When the opportunity to buy an old poutine truck came up four years ago, Winnipeg chef Darryl Crumb decided he didn’t want to just spin his wheels serving up the same old potato-based street food.
By Lawrence Herzog
“Winnipeg is a meat-and-potatoes kind of crowd, and I started thinking one day, how do I make potatoes cool? I came up with tater tots. My grandma is an old school Ukrainian who used to make me potato latkes all the time, and so I took her homemade recipe and put it into a tot form and added my own secret herbs, cheeses and other great stuff.”
His crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside gourmet tots have got customers lining up at his Tot Wheels truck on Broadway from May through September, breakfast through mid-afternoon. Menu items are priced around $10, and each is named after a car, a play on the Tot Wheels name. The Beetle mixes grilled chicken with avocado, cilantro and fresh salsa made with corn, tomatoes, red onions and aioli on latkes.
Crumb finished eighth in the first season of The Food Network’s Top Chef Canada, and time spent cooking in a variety of restaurants from Vancouver to Paris has helped hone his skills and appetite to surprise. “It’s easy to fall into a routine where you do it the way you did it yesterday,” he says.
For Frog Follies, a street parade in St-Pierre-Jolys, he put frog legs on the menu. They sold out, and now Le Renault (crispy fried frog legs with green beans, mushrooms and feta cheese) is a signature dish.
Tot toppings are always changing: escargot, sweetbreads and foie gras, and fiddleheads foraged nearby. Vegetables are grown at his family farm just east of Winnipeg, and fresh local specialties include seared pickerel cheeks topped with roe, pickled ginger and wasabi mayonnaise.
“I really love the creative freedom of running a food truck. I can take the risk, and there’s nobody to tell me I shouldn’t or can’t do it. Being at the window serving the food, seeing people enjoying what we’re making, that’s the best.”
Once the truck closes up for the winter, Crumb, a former pro hockey player, heads to the rink for his job as executive sous chef at Centreplate at the MTS Centre, home of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets. “It’s great keeping that hockey connection and cooking for the Jets and the fans.”
Tot Wheels’ top tips
- Build a menu with items that are simple, good and different. Do what you do well.
- Focus on fresh and local for your customers.
- Watch your food costs and price points. Aim for $10 per item.
- Be creative when you name your items so that customers will remember them.