Author: Kelly Eng
Photography: Vanessa Levis
A friend asked if I wanted to help out on his banh mi food truck. Yes, I did! What a marvellous change of pace from my bland office job. I'd be leaping tongs-first into the food-culture zeitgeist and cementing my millennial credentials. Totes amazeballs, YOLO, #vietsub, #frenchcolonialism and all that.
Pictured above: Pork banh mi
And I had relevant experience - a decade ago I'd worked in a fish and chip shop. "Okay, okay!" I'd cried when I had to crumb 30 fillets of fish and serve two people at the same time, but all great chefs are emotional.
So one morning I set off for my first shift.
It was a giant leap onto the truck. I had to lift my foot up extremely high to throw myself aboard. I hadn't planned on exposing myself to my colleagues just yet, but they were oblivious, biceps-deep in vats of pickled carrot. There was no welcome beyond three muttered names, no induction, no training. But when you're a bun-slinger for hire, you don't need any. Anyway, the unavoidable clashing of backsides in that bijou workspace was an icebreaker of sorts.
Happily I had five whole minutes to memorise names, products and prices. I scribbled indecipherable notes: warm buns on grill, no cut bun through, mayo right to the edges, mayo lots, protein next, cut cucumber 30 centimetres, coriander lots, special sauce…
Suddenly a customer came. Then another. They kept coming. Like insatiable zombies they swarmed around the truck, lured by the scent of flame-licked lemongrass-marinated pork belly, black, sweet and gnarly from the grill. Luckily we had a rock-solid system: I barked out the orders and the guys barked them back. All that mattered was that you barked.
In times of stress, my ability to perform basic mathematics disintegrates, so I'd brought my calculator. Sure enough, as the clamour for pork belly increased, my mathematical abilities decreased. What was eight plus nine? As I jabbed at the unresponsive buttons, I noticed that a chilli seed had infiltrated the motherboard.
We still had the system. I barked the relentless orders to colleagues whose names now eluded me: "I say, you sir! Two pork no mayo, chicken no coriander, pork extra chilli, chicken no butter, pork!"
But the system had a glitch.
"You said 'pork chicken, chcken, pork, chicken!'" the head cook (who had worked on fancy yachts and in Parisian restaurants) shouted.
"No!" I asserted, "I said 'pork chicken, chicken, pork chicken!'"
And so it went.
An hour in, I was tasked with informing the customers that we had run out of chicken. And pork belly. Buns, too. But, boy, were we good for coriander. When I dropped that bun-shell, 40 pairs of eyeballs rolled upwards before burning holes in my special sauce-smeared apron. I plunged my hands into a bucket of pork marinade and howled.
Five hours later, we'd managed to shoo the customers away with banh mis of varying consistency.
As I exhaled for the first time in 300 minutes, my eyes rested on a menu. Dear god: the $8 chickenlickin' banh mi was actually $11. Too traumatised to calculate how much money I'd given away, I dipped into my handbag and stuffed $90 into the till. Never mind that it meant I was paying for the privilege of working on the truck.
Limp with exhaustion, I drove home and fell into bed, murmuring "pork, chicken, pork chicken…" But the smell I was giving off prohibited sleep - eau de swine had infiltrated my DNA.
It's said that those who have glimpsed death develop a new appreciation for everyday things. The same applies to those who have had a peek at hospitality. As I trotted into the office on Monday morning, the hum of the photocopier, the glug-glugglug of the water cooler and Aileen from HR's nasal tones were like birdsong. Exhuming my ham sandwich from its Tupperware casket, I nibbled thoughtfully and shuddered.