Straight after completing chef school, Laura Elsaleasa then 18, jumped on a flight to NYC to broaden her culinary knowledge.
But she quickly discovered it wasn’t’ the swanky restaurants that fired her imagination, it was the food cooked up by her Mexican, Peruvian and Colombian co-workers which fascinated her.
“Everything was seasoned with salt and lime and tons of fresh coriander,” says Laura, thinking about her early impressions “it all seemed so wholesome and good for you.” The seeds of an idea were laid, based on the idea that takeaway food didn’t have to leave you “sluggish and regretful” but rather could make you feel satisfied and good.
Laura refers to her favourite Mexican dish, ceviche which is made with raw fish marinated in lime juice and coriander as her favourite dish. “We had a trip to Mexico and enjoyed ceviche on the beach, served on plantain tostadas. It was fresh and delicious.”
“I thought, I could do this.”
Fast forward to a breakfast queue at the 2011 Boom Town festival, Laura describes her light bulb moment, when observing a food truck. “I thought to myself, I could do this. It seemed doable and a lot of fun,” she said. On her return home, Laura logged on to EBay and ploughed her savings into a second hand food trailer. Her first booking, serving Mexican street food from her food trailer business El Salsa was at the Cardigan Quays festival the same year. “It was pretty rushed and last minute,” recalls Laura, “my brother was up until five o’clock in the morning, painting the trailer. From there, I haven’t looked back.”
From that initial festival at Cardigan Quays, the El Salsa truck laden with Mexican fare has travelled the length and breadth of Wales, collecting awards for excellence along the way. Such has been the appetite for Laura’s food, the business has had no need to go beyond the border. “We had enough trade to stay within Wales,” says Laura.
Formative during those early days was Laura’s involvement with the Cardiff Street Food Collective which she joined in 2013. “At the time,” says Laura “there were five or six other traders and apart from me and my all-women crew, they were all men.” Laura describes the hard work and heavy lifting which went on behind the scenes. “It was a lot of hard slog,” she says “and we did it all ourselves. We gained the respect of the other traders and just got on with whatever needed doing.” Of the many technical challenges Laura and her team faced, she comments simply that there were several well equipped tool boxes on board.
The follow up chapter to the story of the award winning food truck brings us to El Salsa’s new, permanent home, a Mexican eatery which brings the feel of a street food festival to the west Wales streets of Cardigan.
An all-women kitchen
By chance rather than design, Laura runs an all-women kitchen. The catering space is completely open to the public gaze. Whilst waiting on your burrito order, you can watch the chefs cook and assemble the cheques as they come in. The format is that of an efficient production line, whilst big vats of chilli made from scratch with locally sourced ingredients putter away on hobs in the background. Discussing the working environment Laura describes how everyone is expected to pitch in and there’s no sense of hierarchy as the team are trained across all stations. “It’s a fun, relaxed environment,” says Laura “but we’re efficient and the work gets done.”
From her initial inspiration in the kitchens of New York, through to running a successful kitchen employing (ten) members of staff, Laura is a great example of how a young chef can bring her dreams into being in a way that is affordable, achievable and rightly celebrated.