The lunch-hour rush is under way at the convoy of food trucks that line Spruce Street near the University of Pennsylvania campus. From inside the cramped Chez Yasmine, Jihed Chehimi is serving gourmet street fare from around the globe - heaping salmon sandwiches sprinkled with caviar, homemade couscous, and cups of Indian red lentil soup - all with a side of conversation that occasionally turns to the science of AIDS.
For more than two decades, the Ph.D. in viral immunology was an HIV/AIDS researcher, first at Penn and then at the labs of the Wistar Institute, where the senior scientist explored innate and adaptive immunity.
Then three years ago, Chehimi traded his lab coat for an apron. He had gone through a divorce and was planning to move to Puerto Rico for a new position, but the funding was cut. Call it a later-life crisis.
Last year, after testing recipes at house parties for more than a year, he bet on a new experiment - operating a food truck that promises a "Simple, Fresh, Delicious, Elegant" experience, with interesting music and conversation.
"The food is good quality, especially compared to other food trucks," says Marc Habib, 21, a senior at the Wharton School. "I can trust that it's more organic, more fresh, not processed." Plus he gets to order en francais, which Chehimi speaks fluently.
"Bon appetit," he says as he hands over a chicken banh mi, made of free-range chicken thighs, ginger, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno pepper, wasabi mayonnaise, and soy sauce on a baguette.
Chehimi and his Wistar colleagues often joked (perhaps half-joked) about the crazy notion of leaving research to serve healthy fare, sidewalk style. "It was just an idea," he says, his words laced with the accent of his native Tunisia. "I kept that idea alive."
Instead of a state-of-the-art lab, he now works in an aluminum-sided, 4-by-8-foot food truck at 37th and Spruce Streets named after his daughter, Yasmine, 22. He keeps abreast of AIDS research chatting with former colleagues while they wait for their food.
Chehimi says he uses his scientific bent to create unusual sandwich and salad recipes, including the ever-popular Nikki: Swedish Salmon Smorgas (smoked salmon, wasabi mayonnaise, cucumber, radishes, hard-boiled egg, dill, fresh lemon juice, capers, and a sprinkle of caviar on rye or baguette).
Chehimi allows that some in his family find his new venture a disappointment, "a waste of brains." But he considers himself ever the researcher and teacher.
"The mission of the truck is to educate about food, to interact with the community," he says.
To that end, the menu is a timeline of his life and world travels, covering the culinary traditions of Tunisia, France (he earned his doctorate at the University of Paris), Sweden (his ex-wife's homeland), Vietnam (he and his daughter like the cuisine), and the United States.
Many items are named after places or people important to Chehimi. The Wharton, in honor of friends at Penn's business school, is made with dolphin-safe albacore tuna, tomato, spring mix, Emmental, carrot, hard-boiled egg, and herbes de Provence on a baguette.
Even though most of his customers are rushing from one class or meeting to another, Chehimi prides himself on being a slow-food advocate. He makes his couscous from scratch. He says he has spoken to student groups about food and the value of family meals, and has collaborated with Hispanic organizations in Kennett Square to improve eating habits.
On this day, scientist Costin Tomescu, a former colleague from Wistar who has known Chehimi nearly nine years, has stopped by for the vegetarian banh mi. The strains of world music (adding to the truck's draw) play from Chehimi's iPhone.
Tomescu shares details from a paper he presented at a recent AIDS conference as Chehimi opens a foot-long roll and heaps tofu, cucumbers, and jalapeno peppers.
"How could you wish anything better?" Tomescu asks, adding that he envies Chehimi for his pluck in following his dream. "He was talking about this truck for years."
L'Elyse: Quinoa Salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 cups organic quinoa (white, red or tricolor)
1 1/2 English cucumbers, peeled and finely diced
4 large carrots cut in julienne
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1/2 bunch organic kale, finely chopped
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup red or green cabbage, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Herbes de Provence Spring mix
Feta cheese (Bulgarian or French)
1/2 cup mixed nuts (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Bring 2 quarts salted water to a boil. Rinse the quinoa under cold water. Add rinsed quinoa, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer 10 to 12 minutes, or until small white "tails" bloom from grains.
2. Drain quinoa. Stir in cucumber, carrots, parsley, kale, cabbage, and capers. Add salt, pepper, sage, and herbes de Provence. Mix well.
3. Serve on top of a bed of spring mix. Add crumbled feta cheese (omit this step for vegans), mixed nuts (optional), and lemon juice/extra virgin olive oil.
Per serving (based on 8): 258 calories, 10 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 241 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
The Nikki: Swedish Salmon Smörgås
Makes 1 serving
Light organic mayonnaise
Vietnamese baguette (9 to 10 inches long)
Thinly sliced English cucumber
Thinly sliced radish
Hard-boiled egg cut with an egg slicer
1/2 teaspoon capers
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Prepare mayonnaise mix: 3/4 light organic mayo, 1/4 wasabi mayo. Mix well.
2. Cut the baguette in half lengthwise and spread the inside of each half with the mayonnaise mix.
3. Cover with a layer of smoked salmon (3 slices).
4. Add 4 slices cucumber, 4 to 6 slices radish.
5. Add 3 to 4 slices hard-boiled egg.
6. Add capers.
7. Sprinkle with finely chopped fresh dill and caviar.
8. Add a few drops of lemon juice.
Note: Chez Yasmine also serves this sandwich "open face" using lightly toasted rye bread (Le Josie).
Per serving: 437 calories, 34 grams protein, 50 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 258 milligrams cholesterol, 1,943 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.
Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Lkadaba@gmail.com.