It’s not quite lunch hour on a Friday when the line starts to form in the dusty parking lot next to the big black food truck. Inside his 95-degree rolling kitchen, George Markward loosely tosses quips through the ordering window as he toasts and slices his way through a pastrami sandwich with an effortlessness that seems to bend time. Graying like he doesn’t notice and battling a chef’s build, he’s not even sweating as the sun races toward high noon, burning away shadows on Par Street.
“I’m the crazy guy who painted this thing black,” he said. After 58 years in the Florida sun, his blood’s so thin he doesn’t notice, he said.
The truck’s side window flew open at 8 a.m. and closes shut at 2 p.m. in front of Daisy’s Floral Market. Inside he’s preparing to set another personal record today for breakfast, sandwiches and cheesecake served up on the fly. He set one yesterday, just like the day before. Word’s gotten out on The Pastrami Project truck, he said with a comical ennui, and he’s in trouble now. On April 28, he’s going to be on TV for the first time.
The Sixth Borough
The hint of a distantly secondhand New York accent coming from Markward’s earnestly wisecracking mouth teases a question out of a customer waiting for a fresh batch of fries. Where’s he from?
“The sixth borough; Miami Beach,” he said jokingly.
He wasn’t joking. Born in Miami Beach, he remembers his dad taking him to Wolfie’s off 21st street for New York-style deli food, a block from the waves. It was a restaurant so popular that in 1959 Northeast Airlines made it their official caterer for Miami-to-New York flights.
The seed was planted then, though it would take decades to take root.
“I love all kinds of food, but I really love New York style deli food,” he said.
As he talks with friend Randy Diaz in the truck, an old smartphone tacked above the windshield grabs Dean Martin from the ether and sends him wafting backward through the cabin. Markward put together this whole truck himself, bolting together what looks like the inside of Dr. Emmet Brown’s lab mixed with a real chef’s kitchen. All customers see is the window and the food that comes out of it. And it tends to disappear in a hurry.
A bit earlier this morning Diaz stopped by with some New York-style cheesecake. By 11:30 a.m. as Deano lazily croons “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You” behind him, Markward delivers the bad news to a customer. The cake’s gone already.
With all this rich food and standing in one place, he needed to find a way to stay fit, so he started dancing with his wife, Deborah. Turns out the chef-slash-amateur mechanic who has an MBA from Rollins College can do the Argentine Tango.
A few minutes later, a long-haired early twentysomething strolls up wanting a brisket sandwich while Markward accidentally hides behind a refrigerator, his back purposefully up against a cooling fan.
“You’ve got a customer,” Diaz said.
“Really? I love customers,” Markward cracks back, rifle quick.
He’s going to have to love a lot more soon.
A Rising Tide
A week from now, the whole world will get to know that pastrami guy named George. Lazily craning a glance outside at a now-empty parking lot in front, he’s really staring at a tsunami about to come flowing down the street.
It took about a month between that first email from Citizen Pictures, which he thought might be a joke, until he was shaking hands with celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri. That’s when they told Markward what was about to happen.
The number changes depending on the person telling the story, but he said he’s been told to expect a 500 percent bump in business. That could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how city regulations treat him afterward.
At 9 p.m. Friday, April 28, he goes on the air. When Guy Fieri’s TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” comes on the Food Network, a lot more people will know about The Pastrami Project.
”I Could Do This”
It started a bit more than half a decade ago when Markward was walking through one of Orlando’s first organized food truck events on Orange Avenue with Deborah. An unsure cook who had never worked in a professional kitchen, he still thought it looked easy.
“Oh I could do this,” he told her. “She called my bluff.”
Pretty soon his stepdaughter Kendall had tracked down a truck in Missouri. It was a Snap-on Tools truck, so overbuilt it practically looked like an armored car. A fearlessly tinkering mechanic, he flew in to Kansas City with a bunch of tools, signed the title and hit the gas. He only broke down once.
He tries to jam the top slice of rye onto another pastrami and it’s barely staying on there.
“Uh oh, looks like there’s too much meat in this sandwich,” he said. Then he admits there’s always this much.
These days he sells a lot of pastrami; so much that he’s been cutting down on the menu.
“When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “We had three menu boards. I tried to have everything.”
They ran out of food that first December night in College Park about five years ago.
“I’ve gotten better at it over the years,” he said.
Now he has one menu board and a much more streamlined chef process, even if it doesn’t look like it. He still takes and makes one order at a time, as lazily as an amicably sarcastic chef can while keeping up a remarkable rapport with every customer who stops by. Maybe it’s because the food’s so good.
The New Regulars
Just before 2 p.m. he hands Melissa McInerney a bagel with some brisket and an egg yolk staring back from the hole in the middle.
“It’s a mess, but it’s delicious,” she said.
Just about the same time, Mike and Ike stroll up. Mike Pappademos lives just a bit more than a block away with his dog, a pit bull mix named Ike. Suddenly a dog treat sails out of the truck’s window. Ike leaps up and snatches it in midair. Then another flies out, tossed by a disembodied hand in the darkness. Ike catches it again. Markward makes the treats himself, New York-style. There’s even gravy baked in.
Ike leaps a bit too high in an exuberant request for another treat, paws grappling with the menu board that was held on with just one clip. It slams to the ground, and Markward is down to zero menu boards. He laughs it off.
Two months before TV came calling, Markward was wondering whether his truck was going to make it. He moved from his regular location when he was lured by Grattitude Coffee’s Jen Hackney. Her sky blue truck’s here too. Since the move, away from where regulars expected him, he’d been trying to build up business again. That’s when he got the big news.
“I feel like I’m in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and I just got the golden ticket,” he said.
With 15 minutes of fame on the horizon, he’s getting his groove back on this dry patch of asphalt just a few feet from the I-4 overpass.
Monday afternoon, 15 minutes before closing time, a gray Hyundai Elantra hatchback pulls up and sits there, just a few feet away.
"This girl wants some cheesecake,” he said.
He flashes a look that says, “just watch.”
He’s right. The young nurse in blue scrubs steps out of the car and orders two slices.
“We all want to be a success at what we do,” he said. “I’m enjoying my 15 minutes of fame. Well, it’s really more like seven and a half.”