA and Olivia Newton John. A mix of Jerusalemites, Tel Avivians, art students and tourists come especially to Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market to the spot where the truck is parked across from the restaurant Ichikidana to taste Granit's Indian food. The truck staff then announced over the loudspeaker that they are all out, played a break-up jingle by the Israeli groove and brass band Marsh Dondurma, closed up the truck and quit the scene.

At first glance, Auto'okhel appears to be an underground, spontaneous kind of project. The truck arrives at a new location every day, with each day's location announced 48 hours in advance, to those subscribed to its listserv. It offers the population in the vicinity of its stops a chance for a loud and festive eating experience that is both accessible and cheap. It is also a chance to roll the dice, each day meeting different kinds of people and tasting a different dish. Who knows how it will turn out?

But its impossible to say that Granit did not know what he was getting into. Auto'okhel is actually a properly marketed, well organized, well orchestrated project. According to the color leaflets distributed throughout the city it is a fascinating artistic, culinary and social journey, that seeks to tell Jerusalem's story by way of empty plates...Every day another magical dish will be cooked up... The result, we hope and believe, will be a a summer of fascinating social and culinary wandering that passes through different neighborhoods morning, afternoon and night at tourist, shopping and nightlife spots.

Granit explains the concept behind Auto'okhel as one combing food, people and stories.

This project was built from triangles, says Granit. Every triangle consists of a person with a Jerusalem past or present....and a location relevant to the story.

He recounts who he met with the two partners and together the three drew up a list of 100 people and then divideded them into groups: athletes, writers, artists, chefs, intellectuals and models. They then proceeded to weed the selection down to a group of 24 people with dishes and stories behind them.

In the case of the Masala dosa, the project's people spoke with Haaretz's writer on spirituality Tomer Persico. He described himself to them, he told them about the time he spent in India, and chose masala dosa, a dish he enjoyed in India and ate in Jerusalem at the restaurant Ichikidana. There was the dish, the person and the location. The triangle was complete.

Granit says that the cooks worked two days making the Masala dosa, The preparations for this thing were on the verge of inhumane, he says. The dough isn't simple at all, it is very fragile, and after frying it falls apart. Another challenge according to Granit was that they had to prepare the food in a kosher catering business' kitchen to make sure the food served by Auto'okhel's would be considered kosher.

When the project ends, Auto'okhel will be disassembled and the truck will be returned to its owner. While the people running the project do not provide a name, they say that the truck's owner is a person skilled working with their hands, who bought it to have a recreational vehicle for going to the beach with. The owner took care of the truck's carpentry, metal fixtures, and air conditioning. He installed solar electricity panels and a water system all by himself- and everything works fine. All of which raises the question- why has the food truck trend, so visible abroad, not reached Israel?

They don't give permits to food trucks in Israel, said Granit. After a long process, our truck received a permit as a one-time project, like a festival.

So what's the difference between that and the mobile food vendors that sell pita filled with omelet outside Israel's national parks or ice cream trucks?

The question is: If there are mobile food vendor licenses, why wouldn't there also be a license for [urban food truck vendors]? says Granit. There's a way to solve this. We just need to find one brave mayor who will be the first to do it.

Chef Assaf Granit in the Auto'okhel.
'Auto'okhel paying a visit to Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market.

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