"I am happy most of the time and when people eat good food, they are happy. I cook people food so they can be happy, like me."
From certain mouths, a comment like this would come across as a trite—certainly a little naive. But when you hear it from Frank Iza Viveri, accompanied by a 1,000-kilowatt smile, you know it's nothing other than the honest truth.
Viveri is the hands, heart, and brains behind Salsas, a street food van that sits in a car repair yard in Limehouse, East London. Despite the less-than-picturesque setting, Salsas has garnered a dedicated customer base since opening in January, with people returning for Viveri's unique take on Latin American cooking.
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There are tacos and bursting burritos, but also Cuban burgers and plates of crispy, fried buttermilk chicken, braised lamb, fluffy rice, and piquant salsa. It's also seriously cheap, with most dishes around a fiver.
One dish is particularly special to Viveri: the braised lamb he makes using a recipe inherited from his grandmother, back home in his native Ecuador. She owned a restaurant and it's from her that Viveri caught the cooking bug.
"I saw how she cooked, I was trying things all the time," Viveri tells me as he chops handfuls of vividly red tomatoes for today's salsa. "She used to make things I've not seen anywhere else, even in cooking school. She used to cook lentils with lulo [a South American citrus fruit]. It's such a delicious, unique flavour. But she also did chicken with passion fruit."
Viveri prepares the braised lamb exactly to his grandmother's recipe.
"It's the only recipe I really follow," he says. "She would kill me if I changed it!"
Viveri's education in food is also in part due to childhood travels with his father, who worked as an engineer.
"He used to take me all over Ecuador—sometimes in the highlands, sometimes in the seaside," he remembers. "When he got there, he worked with people from those areas, so of course, they told him the best places to eat."
A favourite dish Viveri recalls from these trips is a vegetarian ceviche made from wild palm hearts. I'm surprised to hear this, given that Ecuador is known for its love of meat, counting guinea pigs among its national delicacies.
"I've stopped eating meat now, because of the animals," Viveri tells me. "Another thing I wanted to do when I was a young was become a vet. I love the animals too much."
Happily for Limehouse, Viveri did not become a vet. He left his hometown of Quito when he was 18 to live in Madrid with his mother. From there, he went to study cooking in Galicia in northwest Spain, before spending five years in the navy as a chef.
"My passion is traveling, so I thought I could combine the thing I love with the thing I love even more," Viveri says. "It was alright but not for me. I thought maybe there were more interesting things in life."
Viveri came to London to visit his then-girlfriend, ended up getting a job ("It was much easier to find work than in Spain"), and never left. That was four years ago and though he is currently single and his mother (and Jack Russell Kristy) are back in Madrid, the 11-hour-days mean Viveri has time to sleep, let alone feel lonely.
Plus with a job like this, he's never short of friends.
"I've been coming to Salsas for five months," says Joseph Johns, who records with his band in the studio opposite Salsas' yard. "If I'm at the studios eat here, basically. The food is amazing and Frank is just the greatest guy." Though Viveri enjoys the relationships he has fostered with those who make it to the car repair yard to try his tacos, he hopes to move to another pitch.
"I want to go somewhere where there's more offices, more students, more tourists, and more drunk people," he says.
Expansion isn't the only plan for Salsas. Viveri also wants to give a 20 percent discount to anyone who cycles to Salsas.
"It's just that little change you want to see in the world," he adds.
It's yet another impossibly cheery soundbite. Surely, there's something that Viveri doesn't enjoy about his business? Something that can put a dent in that smile, if only for a second?
"The cleaning, man," he laughs. "I love making the food so much, but I hate doing the cleaning. I can't wait until I can pay someone else to do it."
All photos by Jamie Drew.