A few years ago when Nate Overland was working at a resort in the Wisconsin Dells, he oversaw seven restaurants and five bars, often ordering $20,000 worth of food at a time.
By last year, Overland was ready to scale down. He left another large-operation hospitality job, this one at a local Hilton Hotel, to start a food cart with his wife, Markelys Overland.
The food cart “is a different ballgame,” he said, “working out of 56 square feet with two people.”
Métropolitain Handcrafted Street Food, named after the Paris subway system, opened for business this spring. The Overlands are out nearly every day at locations around Madison serving Parisian-influenced po’boy sandwiches, salads and french fries fried in duck fat.
These aren’t like the po’boys sold by the foot at convenience stores in New Orleans. Instead of using the traditional soft, flaky loaf from Leidenheimer Bakery in Louisiana, the Overlands prepare their po’boys with chewy baguettes they bake fresh every morning.
That baguette makes for a more substantial, dense sandwich. The seven po’ boys on the Métropolitain menu include a traditional crispy shrimp ($8), but most take on influences from around the world.
The Overlands pile the Seoul Food ($8) with a heap of Korean-style braised pulled pork topped with cucumber and apple slaw. It’s best after it sits a few minutes to let the sweet, mild galbi barbecue sauce soak into the baguette.
The Delhi Chicken Salad ($8.50) comes as a po’ boy or piled on a colorful bed of greens, zucchini strings, sliced tomato and rings of sweet pepper. Fresh mango chutney cools the mild curry on the chicken.
Métropolitain’s French influences, which Nate learned years ago while studying at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, come through in the Confit de Canard po’ boy ($14). He stuffs the sandwich with duck confit, double-cream Brie, onions caramelized with brandy and cranberry mustard.
Another menu item inspired by his time at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) is the Mother Grain ($8.50), a bowl of more than 25 grains, seeds, nuts, herbs, legumes, grilled tofu and vegetables, all tossed in apple cider vinaigrette. Nate said he adapted the recipe from French chef Jacques Pepin.
Mother Grain is one of the most popular menu items — so popular it was already sold out barely an hour into lunch on a recent weekday.
Vegetarians have other options on the menu, like the Memphis smoked mushroom po’ boy ($8). To make the filling, the Overlands use apple wood to smoke portobello, shiitake, king oyster and big bunches of noodle-like enoki mushrooms.
Smoking the mushrooms is an experiment, and it’s still a work in progress. The smoky flavor is delicate and unusual, but sometimes the rubbery enoki mushrooms fall out of the sandwich in awkward clumps.
In addition to duck fat fries (more on those in a moment), a standout side is the apple-broccoli slaw ($3), a 50-50 mix of broccoli and Granny Smith apples cut into thin strips and dressed in yogurt with walnuts and dried berries.
“We were looking for a healthier option that wasn’t super laden with mayonnaise,” Nate said, “that would let the crispness of the apples shine through.”
The food cart has been an excellent opportunity for the Overlands to experiment, and their menu will continue to evolve.
“We both love cooking, we both love experimenting,” Nate said. “We never want to stop trying new things, exploring, enjoying the different nuances of cooking.”
Nate and Markelys met seven years ago in her native Colombia. At the time Nate, who grew up in Madison, was working in Florida at a Palm Beach resort where a lot of his cooks and sous chefs were Colombian. During hurricane season one year he accompanied them on a trip to Colombia, then started visiting regularly.
Markelys moved to Madison to join Nate three years ago. Like Nate, she has a background in hospitality and catering, as well as a degree in hospitality and tourism. Besides working alongside Nate in the kitchen, she runs Métropolitain’s social media accounts.
She also came up with the idea to serve customer orders by number, like at a New York deli. It makes for impressively fast and streamlined service.
The only item on the menu that may take a little longer are those duck fat fries ($5). They take four minutes to fry, and the fryer on the food cart can only fit four batches at a time.
They’re worth the wait. Sprinkled with shaved Grana Padano cheese and black truffle oil-infused salt, they manage to have a satisfying crunch yet melt on the tongue.
Each order comes with a container of creamy mayo-based roasted red pepper remoulade. Most people request two containers, Nate said. I took my extra container home, and with no more fries, started looking around for anything to dip in it — cold mushroom, hunk of bread, forkful of pork. It enhances everything.
Two months into their enterprise, Nate and Markelys have found a community among other food cart operators. It’s a crowded scene — Madison has 72 registered carts — and some operators are banding together to help each other out and find new vending locations.
“We’re really looking out for each other so we can make ends meet,” Nate said.
They’re holding each other accountable, he added. When it comes to the food the carts serve, “we’ve all kind of made a promise to each other that 95 percent will be made from scratch and sourced locally.”
The Privateers have become a social support network, too.
“It was really surprising to me since there are so many carts and we’re (all in competition),” he said. “It was very touching, the support we got when we were starting out.”
That support helps free up Nate and Markelys to focus on the food. Nate decided to try smoking mushrooms after talking with fellow food cart operators at Pickle Jar BBQ.Getting to experiment with food is one reason Nate left the resort and hotel business. Another reason?
“Corporate headaches,” he said.
“I found myself moving farther and farther away from the kitchen as a food and beverage director,” Nate added. “My true love and first love is actually making food. I love the reaction I get from people, and being able to connect in that way.”