With the sweet smell of caramelized sugar floating from his white catering truck, Chef Eric Ireland plays with fire on a daily basis.
In fact, when he's not concocting next week's flavors or updating his faithful followers about his next stop, that's pretty much all he does.
As a 20-year veteran of the industry and the owner and operator of Torched Goodness -- a crème brulee-wielding machine on four wheels -- Ireland is clearly smitten with his line of work.
"[My wife and I] never imagined it would skyrocket like this. We are just trying to hold on," Ireland says. "We aren't even in season and I have two or three nights where I don't get any sleep. It's exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time; I get the whole gamut of emotions."
And skyrocket it has. Ireland has crème brulee-craving customers waiting 30 minutes for him to arrive at his spot at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market and set up the truck. After a hefty order, the customers walk away from Ireland's setup with a bag full of perfectly burnt dessert and grins on their faces.
"It blows my mind that people will sit out there and wait," he says. "I feel bad, but at the same time I think, we gotta be doing something right here."
When Ireland first considered the idea of a food truck, he had a barbecue concept in mind. But with that concept came high food costs, which drove him to simplify.
"I wanted to concentrate on the one thing," Ireland says. "[I wanted to] find the people who like you and keep coming back. Those are the people that are going to bring back their friends and tell everyone about you."
His simple concept might have been the easiest step in Ireland's food truck adventure. It turned out to be a daunting process to put something that lacks local precedent, much like a food truck.
"Where we are standing right now, there was no floor. I literally built this from the ground, up," he says, standing in the truck's narrow, two-person compartment where it is obvious he is perfectly comfortable. His sharp banter with the customers as he easily multi-tasks with a torch is terrifyingly impressive.
"It's not the crazy taco truck with god-knows-what dripping out the bottom of it. It's got a gourmet feel to it," Ireland says.
Ireland's passion for food was instilled at 8, when his grandmother taught him how to use a griddle and a fryer at the family's bowling alley in Kansas. He then learned how to get along with folks from his grandparent's party-throwing skills.
"They were always very social. They'd have Kentucky Derby parties, July Fourth parties, whatever-reason-to have-a party parties, so I grew up around that," he says.
Ireland moved on to graduate from Scottsdale's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and worked under Chef Lee Hillson where he gained both front and back of the house skills at T. Cook's. That experience was followed by management positions at Z'Tejas and Oregano's.
But it wasn't long before he felt the looming need for change, and while most men choose to make an impulse buy of the red sports car variety, Ireland went with a slower, less aerodynamic option.
"I'm pushing 40, and I'm having the epiphany that I need to do something," he says. "One of those midlife, let's-change-it-all things."
If only every midlife crisis put an aluminum ramekin filled with sweet, custard deliciousness in our hand, putting indecisiveness to the test by offering the traditional stand-bys (vanilla, chocolate, cappuccino) and threatening to blow minds with the imminence of not-so traditional (savory goat cheese and maple bacon).
After building up his truck and developing an arsenal of flavors, Ireland became a member of the recently-formed Phoenix Street Food Coalition, an organization that promotes and supports the city's modest-but-growing street food scene. Ireland insists that encouraging more local people to jump in a truck and join them as vendors is essential to the movement.
"I would love to see the culinarians out here. This is my shout out to all of them: Get your ass up, start a truck and do one thing. What do you rock at? What do you love to do?" he says. "When you pull up in another year, it would be nice to surround this place with food trucks."
Whether he is explaining his future fleet of mini trucks or the numerous city-specific tax licenses he has to keep up with, Ireland talks with passion and a fire in his eye.
Or was that just the torch lighting up?
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