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Selin Kiazim: the modern Turk

Selin Kiazim: the modern Turk

by Tom Shingler 30 May 2017

After her appearance on Great British Menu and the release of her first cookbook, Tom Shingler talks to Selin Kiazim – head chef of Oklava in London – to talk about her take on modern Turkish cuisine.

Kebabs and mezze – that’s what almost all Turkish restaurants in the UK specialise in. And there’s nothing wrong with that; while there are some questionable offerings usually doled out from midnight onwards to feed the drunken masses, a good shish or array of little hot and cold Middle Eastern dishes can be some of the tastiest fodder out there. But for Selin Kiazim, the last thing she wanted when she started cooking ‘modern Turkish’ was for people to come expecting great hunks of barbecued meat with the odd garnish.

‘I wasn’t sure what to call my food,’ she says, as we talk in her Shoreditch-based restaurant Oklava. ‘I eventually settled on modern Turkish, but even then I was worried everyone would think I was combining molecular gastronomy with kebabs or something. Even within the restaurant we have little Turkish touches with the décor, but there was no way we were going to make it look like a Turkish restaurant. I wanted it to fit in with London.’

Perhaps that’s why Selin decided to release a cookbook (Oklava: Recipes from a Turkish-Cypriot Kitchen) this year. Her take on Turkish (and Cypriot) cuisine is full of familiarity, but the dishes certainly take the flavours of the country to the next level. Think Cuttlefish with baharat, peas and samphire or Chicken and garlic köfte pide with yoghurt, walnuts and feta. Certainly different to the average kebab. And it’s all thanks to three major influences in Selin’s life – her family, her training and her mentor, Peter Gordon.

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‘I got into cooking when I was about eleven – Turks are notorious for thinking about dinner when they’re eating lunch, and I grew up with my mum’s traditional Cypriot cooking, so it was always going to be an important part of my life,’ she explains. ‘After school I thought I wanted to be an interior architect, but realised it wasn’t for me, so I decided to go to Westminster Kingsway College. Within a few weeks I knew I’d found my calling.

‘I won a few competitions and got to go out to places like Mexico and New Zealand, so I got a lot out of being at Westminster,’ Selin continues. ‘Peter Gordon was the head judge for one of them, which led to me getting a job at The Providores in London. I learnt a lot at college, but those first three weeks in the kitchen really educated me on what it’s like to be a chef in a really busy restaurant. It was a great learning experience.’

After two years at The Providores, Selin left to move up the ladder with the ambition of owning her own restaurant before she was thirty. After a few jobs at other restaurants, she returned to work with Peter in 2010 at his Covent Garden restaurant, Kopapa. Within a year she was head chef. ‘It was great because there was another learning curve, but this time it focused on the management side of things.’

Eventually Selin wanted to make a name for herself and left Kopapa to set up a series of pop-ups, with the aim of securing investment for her own place. ‘I’d started to develop my own style and was using my heritage as inspiration, so I was beginning to find my groove,’ she says. ‘I landed a six-month residency at Trip Kitchen in Haggerston and was able to put out exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t wildly busy or anything but in the final month Giles Coren’s review came out and turned everything on its head – it was mega busy. Along the way I met my business partner Laura and we developed plans for Oklava. After a three-month pop-up at Carousel – during which we got a great review from Grace Dent – we got lucky and opened in November 2015.’

Today, Oklava is known as the place to go for forward-thinking, innovative, modern Turkish cuisine in London. Every dish there has some sort of connection to Turkey or Cyprus – whether it’s an ingredient, a cooking technique or a traditional recipe. Peter Gordon is known for his fusion cooking, and that’s something which has has a major influence on Selin’s cooking style, even though she tends to stick to ingredients from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. ‘Peter taught me to be fearless with my cooking and have no boundaries when it comes to putting dishes together,’ explains Selin. ‘So while I might not use Asian ingredients or anything like that, I’m not restricted to what people think authentic Turkish food is.

‘I was born and brought up in London and have got this blend of my family’s cooking and being classically trained,’ she adds. ‘I won’t cook strictly traditional dishes like my mum does; instead, I look at the processes, the ingredients and the way something is cooked and work with that. Living and working in London obviously means I see Turkish food differently to people like my mum, who was born in Cyprus – I’m a completely different generation.’

One of Selin’s most popular dishes encapsulates what she’s trying to do at Oklava – and it’s nothing like what you’d find in any other Turkish restaurant – both here in the UK and Turkey itself. ‘It’s a chilli-roast cauliflower with a red onion parsley salad, sumac dressing and pistachios,’ says Selin. ‘That basically came from a trip to Istanbul where I bought some hot pepper paste to bring back to London. One day I opened the fridge, saw I had a cauliflower, this paste and some pistachios, and it literally fell out of that. I love it because it takes this iconic pepper paste you see everywhere in Turkey, but rubbing it all over a cauliflower isn’t something you’d see over there. It’s taking a really traditional ingredient that’s used a lot but doing something different with it.’

Just a look at Selin’s menu and the recipes in her cookbook shows that she’s doing great things for Turkish cuisine in the UK. We’re starting to look beyond kebabs and mezze, exploring regional dishes, ingredients and specific ways of cooking from the country. But Selin is doing something more than just bringing uncommon dishes over from Turkey and recreating them. As a born and raised Londoner with a Turkish-Cypriot heritage, she is putting her own, modern spin on things, making a meal at Oklava truly unique. Just don’t turn up there at half two in the morning hoping for a kebab.

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