Speeding ahead on the ‘Great Food Truck Race’

A tasty treat: (Left to right) Erik Thompson, Joseph Toner and Chris Tur­chi have earned a spot on TV through a Food Net­work con­test. Here, at Lazy Joe’s Sa­loon, they talk about how it all began. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

“How great would it be if we could own a spot with our own friends and just do what we’re good at—mak­ing food?”

For Erik Thompson, 28, the an­swer to his seem­ingly hy­po­thet­ic­al ques­tion began to ma­ter­i­al­ize after re­spond­ing to a Craigslist post­ing his mom found ad­vert­ising for par­ti­cip­a­tion in Food Net­work’s sea­son four of The Great Food Truck Race.

The show is based on the com­pet­i­tion among eight teams com­pris­ing three people each who op­er­ate their own unique food trucks and sell their dishes to cus­tom­ers. Epis­odes take place in dif­fer­ent parts of the United States, and one team is elim­in­ated per epis­ode. This sea­son premiered on Aug. 18, and the first chal­lenge oc­curred in Beverly Hills then San Fran­cisco in the same epis­ode.

Thompson, joined by his East Tor­res­dale child­hood friends Joseph Toner, 27, and Chris Tur­chi, 28, im­me­di­ately agreed to pur­sue the com­pet­i­tion once hear­ing back from Food Net­work (even be­fore telling the oth­ers he in­quired). In the first epis­ode, Thompson said he was re­cently in a ser­i­ous car ac­ci­dent, ren­der­ing severe nerve dam­age and sev­er­al her­ni­ated disks in his back; con­sequently, this pre­vents him from con­tinu­ing his ca­reer as an elec­tri­cian. Tur­chi is a uni­on car­penter who was laid off. The guys had no re­ser­va­tions and set off to de­bunk any pre­con­ceived no­tions the rest of the coun­try held about the Philly cheesesteak and Phil­adelphia in gen­er­al.

Al­though the guys’ cur­rent pro­fes­sion­al back­grounds are un­re­lated to food ser­vice — Toner works as a poly­so­m­no­graph­er — their culin­ary ex­per­i­ences are tied to their up­bring­ings and ad­oles­cence.

“We grew up eat­ing well,” Thompson said. “Grow­ing up Itali­an lit­er­ally makes you a bet­ter food crit­ic.”

“Some bet­ter than oth­ers,” Toner jok­ingly replied.

Toner also said that his first memory in cook­ing was with his grand­moth­er mak­ing bushels of crabs for the whole fam­ily; he also worked at Aldo’s Pizza. Tur­chi and Thompson both worked at Al’s Corner Deli on Tor­res­dale Av­en­ue, and Tur­chi has worked as a line cook at Chick­ie’s & Pete’s Crab House and Sports Bar.

“We don’t have re­cipes,” Toner said. “[But] we have ideas.”

In fact, their on-the-fly in­genu­ity works to their ad­vant­age. The guys pride them­selves on mak­ing their “Sam­bonis,” which are simply defined as “the best sand­wiches” for not only taste but for mo­bil­ity; they are hol­lowed and stuffed with sa­vory in­gredi­ents rather than split in half and packed. Com­pet­ing as “Philly’s Finest Sam­bonis” or for short, “Sam­boni boys”, also would have in­cluded An­thony Gar­gano but he could not com­pete on the show be­cause of the three-people-per-team lim­it. The Sam­boni boys were the top team on the first epis­ode, safe in the second epis­ode and were in the bot­tom two teams on the third epis­ode but were able to move for­ward in the com­pet­i­tion.

The time con­straints and budgets on the show are any­thing but simple. In fact, Toner said the guys were chal­lenged im­me­di­ately be­cause of re­source avail­ab­il­ity and lack of form­al res­taur­ant ex­per­i­ence. For ex­ample, Thompson said the in­ab­il­ity to find what are con­sidered spe­cialty products and in­gredi­ents like Amer­ic­an cheese re­quired quick in­nov­a­tion — in­ten­tion­ally or not: Toner and Tur­chi, in­stead, ac­ci­dent­ally de­veloped a con­coc­tion sim­il­ar to Cheese Whiz on the spot. In ad­di­tion, their shop­ping en­tailed go­ing to both a butcher and a bakery rather than one stop like their team­mates.

“We ad­ap­ted,” said Tur­chi, who is the “meat and pota­toes” and the “work­er bee” of the team, ac­cord­ing to Toner. “Bot­tom line, we al­ways found a way some­how to come out with a strategy.”

That strategy is en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally main­tained out front of the truck by Thompson, who could “sell money to a bank” ac­cord­ing to Toner—the “gen­er­al” of the team.

“Our product has a name in it­self,” Toner said. “No one dis­likes a Philly cheesesteak.”

Moreover, ex­cel­lence is on the fore­front of their minds; they make their Sam­bonis only with the best products such as rib eye steak.

“Our [Sam­boni] stands out be­cause we use qual­ity product,” Tur­chi said.

The guys provided an edu­ca­tion­al ex­per­i­ence for cus­tom­ers who nev­er ac­tu­ally had an au­then­t­ic Phil­adelphia cheesesteak. One cus­tom­er thought a genu­ine cheesesteak was a roast beef sand­wich, sans gravy, with Swiss cheese, ac­cord­ing to Thompson.

This, ac­cord­ing to the Sam­boni boys, is a trav­esty of the in­teg­rity and his­tory of a good steak.

“We will put that on the menu when we de­cide to [ac­tu­ally] make roast beef sand­wiches,” Thompson hu­mor­ously said.

Their spe­cialty sand­wich speaks to a Phil­adelphia tem­pera­ment as well.

“The cheesesteak rep­res­ents mak­ing do with what you had … and blue-col­lar val­ues,” Tur­chi said and ref­er­enced the ori­gin of Pat’s Steaks in Phil­adelphia.

Over time, it has be­come a meta­phor for the cul­tur­al vibe of the city as well, ac­cord­ing to the Sam­boni boys.

“The cheesesteak per­son­i­fies Phil­adelphia be­cause there are no bells and whistles,” Toner said. “If you make a bad cheesesteak, you get called out on it. [That hon­esty] per­son­i­fies the Phil­adelphia way.”

“[On the show] we tried to stay as true to ourselves as we could,” Thompson said, “We tried to give people as much of an au­then­t­ic [Phil­adelphia] ex­per­i­ence as they could get … and make what we would want to eat with the in­gredi­ents we had … we did not cater to any­one.”

These hon­est, cul­tur­al en­coun­ters also in­cluded call­ing each cus­tom­er by name and stop­ping for pic­tures and con­ver­sa­tion with loc­als to suc­cess­fully provide a true “Sam­boni ex­per­i­ence” ac­cord­ing to Toner. And of course, or­der­ing by the cor­rect ver­nacu­lar, “wit or wit­out” is en­cour­aged by Thompson and well re­ceived by pat­rons on the show.

The cli­en­tele, Thompson said, of­ten did not quite un­der­stand their ac­cents in ad­di­tion to their pro­nun­ci­ation of “wa­ter” (“wooder”), which was mis­con­strued by a cus­tom­er as a dessert.

The guys also ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port from home. Tur­chi said that there is a strong sense of ca­marader­ie in Phil­adelphia.

“We def­in­itely got home­sick,” Tur­chi said.

Toner is mar­ried and said it was an in­des­crib­able feel­ing to be away from his wife, but miss­ing her gave him more mo­tiv­a­tion to want to suc­ceed.

The guys took it all in and walked away with in­valu­able ex­per­i­ence.

“I nev­er would have traveled across the coun­try let alone in a food truck had it not been for [the show],” Thompson said.

For those in North­east Phil­adelphia who have am­bi­tions like the Sam­boni boys, the guys en­cour­age the pur­suit.

“If you think something is your pas­sion, go for it,” Thompson said.

In­di­vidu­als can fol­low the Sam­boni boys on Twit­ter @Sam­boni­Boys or their Face­book page, Philly’s Finest Sam­bonis, for up­dates and events.

The win­ning team of the show, to be re­vealed to view­ers on the sea­son fi­nale, is al­lowed to keep and op­er­ate their food truck and re­ceive a $50,000 cash prize, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial show press re­lease. Epis­ode four of The Great Food Truck Race airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Net­work. ••

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