On the first day chef Steve LeClair planned to serve food from his trailer-turned-kitchen, he hopped into his truck and drove down the driveway—pulling out the plug that had been powering the trailer’s refrigerator in anticipation of the grand opening of “Steve’s Street Eats.”
“In the beginning, things were a little touchy because he was trying to remember so many different things,” said Sandy Samora, LeClair’s mother-in-law, who works in the trailer with LeClair. She said that on that first morning, LeClair called her 86-year-old uncle, a former electrician, who quickly came to mend the cord.
Selling food from a trailer was a new venture for LeClair, who has worked as a head and executive chef at several popular Syracuse restaurants, including Antonio’s and Francesca’s Cucina. But with more than 25 years of experience in the restaurant business, LeClair is equipped to handle the unique challenges of working out of a trailer, as well as the concern that tests most chefs: working in tight quarters at a fast pace.
Business has been brisk for LeClair since the trailer’s debut on St. Patrick’s Day this year. On Tuesdays and Thursdays LeClair drives the trailer to 5786 Widewaters Parkway in DeWitt; on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he parks on a gravel lot on the corner of West Fayette and Geddes streets, just down the road from the first location at West Fayette and Tioga streets.
Gourmet mobile food vendors like Steve’s Street Eats are also new for Syracuse. While New York City and Los Angeles have experienced an uptick in the number of food trucks cruising the streets, hawking everything from Baja fish tacos to crème brûlée, records at Syracuse City Hall’s License Commission show there are currently only four food trucks with licenses to sell at locations determined by the city lottery.
For LeClair, the novelty is a big plus. “I wanted to jump in before anyone else. Next year there will be 10 of these,” he said, crossing his arms and leaning against the trailer’s bright red side, taking a momentary break from the hot stoves and the sizzling food he’s preparing for the Friday crowd at the trailer’s West Side location. His blue Crocs crunch the gravel underfoot as he shifts position.
It’s hard to imagine another chef producing the same kind of fresh, inventive cuisine that LeClair cooks in his food trailer. Today, LeClair’s menu, which had been posted on the Street Eats Facebook page the night before, includes calamari tacos and the “Gumba,” a sirloin sandwich topped with onions, mozzarella cheese, locally-grown peppers and Steve’s special Fra Diavolo hot sauce. LeClair said his food often takes on a “fusion” character, and he frequently serves dishes with ingredients you wouldn’t normally expect in your average sandwich or taco—such as braised pork shoulder and peanut sauce, as in LeClair’s “Hong Kong Phooey” tacos.
“I like the freedom to be able to do whatever I want. I can sell whatever I want. I can go on any style, any cuisine. I can pull together any idea that I have, and whether it works or not affects my business, but I don’t have to worry about an owner of a restaurant getting on my back,” LeClair said.
LeClair said he does miss having a solid paycheck every week, though; his favorite dish is “one that would sell the most,” since he must look at it “as bottom line,” he said. Yet LeClair also aims to sell out every day because his food’s freshness is a high priority. On the day this reporter visited Steve’s Street Eats, the trailer sold out by 5 p.m. after opening at 11 a.m.
So far, the business is all in the family; LeClair’s wife, Danielle LeClair, helps in the trailer, bakes the artisanal bread and creates its popular cupcakes, including the “Dreamsicle Cupcake,” an orange-scented cupcake topped with decadent orange cream and triple sec cream cheese frosting.
Before working in the trailer, Danielle was the director of social services at Sunnyside Care Center, a nursing home and short-term rehabilitation facility. For a few months, she juggled the demands of her job while working on tasks for Steve, such as placing the order for the 7-foot by 14-foot trailer, which was custom built by a company in Little Falls. A month after the trailer’s debut, Danielle decided to leave the nursing home and help Steve with his project full time.
“It was a great job; I’ll probably go back to it,” she said. “But this is his dream, so I took time off.”
Before her job at Sunnyside, Danielle worked in the restaurant business for 15 years, mostly in management. During this time, she met Steve through a mutual friend, who Steve would bribe with steak to get her to set him up with Danielle. They eventually started dating, and then married on Danielle’s 30th birthday. They’ve been together 11 years.
“We just hit it off. It’s probably partly about food; I grew up around food, I love cooking and I love baking,” said Danielle, who comes from an Italian family. “Food is love in that culture, and that’s how we are. It’s very important to us.”
Sandy Samora, Danielle’s mother, has helped LeClair in the trailer since it first opened for business. Before, Samora worked 12 years in the City of Syracuse’s finance department and 20 years in the assessments department. Because of her familiarity with the city’s tax department, she was able to provide guidance to LeClair when he was seeking a location for his trailer.
The city of Syracuse annually conducts a lottery in December to assign locations to food vendors. Entrants pay up to $1,500, and there is no guarantee that they will receive the location they desire. Since the lottery occurs every year, food vendors often must change locations after gathering a fan base in a particular area.
Because the food truck trend is still relatively new in Syracuse, the process of starting a truck is still not entirely streamlined, LeClair said.
“You just have to do your diligence. You just have to spend weeks and months going to different offices, and, a lot of times, certain doors…It can be trying, it takes time,” said LeClair. “I’m sure after I cut my teeth with this town, next year there will probably be a few more—either regulations or different ways of going about things, because the groundwork has been laid,.”
Ultimately, LeClair decided against entering the lottery when his friend Cosmo Fanizzi helped secure the trailer’s first and second locations on Syracuse’s West Side. Fanizzi, whom Samora described as being “like the mayor of the West End” because “he just knows almost everyone,” connected LeClair with the owners of Onondaga Paper and Twine. They invited LeClair to park and serve food in the lot of the building they own at the corner of Tioga and West Fayette streets.
“I can’t take very much credit; I just suggested the West Side,” said Fanizzi, who works on architectural wood working projects in The Gear Factory, an artists’ studio on the West Side. “I live over here, so I’m kind of privy to how things are kind of shaping up.”
Fanizzi, who grew up with LeClair in a northern Syracuse neighborhood, said he has been eating LeClair’s food for years. When LeClair was working at Antonio’s, Fanizzi said he owned the building next door and often came with other locals to eat.
“He served the bar, he’d take care of the banquet upstairs and then he’d have the local bookies at the back door of the kitchen,” Fanizzi said. “He took care of everybody.”
Fanizzi said LeClair’s ability to produce large volumes of food efficiently was “kind of legendary” among chefs in the area. “Anybody can make this stuff look pretty when it’s not busy…But in the rest, it’s about business, it’s about volume,” he said. “Everyone will agree; he’s the one that consistently puts out the most food the fastest.”
LeClair’s skills seem well-suited to the food truck business, which demands efficient cooking. In the trailer, LeClair squeezed his iPhone between his cheek and shoulder, tending the pans on the stove while simultaneously readying himself to take another guest’s order. The caller asked for a chimichanga, but they just sold out, LeClair said. Then, instead of simply hanging up, LeClair offered to make him a burger or taco, prepared to his liking. “Is that cool?” he asked. The caller agreed, and LeClair relayed the order to Danielle and Sandy, then returned to tending the crowd of pans balanced on the hot stove.
Outside the trailer, guests were pleased with the service, happy to wait a few minutes for gourmet food cooked to order. One man stuck his head out of a car window to thank Steve and Danielle for the meal. Before driving away, he grinned and added, “That was the best freaking lunch I ever had.”