To the average pedestrian on the Eastern Promenade, The Big Bad Food Truck and its barbecue aroma might easily blend in with the dozens of mobile eateries parked nearby.
But its origin story sets it apart from the crowd.
Five years ago, owner and chef Ben St. Jeanne woke up in a hospital bed to doctors telling him he would never work in a kitchen again. St. Jeanne and his girlfriend, Molly, who is now his wife, had been in a head-on motorcycle accident while on vacation in Canada.
Before the accident, St. Jeanne’s star was rising in the seacoast New Hampshire food scene. He had recently been hired as executive chef of the now-closed Mambo in Portsmouth.
Instead, he and Molly spent their 22nd birthdays in wheelchairs; St. Jeanne would ultimately have 13 surgeries and have part of his leg amputated.
But he never accepted the doctors’ prognosis about his career.
“(It) gave me the drive to pick myself up and really get motivated and move forward,” St. Jeanne said last week. “It definitely put the fire in me to get back to work.”
St. Jeanne, now 27, launched The Big Bad Food Truck in May. The mobile kitchen’s menu includes options ranging from a half-pound of beef brisket to macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and even a vegan, dairy-free jackfruit sandwich.
“We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible,” St. Jeanne said.
Although he and Molly live in Hampton, New Hampshire, The Big Bad Food Truck has been parked on Portland’s Eastern Promenade weekly this summer, and at Thompson’s Point, Rwanda Bean, and Belleflower Brewing. It also travels to various places in New Hampshire.
St. Jeanne said ordinances against food trucks in Hampton prevented him from parking The Big Bad there, so he got his start in Portland parking the truck at Big Moose Harley-Davidson on Riverside Street. Portland has been “incredibly welcoming,” he said, and this summer has been so successful he has considered opening a more permanent establishment in the area.
But the last five years have been far from easy.
In the months following the accident, St. Jeanne was on several pain medications, developed an opioid addiction, and lost more than 60 pounds.
Molly, he said, was his “rock” through the ordeal and helped him recover and reach sobriety. When he had his leg amputated two years ago, he refused to take anything other than Tylenol.
Before the amputation, another difficulty came when St. Jeanne had a tendon in his leg torn during surgery.
“I had done all this work in physical therapy just to go back to ground zero,” he said. “It was very frustrating.”
Still, through his many operations, St. Jeanne continued to work, reprising his role as Mambo’s executive chef in 2017. He worked there for three years until last spring when the owner suddenly died and the restaurant closed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The loss of his job, however, allowed St. Jeanne and Molly to make their long-held dream of owning a food truck a reality, and The Big Bad Food Truck was born. Its name is a play on the famous “huff and puff” line from “The Three Little Pigs,” which is meant to be an allusion to how meat is smoked.
In addition to running The Big Bad Food Truck, St. Jeanne also serves as president of the Piscataqua Chapter of the American Culinary Federation. Cooking barbecue is an “interesting shift” from his fine-dining roots, he said, but its accessibility is part of what appeals to him.
“The point of the truck that I wanted was to get as good ingredients as I possibly could and be as reasonably priced as I possibly could,” he said. “We want everyone to feel welcome at our cookout.”