It wasn’t so long ago that the phrase ‘food truck’ meant one of two things – a chipper van, probably parked outside a late-night venue, serving gravy-soaked chips and battered … well, anything; or an ice-cream truck, jangling its way through housing estates like a soft-serve Pied Piper. But times have changed.
ast year saw the launch of Battle of the Food Trucks on RTÉ Player, where six contestants competed against each other to cook elite street food, such as ‘sexy sauce lobsters’ and fancy wontons, to win € 5,000. The series a proved a summer hit, tapping into the nation’s need for outdoor dining and ever-increasing appetite for cosmopolitan meals on wheels.
The inaugural crown for the finest food truck went to Kwanghi Chan, owner of Dublin’s Bites By Kwanghi, but undoubtedly one of the show’s winning ingredients was its enthusiastic and engaging presenter, James Patrice. “When I first heard about the show and was telling my parents about it they were like,‘ Oh, right! Chipper vans! ” laughs Patrice (33), who’s back to front a second series. “And, yes, chipper vans can absolutely enter the competition, but we have other cuisines too.”
The Malahide, Co Dublin-born host isn’t divulging whether any battered sausages will appear on the menu of this year’s offering, but there’s certainly a tasty and diverse range of cuisines represented. “Prawn burgers!” Patrice breathlessly announces. “I’d never seen a prawn burger before. There’s a lot of notions going on, ”he adds.
A few twists are in store; a dollop of new challenges, extended 30-minute episodes – twice the length of the original format – and the addition of comedian Justine Stafford, who will present alongside Patrice.
A familiar face on the stand-up circuit, Stafford (28) is best known to many for her online activities such as viral skits on Line of Duty, NSFW podcasts and tackling global foods (some with better results than others – hello, durian rolls) on the YouTube Try Channel. She has 2.5million likes on TikTok and 53,000 followers on Instagram, while Patrice can lay claim to an impressive 140,000 Instagram following.
If the availability of prawn burgers, sushi and tacos from our food trucks is a sign of how much Ireland has evolved on a culinary level, then the career trajectories of the two presenters are a perfect example of how fast the world of entertainment is also changing .
When Stafford, originally from Nobber in Co Meath but now based in Dublin, started her college course in film and broadcasting at the then Dublin Institute of Technology, Bebo had just fled. “The idea of being someone who made content for social media didn’t exist as a job,” she says. “It just shows you how quickly this whole world has evolved and how quickly technology and various social media apps have progressed.”
Patrice agrees: “Presenting nowadays can be done in any capacity, which I think is great and fantastic for people who want to get into broadcasting. Sure if you’ve an Instagram, YouTube Channel, TikTok, there you go, you’re your own broadcaster. “
He works across several platforms, regularly posting comedy content online, alongside reporting roles on terrestrial TV for the Today show and on digital for Dancing With The Stars for RTÉ. Gone are the days, he says, where digital might have been seen as the poor relation to telly. “If you were to ask me a few years ago, I would have said that, yeah, the dream would be for it [Battle of the Food Trucks] to make it on to a prime time slot or whatever – and if it did that would still be fantastic – but in the same breath, there is that demand for a digital exclusive. We’re into bingeing on things now and it’s great that [all episodes of] a show like this drops all at once. ”
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His own entry into the entertainment industry came via Snapchat. “I studied drama and French at Trinity and I thought when I finished college I’d work in retail for a few months and then get an acting job,” Patrice laughs wryly. “That didn’t happen! I ended up working in retail for over three years. I was thoroughly unhappy and my parents knew it. It was they who said to me, ‘James, you’re in your early 20s. You’re still at home. Now it’s time to try something that you want to do. ‘ From a few skits posted online, his following expanded and the job offers began to come in.
Today, one of his most beloved comedy characters is the oat-milk-latte-loving, always freshly blow-dried Malahide Woman. But despite appearing in some very daring sequined ensembles for the role (“three pairs of tights and the magic leotard, everything stays in place,” says Patrice with a knowing nod), he feels a higher level of exposure and vulnerability when presenting as himself rather than playing a character.
It’s interesting to discover that the bold persona we see on screen wasn’t always around. Patrice was, he admits, “painfully shy” growing up and it was through first speech and drama, then acting in college, playing characters, that he felt able to come into his own. Perhaps it’s this understanding around forcing oneself out of the comfort zone, that makes him such an empathetic presenter, able to put the food truck contestants at ease when previously they’d clearly have been happier de-veining a bowl of prawns than talking on camera .
“He definitely put me at ease,” Stafford agrees. “I was very nervous coming in, because it was a bit of a change from my usual style of comedy, so to have someone show me the ropes was great. He’s such a pro – I was just in awe watching him. “
‘A bit of a change’ is perhaps an understatement. Fans of Stafford’s work will recently have seen her posting about vintage sex toys, so it would be fair to say that fronting a family-friendly show might not have been an obvious step. “It was a surprise for me to be considered!” she says. “When I got contacted about going in to do a screen test, I was delighted, but, yeah, that was the biggest challenge for me, because my comedy wouldn’t be at all family friendly.”
New audiences are not the only thing the presenting duo have had to get to grips with – neither of them is a culinary expert. “Between us we could probably rustle up beans on toast,” Patrice laughs. As such, they bridge the gap between the chef contestants and foodie judges and the average viewer at home well.
Patrice seems to be very comfortable in his own skin, but getting to this point from that painfully shy teen has been a process. “Confidence comes with age. Your identity, sexuality, putting yourself out there and not giving a shite what anyone thinks – that all comes with age. ”
He continues: “I get messages, particularly from young LGBTQ + guys and gals, and they say,‘ Fair play to you for just doing your thing, it’s nice to see ’. Often they might be struggling themselves, and I just say, ‘It comes with time’ and you really can’t care what other people think. There’s great power in just being yourself and accepting it and enjoying it, because there’s only one you, and only one life, and you have to make the most of it. ”
Sometimes easier said than done, particularly when online abuse gets personal. Patrice recently posted a photo of him with his infant niece. “Someone wrote ‘Jesus, who let that yoke near a child?’ It can be hurtful, absolutely. I always say if you want to come after me for my ability or my skill or something I’ve presented or written, go for it. But when it’s personal and you’re coming after someone for their sexuality or how they look or their weight, it’s hurtful and unnecessary. ”
He continues: ‘I always bring it back to,’ If this person is saying it to me, a stranger, they’re probably likely to say it to one of their peers’. I’m thick-skinned. I can take it, but if it was someone who is perhaps younger and vulnerable, someone still trying to find out who they are, it can be damaging. ”
Stafford, too, has wrestled with negativity both on and offline. “Even though I have so much time for social media and the amount of opportunities it’s brought me, there are times when I feel like I don’t know if I can do it and I need a week to turn off and get some space away for my own mental health, ”she says.
‘Comedian’ might be in her bio but she doesn’t feel any pressure to be constantly delivering punch-lines, and has earned support for talking seriously about important issues like her struggle in the past with eating disorders and being bullied at school. For someone who, from the outside looking in, always seems so confident, it’s interesting to hear her talk about battling impostor syndrome. “I would’ve been offered a big comedy gig, performing at a festival, and turned it down out of pure‘ I’m not good enough to do that ’. I talk myself out of things and I’d love to be able to silence that part of my brain. ”
“I think my personality probably doesn’t help me,” she continues. “I’ve been diagnosed with having borderline personality disorder, which I do feel makes me very hard on myself at times. I have one set of rules for myself that don’t exist for anyone else. ”
In this new world of content creation, I’m intrigued to know the career goal for millennial and Gen-Z entertainers. Is the likes of hosting The Late Late Show still considered a pinnacle or something to which only previous generations might aspire?
“No, it wouldn’t be the dream for me to be a presenter on one of those shows,” Stafford says frankly. But not because television chat is canceled – she’s just devoted to comedy. “For me, it’s always comedy and the idea of creating a comedy series is something I’ve been working on.”
Patrice would love to host an “old-school variety show”. “Presenting is my goal, it’s what I’m doing and it’s what I love.”
For now, though, they’re both focused on enjoying fronting Battle of the Food Trucks, with Stafford, for one, delighted to finally be featuring in something her parents can happily tune into.
“They don’t follow me on any of the apps – something I’m very grateful for! – and I don’t think they’d be rushing back to my shows; a lot of my jokes wouldn’t be their cup of tea, ”she laughs. “Often they’d have neighbors say‘ I saw Justine did a video ’and they wouldn’t have a clue about it. But this is one they’ll actually be able to watch and enjoy! ”
Season two of Battle of the Food Trucks is on RTÉ Player from July 5