2017 Great Meals on Wheels: Food Truck Race includes Southeast Missouri native

Saturday, August 12, 2017

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Take three people, mix them together in one tiny mobile kitchen, then turn up the heat from the competition and it is a recipe for another season of "The Great Food Truck Race."

When the show premieres Aug. 20 on the Food Network, this season will have a bit of Southeast Missouri flavor. Nick Hunter, who grew up in New Madrid, Mo., is one-third of the team, Braised in the South.

The 2017 edition of Great Food Truck Race has what producers describe as a Southern-style. The seven competing teams will travel to seven different cities, starting in New Orleans with the final episode on Sept. 24 in Savannah.

"Each summer our audience looks forward to taking a fast-paced, food-centric road trip with 'The Great Food Truck Race,'" Courtney White, senior vice president, Programming, Scripps Networks Interactive, said in announcing the show. The team that earns the top dollars with their dishes will earn a $50,000 grand prize.

It is a show, Hunter and his fellow chefs, Steven Klatt and Brandon Lapp, have followed over the years. He calls the show's host, Tyler Florence, and his emphasis on farm-to-table cuisine an influence on his career.

According to Hunter, taking part in the food truck competition was just something the three had talked about until one night Klatt found himself up late trying to soothe his two children to sleep. When they went to bed, Klatt got online and saw casting was underway for the 2017 season; he signed them up and sent a text message to his friends.

Over the next few weeks, Hunter said they joked about being cast on the show, not thinking they had a chance.

"Then one day we were playing golf and started joking again about wouldn't it be crazy if they would call us on the golf course. I go home and Steve sends me a text message that the Food Network called and wanted to do a Skype interview," said Hunter. "Never in a million years did we think we would get it but we got lucky. We are very blessed to be in the right place at the right time."

While Klatt and Lapp studied in New York, Hunter said the three gained much of their training working together on Kiawah Island, S.C.

"I'm the only one from the South but our cooking chops were developed in the South; our skills were raised in the South," Hunter said.

Although all three are food truck novices, with each interview and each passing week, the Braised in the South team refined their ideas.

"We brainstormed what menus we could make, what we could pump out at a high rate of speed but would ensure that the first plate would look just like last plate and what would and wouldn't be cost effective," Hunter said, noting that every single penny counts toward who wins.

The trio agreed they wanted to develop a "tailgate" atmosphere, where customers would feel comfortable hanging out. They wanted to offer bulk comfort food, using ingredients that were seasonal and more importantly local.

As the team continued through the interview process, they were asked to submit sketches of what their truck should look like. Hunter said the final look was created by the show's professionals who kept the designs under wraps until revealing them to each team in the first show.

"We get there and we don't know if we have fryer or an oven. It is a crap shoot. You don't get to see anything inside until the day you see the truck," Hunter said.

"You have got to make it work. You adapt and overcome," he continued. "Running a food truck is an adventure."

It isn't just the food truck the show's producers keep under wraps, it is also where the teams will compete and who their competition is.

While much of the planning couldn't be done in advance, Hunter said since Klatt had signed them up, he became the point man. Hunter, with his wide smile, admitted he didn't mind being the front man, working to bring in the crowd.

"Brandon is a beast in the kitchen, so he could handle the prep," he added. "Steve would be in the truck or outside if needed. Since we are three trained chefs, our strategy was that all three can prep, once we blow out the prep, then we would set up to sell," Hunter paused again and grinned.

"I can't tell you whether it worked out or not but that was our game plan."

The season opens in New Orleans, a city which Hunter said he always wanted to visit. Sightseeing was minimal -- a visit to Bourbon Street and beignets at Cafe Du Monde -- as the teams were given their first challenge and introduced to their trucks.

According to Hunter, each team is advised they are responsible for any damage to their vehicle or caused by the vehicle. They are responsible for the gas and the propane.

"Then they say, 'Go drive and have fun.' That's a lot of pressure right off the bat. It is trial by fire at that point," he added.

While Hunter said he found New Orleans historic and beautiful, its many narrow one-way streets made driving a challenge. Their food truck, which they dubbed the "Braised Bruiser," was longer and wider than most food trucks making travel stressful.

"There were definitely some frustrations that come through. The learning curve was a little tougher that first day," he acknowledged.

Hunter said there were many lessons learned -- not always easy ones.

As executive chefs, they are used to being in control in their kitchens. Yet he said the best advice he received was the sooner they let go of control, the better off they would be.

"There are so many variables out of your control ... You have to ride with it," he explained.

He compares the cuisine of Charleston to much like New Orleans.' It was in New Orleans they began to offer their customers their Southern-inspired fare, eventually serving up dishes like BBQ Shrimp Tacos, Cajun Chicken "Tatchos" and Andouille Mac and Cheese.

Hunter admitted as the competition began the team believed they would be the only people they could trust, fearful of giving away ideas to the competition. However, he said, they quickly learned it was their fellow cast members they could relate best to, who understood what each was going through even though they were not allowed to talk about the day's filming.

"We built that camaraderie right off the bat," he said. "They become your family in about 15 minutes. The great thing about it is you would chat with them (and everyone really did a good job of not talking about the show) but there didn't seem like there was any ill will and everyone was in the same boat we were. It is one heck of an experience," he said.

While all the teams worked hard in the competition, Hunter emphasized "The Great Food Truck Race" production crew worked even harder. Many times after the competitors had gone to bed the crew is setting up shots and reviewing the day's footage.

Hunter said the most fun of the competition was working with his two good friends. He said it became apparent that although the competition is a high-stress environment, it wouldn't shake their friendships and brought them closer.

The three are concerned on how well they will represent Charleston and South Carolina.

"We are the first team from South Carolina on anything like this. We felt like we were carrying Charleston on our backs. Charleston is known as the culinary place to be so we wanted to represent ourselves well -- as gentlemen," Hunter said, adding he hopes the show's editing reflects their efforts.

Hunter also worried how well he would represent his family, knowing his wife, Brynn, and daughters, Grace and Sumner, will be watching. He said he wants to make them proud of how he competed.

Although he can't reveal much about the show, Hunter's enthusiasm for the competition is readily apparent.

"Minus marrying my wife and being there for my two daughters' births, this was the best thing I have done," he said. "If you chase a dream, there is a chance it could come true."

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"The Great Food Truck Race 2017" will be shown at 8 p.m. (CST) Sundays on the Food Network Channel. Viewers can read about Hunter and his team as well as the competing teams and browse photos of the challenges at FoodNetwork.com/FoodTrucks. Also the public can use social media to let the show know who they think should take home the grand prize using the hashtag #GreatFoodTruckRace.

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