Mexican food meets Korean: an interview with Mexican Seoul

“Being recognised for what we do was amazing. I ended up quitting my daytime job there and then.”

Rewind back to February 2020 and Ashley Chipchase was working solidly in sales whilst spending weekends cooking up a culinary blend of Mexican meets Korean food for friends.

In the space of just 12 months, Ashley has been furloughed, set up his own business and gone on to win awards at the UK’s largest chicken wing festival.

Following a successful year, we caught up with the man behind the brand to find out what’s next for Mexican Seoul in 2022.

Great to speak to you, Ashley. So, fusion street food – where did the inspiration come from?

I was furloughed back in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and after a couple of weeks of watching Netflix and going out of my mind, I decided I needed to make the most of my time. I was working in sales previously, but I’d always had a big passion for cooking. I’d spent a lot of time cooking Korean fried chicken for friends and they were always on at me to do something with my skills, so, I began working on recipes and cooking techniques whilst putting some branding together.

I live in south-west London where there’s a big Korean community and so I was already very familiar with the cuisine. Fast forward 12 months and it’s been a crazy year of festivals, winning awards and leaving my previous profession to finally do what I love for a living. Covid was difficult, but it was also a blessing in disguise in a way.

You were juggling a full-time job around the business at one point. How did you find that?

It was full on. We were trading at weekends, basically whenever we had any spare time to trade, we’d go out and trade. It wasn’t until December last year that I went full time with Mexican Seoul. It was hard to balance the time but also a big relief to know I had a job to fall back on should anything go wrong.

How did you find the process of applying for events?

It was a lot of hours and hard work, but I come from a sales background and I knew it was a case of being proactive, sending regular emails and selling the brand.

I’ve been going to Wing Fest as a customer since 2016 and it’s always been a goal of mine to compete. We were lucky enough to be invited down and it really gave us a fantastic opportunity to showcase our menu and let the brand speak for itself.

A lot of traders ceased trading during Covid and so there was definitely a gap for us to fill.

That’s awesome you went from customer to award winning trader! Any issues along the way?

We had a couple of instances where event organisers told us that four or five thousand people would be attending an event but only a quarter of the tickets were sold. We’d prepared lots of food in advance and then find that most of the people weren’t even there to eat, which resulted in us losing a couple of grand.

At the end of the day, we’re not made of money and an event like that can send a business under. It takes weeks of preparation and money on staffing and produce, so it’s really difficult when they’re not honest with traders.

I’d always advise traders now to contact event organisers for stats on the average turn out and sales for previous events, plus make sure to reach out to other traders. If they’ve traded with certain event organisers before, they’ll know whether they will be honest or just rip you off.

We’re lucky we work in an industry where other traders are happy to share their experiences with newcomers. What do you love most about working in the industry?

I love the community. Nobody is competing with each other; traders are more than happy to share their tips and give you the lowdown on events. I’ve gone from a career in sales where it was very money driven to being part of a fantastic community where people are willing to come back on their weekends to spend money on something you’ve created from scratch. It’s that sort of thing that drives me. It’s a hard job, spending hours prepping food and lugging equipment round from site to site, but the feedback I get makes it totally worth it.

You’ve traded at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the end of the NFL Games and served tacos to the Red Bull Racing F1 team – very cool by the way. What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Definitely winning three awards at Wing Fest. It had always been the one day of the year when me and my friends would get together pre-business and so I’ve seen it grow from a small festival to hosting 10k visitors.

To even be asked to be part of the line-up was amazing, but when we got invited on stage for three awards it was like a movie. Being recognised for what we do was amazing. They told me to say something on the microphone and I ended up quitting my daytime job there and then, on the stage, at Wingfest.

Wow, thankfully that turned out to be a great decision for everyone who loves wings! Tell us about your plans for 2022?

It’s really important for us to pick and choose which festivals are right for us this year; we can’t waste time at events where we’re not going to make money, so this year we’re very much focused on planning where and when we want to be trading.

We have a summer Wingfest tour planned from May to September, so we’ll be travelling around the UK for a few months. We’re working with KERB which has been absolutely amazing so far – I’d recommend any street food trader to approach them as they put on really good events and it’s a really good experience – plus, we’re also doing a kitchen takeover in March to April which we’re really excited about.

What was the hardest part of setting up a business?

We had to jump through a lot of hoops, which in the beginning was hard because it was all on me to get everything in order. I was recommended to join NCASS and it’s been great for us as a business, as all of the hygiene stuff, admin and the setting up process is all handled for you. It’s made my life so much easier.

NCASS was a huge help for us and solved a lot of problems we had at the beginning of our journey. The street food industry can be quite confusing with all the legal hoops you have to jump through and without NCASS this would have been very time consuming and difficult.

If there’s anyone out there thinking of taking the leap and setting up a street food business, what advice would you give to them?

Become obsessed with what you’re doing. It’s not an easy industry to enter in to, so you have to be in love with the job you’re doing, you can’t go into this half-heartedly.Once you’ve started up, constantly look for ways you can improve. Whether that be processes, cooking techniques, examining which dishes are taking too long to cook or aren’t going down well with customers. After each event I trade at, I always sit down, evaluate what went right and what could have gone better and improve accordingly.

Name your food heroes?

A Korean American chef called Roy Choi. He’s a classically trained chef who went back to street food and he really changed the perception of the market being just greasy burgers and pizza. He appeared on The Chef Show on Netflix and since then the street food movement has really progressed, not just in LA, but across the UK too. He’s an inspiration for me.

Speaking of the street food movement. Why do you think street food is so popular now?

It’s quick, tasty, grass roots food they can watch being made right in front of them, and that gives a brand far more personality than sitting down in a formal restaurant for instance with a time limit on a table.

I’ve just popped down to an event you’re trading at and I’m starving. Ashley, what’s your most popular dish?

You’ve got to go for our award winning Gochu-Gang wings, they’re double fried and delicious and never fail to go down well. Our spicy pork belly tacos are a personal favourite of mine too! They’re marinated for 24 hours and are always popular at events.

Talking of awards, are they proudly on display in your bathroom?

My wife won’t let me put them in the house, so I actually keep them in a safe box and take them round to events where I display them. I need to find a way to sneak them into the house.

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