Day in the Life: Muhammed “Kwik Meal” Rahman

Ever wondered what the white sauce is made from at your favorite chicken and rice cart?  Or where the cart even comes from?  Where do they prepare the food?  And, of course- is it clean?  Have you ever wondered what it was like to run a street cart?  Here is a glimpse into the life of one person that knows the answers to all those questions…

Much has been written about Muhammed Rahman.  Born in Bangladesh, this chef has become famous for being that street cart guy who used to work at the Russian Tea Room.  Now he owns and operates Kwik Meal, a Lamb & Rice cart on 45th & 6th which opened in 2000.  Since then Rahman has opened two more carts (one on 45th & 5th, and one on 47th & Park) both run by his brothers.  Food costs are high, and profits are low- yet he would never go back to cooking at a restaurant, because he loves the interaction with the customers you only get running a food cart.  This is a day in his life…

Photos & Timeline by Ryan Devlin

 

6:00am: Muhammed Rahman wakes up in Jackson Heights, Queens. Heads to garage (also in Jackson Heights) to pick up his cart.

6:28am: Arrives at the garage in Jackson Heights, and gets the cart stocked with goods. As is required by law, all the food, drinks and sauces must be prepared and stored in the garage, or other DOH approved facility.  Nothing can be prepared at home. Rahman buys most of his supplies directly from wholesalers and has them delivered directly to the garage.  The cart is stocked up with supplies for the day, including the meat which had been prepared the night before, and left to marinate overnight.

6:55am: The cart is hooked up to the truck, and they leave the garage with cart in tow.

 

7:25am: The truck arrives at corner of 45th and 6th, at which point the truck tows it into place before the workers straighten it out by hand.  The whole process takes about five minutes.  On this morning, the sidewalk had already been hosed down by the building’s maintenence man… but if they show up to a dirty sidewalk, Rahman will rinse it off himself while the truck waits with the cart. 

7:30am: The cart is secured in its spot.  A worker takes the truck to be parked in a Midtown garage, which costs hundreds of dollars a month.  Everyone else goes to work setting the cart up. The glass windows are put into place, and the inside of the cart is prepared.  First the pans and containers are arranged in their proper place.  Then the sauces.  After that, the propane tank is set up and the surfaces are given another wipe-down just before cooking starts. One guy sets up the beverages, putting ice in the cooler and water, sodas, etc.  After that, the workers pull on their white chef smocks and white hats.

 

8:07am: Once the cart is prepped and everything is in place, they fire up the grill, oil it down, and the cooking begins. Chicken goes on the grill first, while another worker starts throwing falafel balls into the deep fryer.  The cooking takes about three hours as they work through the chicken, lamb and beef.  During this time they will also cut and prep the vegetables.

11:00am: Cart officially opens for business.

 

11:03am: Workers start grilling the pita bread, as the rice goes into the rice cooker.

11:20am: First customer of the day arrives. Orders lamb over rice.  The house specialty.

11:30am: Rahman puts on his own chef uniform (hat, smock) as the workers start cooking the fish, which takes much less time than the meats.

11:40am: The first line starts to form.

11:45am: Workers set up a generator to power the cart lights and a small fan. The fan is a must on warm days, as it gets extremely hot inside the cart with the grill and all the other cooking surfaces giving off heat. The day we were there, the temperature was in the 90s, meaning a long, hot day for the staff inside the cart.

 

12:20pm: The lunch crowd starts to pick up. A lot of the customers are regulars, and Rahman clearly enjoys the personal interaction involved with running a food cart. The efficient assembly line kicks into gear as the line gets longer. Rahman takes the orders from the customers in line, sometimes more than 5 orders at a time. There are plastic containers filled with rice ready to go as the food is ordered. When the customers place an order, the meat goes on the grill with a little oil, for a final cook/warm up. They spoon the meat into the rice or over pita, give a squirt of hot sauce and white sauce and its ready to go.

12:30pm: Now there is a non-stop line, at times almost 20 people long. This is, according to Rahman, still a relatively slow day, because of the heat.

1:30pm: Its been very busy.  The line is still about 10 people deep.

1:45pm: They are running out of plastic containers. One of the workers climbs up to the top of cart to grab more.  Because the cart is so small, the space must be used very efficiently.

 

2:00pm: At this point, food was being cooked and served non stop for over an hour and a half.  As the line begins to slow up, Rahman and his workers continue to prepare meat and cook falafel during the breaks.

2:15pm: Starts to pick up yet again. Another relatively constant line forms for the next 45 minutes.

3:00pm: Finally, the lunch rush is over. Now, the guys have about 3 hours to organize stuff, clean the cart, and start cooking more meat for the dinner rush.

3:30pm: Because it is Friday, Muhammed must leave to stock up supplies for the next week. He goes to pick up the truck from the garage, and heads to Costco to pick up most of the bulk dry goods and some of the food and ingredients. While he is gone, his workers man the cart.

6:00pm: Dinner rush starts, mostly office workers headed home and wanting to grab a quick bite to eat.

7:45pm: Muhammed arrives back at the cart. After shopping, he drove the supplies back to the garage in Jackson Heights for storage before heading back into Midtown. 

8:00pm: Most of the dinner crowd is over, so the workers start packing up, and cleaning the cart. While this goes on, the grill remains on, in case someone walks up for a last minute order.

8:40pm: They are still busy wiping down cart.  The glass panels get taken out and wiped down. 

8:42pm: The last customer of the day walks up and buys a bottle of water.

8:57pm: Generator is turned off, lights go off in cart, and the grill is turned off.

8:59pm: Cart is closed up.

 

9:05pm: Muhammed and workers hook the cart up to the truck.

 

9:10pm: Drive off, headed for the garage in Jackson Heights

9:45pm: The workers arrive back at garage. The cart is washed down again.  Since it’s Friday, they are done once the cart is washed… but the rest of the week, this is the time the prep work is done for the following day.  This is when the famous white sauce is made, from sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt and a mix of herbs and spices.  They also prepare the marinade for the meat, which is made from garlic, cumin, coriander, onions and other spices.  The ”secret” to what makes the lamb so tender: papaya puree.

10:45pm: Over 16 hours after starting work, everyone leaves the garage and heads home.

Rahman does this routine five days a week, 52 weeks a year. He has had one vacation in the last six years.

Support for this piece, generously provided by The Street Vendor Project.  Special thanks to Ryan Devlin for putting together the timeline and taking all the photographs.

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