For five days straight this February, more than forty of Melbourne’s most popular food trucks unite for The Food Truck Festival billed as “THE BIGGEST FOOD TRUCK FESTIVAL MELBOURNE HAS EVER SEEN” [sic]. The Australian festival is a celebration of Melbourne’s thriving mobile gastronomy culture, replete with carnival rides, bands and DJs.
Already in its third year, this full-blown festival of Melbourne-based food trucks may be a little surprising, considering that just a decade ago, food trucks didn’t even exist in Australia. They were not even at music festivals or rolling down the streets, let alone lined up like some sort of mouth-watering wagon train at an event specifically dedicated to celebrating the existence of traveling kitchens.
Bizarre though it may seem, when you trace the brief history of Australian food trucks to its source, you’ll find yourself in the home studios of some of the world’s most acclaimed hip-hop producers, standing next to a photographer-turned-chef who, in 2009, united his passions for beats and burgers by putting them both on wheels.
Like nearly all of Raph Rashid’s pursuits—from his clothing label Blank TM to his photography books—Australia’s first food truck, Beatbox Kitchen, came into existence as a result of Rashid letting his interests organically guide him. Growing up in Melbourne’s skate and hip-hop scenes, Rashid first picked up a camera to shoot his friends skateboarding, but soon he became captivated with the music studios he found in the homes of other friends. Fascinated with the way artistic and domestic lives blended together in the sprawl of equipment across living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, Rashid and his camera began to focus on home studios.
Little by little, Rashid moved from working with his friends to asking famous producers if they’d let him capture images of their creative sanctuaries. In the early 2000s, he took the first trip that would soon become a worldwide quest, shooting the home studios of legendary beatsmiths like J Dilla, DJ Shadow and Flying Lotus, and generating the photograph collections that would become two books—2005’s Behind the Beat and 2017’s Back to the Lab.
While the publication of Behind the Beat and Back to the Lab marked the completion of Rashid’s photography project, he stumbled upon his next endeavor through visiting his subjects and seeing how they lived. During his travels, Rashid made a point of asking producers to take him to their favorite spots to eat. Eating his way from photoshoot to photoshoot, from New Jersey to L.A. and beyond, he developed a deep appreciation for American comfort food—a cuisine that simply didn’t exist in the same satisfying incarnation back home in Melbourne. After his return, he decided to start his own restaurant that would bring the crown jewel of American cuisine to Australia in all its greasy glory: the hamburger.
Lacking the funds or the time to set up a brick and mortar establishment right off the bat, Rashid’s connections in the music world led him to found Beatbox Kitchen, a hip-hop themed food truck that he could set up at music festivals, serving American-style burgers to hungry hip-hop heads like himself. Since debuting in 2009, Beatbox Kitchen hasn’t only sparked an entire movement of food trucks in Melbourne and Australia, it has grown to include two sit-down restaurants, a second “B Side” truck, and expanded its menu from its straight-up, simple origins to feature specialty burgers such as a roasted bone marrow butter burger.
Rashid took some time out from running his restaurants, rolling around cooking burgers in his beatbox-painted trucks and taking photographs to speak with PRØHBTD about his path to Beatbox Kitchen and the things that have inspired him along the way.
Do you remember the moment you first had the idea to start Beatbox Kitchen?
I always wanted to be a caterer, someone who went into parties and really turned on the food. Then I saw a need for better food at music festivals. I had grown up in the hip-hop scene, and a lot of my peers were booking shows for some great festivals. I reached out to them and shared my concept.
They were all down, but I needed the means to cook. I thought a truck would make sense, but we didn't have any food trucks in Australia. I drew some rough plans and engaged a builder. I had never really worked in a commercial kitchen, let alone one on wheels. I wanted the truck to reflect my love for '80s boomboxes, so a giant blaster was what came to mind.
When you first started operating the food truck, what made your burgers different from the typical Australian hamburger?
Typical Australian burgers are kind of like a meatloaf, with lots of things mixed into the patty. We stripped all of that out and just concentrated on good, honest Australian beef cooked to medium. We also focused on our bun and the quality of the salad.
A big part of the impetus for Beatbox Kitchen was your photography work. What made you want to start shooting hip-hop producers’ home studios in the first place?
I was always drawn to the way people arrange their houses around their hobbies or pastimes. In the case of hip-hop producers, I found it really fascinating that the home studio sometimes took over the whole living area, and often the rest of the living arrangements surround the sprawling studio. I wanted to show the world that really great records could also be made at home.
Did you feel that the restaurants’ individual producers reflect anything about their personalities?
A memorable meal was being taken out for Ethiopian food with Oddisee in Washington, D.C. I can hear that cuisine in his music. Another great meal was with DJ Juco in Tokyo. His family had a restaurant next to his house. I think he might have taken the restaurant over from his father now.
What was it about the comfort food restaurants you visited in the U.S. that grabbed your attention?
I was most impressed by people’s attention to detail. Treating a humble diner menu with a lot of care and pride is just as important to me as any other restaurant experience. When someone serves you a crap burger with no care, you really feel that shit.
Is there a specific place you visited in your travels that you felt a particularly strong connection to?
I spent the best part of ten years discovering Los Angeles with Jeff Jank from Stones Throw purely based on Jonathan Gold’s [the late food critic] recommendations. I absolutely loved his writing, and Jeff and I hit up a lot of spots. None disappointed. There were so many highlights, including Jitlada Thai, and also discovering Guisados for the first time.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a chef over the years since you first started Beatbox Kitchen?
The main areas of growth have been understanding how to deal with all the personalities of the kitchen. Getting someone to feel your passion for a burger or taco can be really hard work. To be a great chef, you must possess so many skills. You need to know how to do your own maintenance, you need to know how to create a good work environment, and you need to know how to check your BS at the door.
What do you think of chefs incorporating cannabis as an ingredient in the culinary arts?
I think go for it. If you can make it delicious, give it a blast!
How has cannabis inspired or influenced your work?
Oh yeah, most of my late night cooking has been for people who are getting a little high. I personally haven't used cannabis as an ingredient.
What is the climate around the legalization of cannabis in Australia?
It doesn't seem to be on the current landscape. I can't see it happening anytime soon.