Talking Food with Dr. Paul Kessenich

University of Michigan math professor Dr. Paul Kessenich oversees the calculus forays of over 2,000 students and their instructors each year, plus a ream of outdoor diners at Darcy's Cart, his piece of the downtown Ann Arbor Epicurean polyglot that is Mark's Carts – the first open-air food cart pod in Michigan.

Kessenich, who received his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, says, "Part of my inspiration comes from living there [Santa Barbara] and knowing that I can't find that caliber of Mexican-style food here ... That's something that I wanted to bring here because I wasn't finding it at the places I was going."

As it goes, Darcy's Cart, and the entire Mark's Carts cluster, will likely hang on to that first-mover advantage. Look at the debate going on in Metro Detroit's likeliest place for a full-on assembly of food carts - Ferndale - where brick-and-mortar restaurant factions are standing tough against food carts and there's talk of limiting their operations to once a week or once a month.

In time for the re-opening of Darcy's Cart, Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar talks hot burritos and the food cart movement with Kessenich.

So how does a math professor get into the food business?
It's a personal interest of mine that turned into something a little bit more serious when friends started telling me that I should open a restaurant, and then I started talking to people about what it takes to open a restaurant and there are a lot of hoops to jump through and there's a lot of money that you need behind it and all these other things. So I was over at a friend's house. Her name is Darcy... She had just read an article where she had heard about a guy earning $300,000 running a food cart.

So I found a cart that I could afford and then I started researching how I could have it and serve food in Ann Arbor somewhere. There were a lot of obstacles to that... You have to deal with the health department, the city, all the city ordinances about what you're allowed to do on a sidewalk, whether you're allowed to run a generator, and if you can't run a generator, how do you keep your food refrigerated?..I spent the winter of 2010-11 going to the farmer's market in Kerrytown and I heard by word of mouth about this place opening last year and so I went and talked to Mark [Hodesh] and the rest is history.

Given your academic day job, how do you manage the time investment with the food cart?
It's not easy during the times when there's heavy overlap, which is starting whenever we open here, through the end of the semester at Michigan. But then the summer is a lot quieter over there, and here it's a lot busier. And then again in the fall it starts up where we're here and I'm there. I've been really fortunate to have great help from both family members and friends and other people helping run the cart when I can't be here.

Does your mathematical mind influence your culinary brain?
I think there are definitely similarities between doing math and making food for people. If you don't understand either one of these things, then you see the end result and it's very mysterious and amazing... It's fun to get that kind of reaction from other people. And both things take a lot of creativity and hard work.

What's your take on the food cart movement?
It allows people who are very passionate about the food that they want to make for people to make it without having to open a full-scale restaurant. And I think the food that you can get out of food carts is some of the best you can get anywhere in Ann Arbor, here, or in the country if you go to other places where there are carts. I took a trip to Portland last fall and got some great food from their carts over there. There's many, many more to choose from there. My favorite place to get something quick to eat over here is in this courtyard where I work.

I think there are a lot of obstacles for food carts starting still, in Michigan in general, and particularly in our area and in Detroit... I know that a lot of people are trying and having a hard time figuring out where they can go because of laws and other kinds of things. I think that's sad. It would be great to have more places where it was sanctioned and supported by the city and the local governments.

The health department, when I opened my cart, I don't think they had seen a lot of operations like that before. It's taken a little bit of time, but I think they've done a really good job adapting to our situation here. We each have our own license from the health department. They drew up guidelines for us that we need to follow, but overall they've been really cooperative, in Washtenaw County at least, for helping us with our business and giving us room to do what we want with our business while making sure the food is still safe.

Did Portland's street meals inspire your operation?
I had already been open for a whole season by then. I got some ideas, not necessarily for food, but just for different things to have posted on the cart or having a table next to the cart. And different solutions for keeping rain off customers... I think that was the thing that struck me the most. They get a lot of rain in Portland, so all these carts have these contraptions like awnings that are really heavy duty and bolted on to their carts.

The rumor is here that we're actually going to have umbrellas at these tables.

What's on your menu?
When we're open in the morning we have breakfast burritos. At lunch we'll have usually at least two different types of tacos, maybe a salad sometimes, maybe a sandwich sometimes... And then we have signature desserts that we make. One is a flourless chocolate cake and the other one is bread pudding, which we put seasonal fruit on top of.

What's inside those breakfast burritos?
Just your plain old vanilla Darcy's Cart breakfast burrito is scrambled egg, cheese, potatoes, rice, sour cream, and salsa. And then we normally have a meat option, which is normally chorizo. And then we have some kind of green leafy thing that we can put on, it's usually kale or spinach.

We've done some interesting things with some seasonal things we've had. Last fall I made green chili with pork, so we were putting that in the breakfast burritos. There's a slaw that we make out of beets and cabbage and some other seasonal stuff that we can chop up. That goes in our fish taco.

Is Darcy's Cart a launch pad for a Michelin star or James Beard award?
It would be amazing to have something like that happen, but I think for right now, thinking about that is pretty far off. I think I just have to keep taking it one step at a time and try to put out the best every day, and see where it takes me.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was "Got Art? A Chat with FestiFools' Mark Tucker".

All photos by Doug Coombe

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