Selin Kiazim’s pop-ups at Ember Yard, Carousel London and a six-month residency at Trip Kitchen in Haggerston got the UK’s top food critics raving about her. She’s cooked for the British Prime Minister and his wife, Selfridges is stocking her luxury date butter, and at the end of last year she opened her first restaurant Oklava. We caught up with the former head chef of Kopapa to get some insights into her foodie world.
I grew up in Southgate, North London. Now I’m in Buckhurst Hill, Essex.
How old are you, do you have any siblings?
I’m 29 and have two older sisters.
Which part of Cyprus is your family from?
Mum’s from Lefke and dad came from Yeşilırmak.
When did you start cooking?
It was around the age of 11. I was inspired by all the cooking programmes I was watching.
What did your parents think of your career choice?
They were concerned at first as they didn’t quite understand how rewarding a career in cooking could be. Eventually I managed to persuade them it was my passion, and that was all that mattered.
Who does most of the cooking in your home?
When my dad was alive he had many cafes around London so naturally he never wanted to cook at home. I remember the only thing he used to cook was steak and kebap, in true Turkish fashion! So my mum does all the cooking at home.
What were your family favourite Turkish dishes?
My mum’s dolma is the best! Also, we are a family of real meat eaters so kebap is the family favourite.
Which celebrity chefs do you most admire?
My old boss Peter Gordon, he is a huge inspiration and incredibly intelligent. Working for him taught me how to produce dishes with really big flavours.
What’s the best business advice you’ve had?
Not anything in particular that I can think of, but I have had a lot of encouragement from a number of figures in the business. Especially in the early days of putting this [new restaurant] together, I had quite a few people in the industry who gave up their time to help me get on track with my business plan, so I am very grateful for that.
Any there any famous diners you’ve fed to date?
I think there have been a few along the way. The only ones coming to mind are David & Samantha Cameron – they came into Kopapa one night whilst I was working there.
Turkish food is all the rage, but most restaurants focus on kebabs. What is Oklava doing that’s different?
Oklava has a mangal and stone oven, so traditional cooking equipment and a few traditional dishes like Şeftali kebap. But the dishes I create generally aren’t traditional: they take inspiration from my childhood and the Middle East/Mediterranean as a whole. For instance, one of my signature dishes is Pomegranate-Glazed Crispy Lamb Breast with yoghurt and fresh herbs (pictured). These are all ingredients that we know and love as Turks, but doing something a bit different with them.
All the dishes are for sharing and starter-sized. The idea is for each person to pick 3-4 dishes, place [them] in the middle of the table and dig in! I love going to the kebap restaurants with big piles of grilled meat, but Oklava aims to show that there is more to Turkish food than that. It’s a tough one for me to describe, you will all have to come and try it!
We will also have a fantastic, predominantly Turkish wine list. We have tried some really amazing wines and can’t wait to show London how good they are.
You’ve launched your own luxury Medjool date butter at Selfridges. How did that come about?
I invented the date butter years ago, originally for some friends who were coming to dinner. I was trying to make an interesting butter to go with a bread board, as I knew they loved bread and butter. A year or so later I decided to serve it at one of my pop-ups and the customers went crazy for it! From then on, it has been on pretty much every menu I have put together, gaining more and more fans, with people always asking where they could buy some.
I decided to approach Selfridges and see if they would be interested in stocking it. Luckily for me their Director of Food had tried it at one of my pop-ups and is a huge fan, so he put me in touch with his team and we went from there.
You’ve had rave reviews from the likes of Giles Coren and Grace Dent. How do you deal with your growing fame and expectations about your cooking?
The reviews have been incredible and gave me real belief and encouragement to make Oklava a reality. It meant there was a lot of expectation when the restaurant opened, and I by no means expected everyone to love it – you can’t please everyone. But, that doesn’t mean I won’t be doing all I can to make sure everyone loves it. I want to create a restaurant where people can rely on eating fantastic food every time they visit.
I am naturally a pretty calm person so hopefully that character trait won’t desert me now the restaurant is open, as I really need it!
What do you like doing outside cooking?
Eating out! I love food, my life revolves around it.
Oklava is located at 74 Luke Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 4PY. You can follow Selin on Twitter @selinkiazim
Photos by Manuel Vazquez