On Monday, during the final session of the SF Street Food Festival conference, Matt Cohen will sit on a panel discussing mobile vendor economic policy. It's a modest honor for the man credited with feeding San Francisco's new-found passion for street food. But then, the 31-year-old organizer (with La Cocina) of Off the Grid is a modest guy.
Cohen grew up in West Hollywood, got a bachelor's degree in history from Atlanta's Emory University, and ended up ― after scoring a master's in education ― as a teacher. He spent three years in Japan, schooling students in English. Japan is where Cohen had the epiphany that drives him these days, as he works to expand the original Friday night Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center, and is poised to launch three more weekly Off the Grid happenings in city parks.
Odd, since Cohen strikes you more as an accountant, a quietly brainy-looking guy who'd be more comfortable in an office cube, scrolling through spreadsheets, than serving as ringmaster for the forces swirling around San Francisco's mobile-food zeitgeist. And though he rents a room here and typically spends three days a week in S.F., Cohen consider home Davis, where he shares a place with his girlfriend of a few years.
Cohen's relationship with street food began, like many obsessions in San Francisco, with a bowl of ramen. Before he managed to break through the net of local bureaucratic barriers to make Off the Grid a reality, Cohen himself was an aspiring street-food vendor. In early 2008, Cohen and a business partner rolled out a short-lived late-night ramen truck called Tabe (at the time, one Chowhounder called it the city's best, and Yelpers went star crazy). We recently asked Cohen about his experiences as a failed vendor, his work as a consultant for other mobile vendors (through Cohen's San Francisco Cart Project, a site that boasts S.F.'s best daily street-food finer), and the current state of San Francisco street food.
SFoodie: What ever gave you the idea to start a ramen truck?
Cohen: When I lived in Japan for three years ― from 2002 to 2005 ― I fell in love with ramen. It was so great, especially the area that I lived in, which was near Fukuoka. Fukuoka is famous for its ramen, especially tonkotsu ramen. Living in Asia, you realize there's great street food everywhere.