To say that Cardiff-born chef Leyli Homayoonfar has had a busy couple of years is an understatement.
Since she retired from London in 2019, Leyli has established herself as one of the rising stars of British cuisine with her spicy Mexican grill dish.
She has opened a Bab Haus Mex street food stand in Barry Goodsheds as well as a Caerphilly Bab Haus HQ; named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Hospitality in the UK; and she had huge queues for her meal at a high profile live fire cooking festival in London.
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But when you look at Leyli’s path to success, it’s no coincidence. She has built a range of cooking techniques spanning the globe from Iran to Mexico and the southern United States by working in high profile kitchens in Wales and London for years.
Leyli’s initial interest in global cuisine stems from her childhood. Raised in Fairwater by a Welsh mother and Iranian father, Leyli’s childhood was always about food.
âThe combination of the two cultures created this. Both of my grandmothers were great home cooks and they passed this on to my parents. We were a gourmet family and had great home cooked meals every night, âshe says.
“The only time we had fish fingers and french fries was when my friends came over and they were put off by the strange food we used to eat!”
Originally, Leyli never had any intention of becoming a cook after initially focusing on pottery after graduating from the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff with a degree in ceramics. When professional pottery failed, however, she fell back on her love of food, having worked in kitchens across Cardiff since her teenage years and throughout college.
âMy first job was at Stefano in Pontcanna when I was a teenager, as a waitress and I was really awful and awkward. They couldn’t get rid of me because they were family friends, so I was put in the kitchen instead. The first thing I ever did was tiramisu. I learned a lot while working there – it was a complete contrast to the food I grew up with, âshe says.
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Her cooking career really started when she started working for Jamie’s Italian when it opened in Cardiff in 2010.
Working with a team of renowned Cardiff chefs including Dave Killick, Head Chef at Heathcock and Lee Skeet, owner of the sold-out Bones Supperclub, Leyli notes the importance of it in developing Cardiff’s restaurant culture.
âIt was huge then. Independent restaurants weren’t that popular and the Cardiff food scene was really stale. A lot of talent came from this kitchen, âshe says.
After that, Leyli moved to Bar 44 Cowbridge as head chef and can only report positive things about her time there.
âI think it’s the best kitchen experience I’ve ever had. They imported really first class products from Spain and it was a cuisine I really wanted to get to know. I worked under Tommy Heaney when I was there and learned so much from Owen and Tom Morgan. It was a really tough step to take, âshe says.
But Leyli moved to London, where she spent the next 10 years. It wasn’t just about teaching customers how to cook.
âWe have worked with many disadvantaged children and people who did not know where they were going in life. I was also able to work on some of the Jamie Oliver recipe books and recipe development, âshe says.
âI’ve met Jamie a couple of times. He’s a brilliant character. You can absolutely see why he’s so successful because he’s so personable. “
Next, the Waitrose Cookery School called, where they further expanded their knowledge and repertoire of various national cuisines by developing recipes for Waitrose magazine and running cooking classes.
It was the harassment of one of her siblings that eventually led her to return to Wales in 2019.
âMy brother said the food scene here was going to change completely. All the chains were starting to go out of style and he was chasing me all the time to get home. I have to give him a lot of credit for being such a pain! âShe says.
After renting a unit in Caerphilly, Leyli started the business with the aim of hosting weddings and events.
âWe had a lot of weddings in our first year, but that had a lot to do with the summer business, so I was booked for six months and then I checked my calendar and found that there was nothing from September. I thought, ‘How am I supposed to survive this?’ âShe says.
So Leyli dipped her toes in street food by opening a Bab Haus booth at Roath’s Sticky Fingers to tide them over during the quieter months of the year. The business initially focused on flatbreads from the Middle East.
âBab Haus was a huge experiment. I thought we’d try it for a month and it just went a long way. It was an opportunity to talk to people face to face and really get to know the local community. It was so successful that we put all our energy into the Bab House and pushed the event side of the business into the background, âshe says.
Leyli’s family also became a large part of the company. Her mom and dad, aunts, and two sisters were all involved in different places
âWorking with the family was a godsend. They were there for me when I needed them most. Since it’s a family business, we didn’t have to rely on external employees, âshe says.
However, six months after the keys to her Caerphilly headquarters were handed over, the pandemic hit and Leyli shifted the focus of her business again, this time to food packages that she delivered weekly in Cardiff.
âI just went into survival mode and that’s where the food packages came from. It all stems from my background working in development for Jamie Oliver and Waitrose. I thought I’d treat this like a cooking lesson, âshe says.
âI’m glad we were able to adapt. We did really well and I put it down to the relationships we had already built. Because of the food community we belonged to, it felt like we were only cooking en masse for friends. “
After registering at a stand at Barry Goodsheds in February 2020 and leaving Sticky Fingers behind, Leyli’s next step became the Mexican barbecue with Bab Haus Mex.
âI love Mexican cuisine and it’s very similar to Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s heavily influenced by Lebanon, with dishes like tacos al pastor, which is basically a kebab, and the type of spices and nuts that are used. Even lavash flatbreads are very similar to a taco, âshe says.
âI wanted to master the grill craft too and saw what the Hang Fire girls were doing which was amazing. It just has to do with Mexican cuisine. “
Now Leyli has firmly established itself as one of the hottest names on the Welsh food scene with her Bab Haus Mex stand in Barry Goodsheds and Bab Haus HQ in Caerphilly.
When she opened the Bab Haus HQ takeout last Easter, people stood in line for hours to eat their food.
âWhen we first opened we didn’t know what to expect – either it’s going to bomb or it’s getting mental. And it was mental. I had to get my dad to walk down the line to tell people they would wait two hours and then they would have to wait for their food. But they were happy, it was like America, âshe says.
It was the same with Meatopia, one of the UK’s most famous live fire food festivals in London. Leyli was on the line-up there in September together with business partner Rebecca Goad. Rebecca, a former Waitrose colleague, joined the business last year and Leyli cites her arrival as an aid in getting the business into fifth gear.
About her surprising appearance in the Meatopia line-up, Leyli said: âWhen we got the news that we were being invited to Meatopia, we literally screamed! We were just in the process of booking tickets so that we could go there ourselves as customers. We were the only food company in Wales in the line-up, it was a huge honor. “
Leyli and Rebecca served a technically sophisticated dish of Caerphilly cheese and jalapeno cornbread with Welsh rarebit, smoked Welsh beef ribs, chilli braised smoked ox cheek, and an array of side dishes.
âI really wanted to do something that would put Wales on the map because our products are fantastic. Bec and I cooked until midnight every day in the week leading up to the event, âshe says.
In conversation about her future ambitions for Bab Haus, Leyli plans to open an online smokehouse at short notice, where smoked meats can be ordered to be heated at home, as well as salsas, marinades and tacos. She recently started selling meal sets again.
âI think this is the path we’re going to go because I’m a little careful with the pandemic. I don’t know what could happen again in the next few months so we want some continuity. We’re really excited to bring the meal sets back because we’ve had such a great response from people, âshe says.
Leyli also talks about reopening Bab Haus HQ, which is currently closed due to the hospitality recruitment crisis, and eventually somewhere in Cardiff.
âI don’t think it would be a traditional restaurant. I think people’s eating habits have changed and they are looking for something more relaxed where they can just come and eat something and take it away. There is so much to do, you just have to find the time and staff to do it, âshe says.
Whatever Leyli Homayoonfar does next, I’m sure she will be one of the biggest names in Welsh cuisine for years to come.
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