Selin Kiazim


Selin Kiazim

Selin Kiazim expertly navigates Turkey's diverse culinary landscape, drawing on her own Turkish Cypriot heritage to create delicious dishes that are bursting with flavour.

Turkey boasts one of the world’s most intriguing food cultures, but until recently, the diversity of Turkish food was largely unknown in the UK. We marvelled at the restorative late-night magic of a kebab and the sultry pleasure of taramasalata, but we understood little beyond that. As the bridge between the eastern and western worlds, Turkey has absorbed myriad culinary influences over the last two millennia; it’s a complex patchwork from Istanbul in the east to Diyarbakir in the west. In the same way Andrew Wong opened our eyes to the realities of regional Chinese cuisine for the first time, Selin Kiazim has trailblazed a new path for modern Turkish food, and opened our eyes to its true face.

Selin grew up in Southgate, north London, as the daughter of Turkish Cypriot parents. ‘Mediterranean and Middle Eastern families are famously food-obsessed’ she says. ‘It's definitely one of those cultures where you're eating breakfast and thinking about lunch, then eating lunch and thinking about dinner!’ She has fond memories of waking up to the smell of fried onions at home in London, but also of summer holidays spent with her grandparents in Cyprus. ‘My grandmother and grandfather would wake up at five o’clock in the morning, and go out to the field and tend to the farm and the animals,’ she says. ‘By the time we got up around ten, she’d already made bread and pastries, and tea, and jam – everything you could ask for, and it was all amazing. That’s what I grew up around.’

That upbringing built a foundation in Selin that has served her well over the course of her career, but she had no intention of being a chef growing up; Selin loved TV cooking shows and buried herself in cookbooks, but she always saw cooking as a hobby rather than a potential career. ‘I was put off by the industry,’ she admits. ‘All these long, unsociable hours, and the aggressive atmosphere. I loved cooking but I was scared of hating it.’ Instead, Selin pursued a career in architecture, but she didn’t get very far – she was barely a year into an art foundation course when she realised that she had chosen the wrong path. She finished her art foundation, but then she left, and signed up to the three year culinary arts diploma at Westminster Kingsway College instead.

The merits of culinary school versus kitchen experience are always debated amongst chefs, but for Selin, it was the perfect way to get into the industry. ‘I really loved it,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘My cooking is what it is now because of learning those classical foundations – it’s important to learn the practices of how to treat a piece of fish, a piece of meat, and all the principles.’

Selin took part in a number of competitions whilst she was at college, often winning and getting to travel the globe as part of the prize. It was more for fun than anything else she says, but her last competition at Westminster Kingsway turned out to be a hugely important one – it led fortuitously to her meeting Peter Gordon, a chef who would soon become a huge part of her life. ‘Peter was one of the judges in my last competition,’ she explains. ‘The prize for winning was a trip to New Zealand, so I went out there and got to work with him a little bit in his kitchen.’ The first domino had been nudged, and fate took over from there – Selin took a job working with Peter at The Providores and Tapa Room shortly after and never looked back.

Alongside Peter, Selin thrived and rose up the ranks at The Providores, eventually leaving to help Peter open a new restaurant, Kopapa in Covent Garden. Peter is famous as the godfather of fusion cuisine, and his open-minded approach to flavours rubbed off on his young protégé. ‘His knowledge of food and cookery from around the world is absolutely incredible,’ says Selin. ‘I just allowed myself to be a sponge and soak up as much as I could working with him.

‘I realise now having worked through various kitchens, Peter’s kitchen was so organised and well run – he’s an incredibly meticulous person but I didn’t appreciate at the time how much I was learning in that sense. He’s been a huge influence on my cooking, but also on the way I run my kitchens and my business.’

Like many chefs, Selin’s dream was always to have her own place, and she started to pursue that dream in 2013, leaving Kopapa and holding a host of supper clubs across London. ‘Keep an eye out for Selin Kiazim, because she is going places, in every conceivable way,’ said a prophetic Giles Coren after visiting her residency at Trip Kitchen in Haggerston. As Selin’s vision of modern Turkish food started to take shape, a cult following grew behind her, but she still needed a partner to help make her restaurant dream a reality. By chance, she met Laura Christie – then operations manager at Ember Yard – whilst doing a one-night takeover at the restaurant. ‘We had a long chat and we were just completely on the same page,’ says Selin. ‘It just made perfect sense.’

It took the pair a year to find a site – a smart little place on the corner of Luke Street and Phipp Street in Shoreditch – and just like that, Oklava was born. Right from the beginning, Selin’s influences were plain to see; her food is very clearly inspired by her Turkish Cypriot upbringing, but there’s a fearless streak to her cooking that comes from working with Peter. He imbues his chefs with a confidence that allows them to express themselves fully on the plate, and Selin certainly is not afraid to trust her instincts when it comes to bringing unusual flavours together.

If much of the country outside of London still wasn’t aware of what Selin was doing in East London, they soon would be; she appeared on Great British Menu in 2017 and rocketed into the final, where she turned around a disastrous dessert course to make the banquet. Her poached peach and raspberry jelly, Turkish panna cotta, peach and rosewater sorbet and a rosewater shard was a spectacular ending to the meal, and together with some superlative cooking throughout the series, it put her on the national map. ‘Great British Menu was probably the most stressful thing I've ever done!’ she laughs. ‘I’d watched every single series, so I knew the chefs that had been on the show and how it had transformed their careers. The pressure of then being there was immense, but I knew that if I could pull it off, it was going to change everything.’

With Oklava settled, Selin and Laura opened their second restaurant, Kyseri, in May 2018. Rather than taking inspiration from her upbringing in Cyprus, Kyseri took on a more mainland Anatolian style (the restaurant was named after the city of Kayseri in central Turkey) and the menu included a selection of Turkish pasta dishes, manti dumplings, larger modern Turkish sharing plates and air-dried cured beef pastirma. ‘We’ve always known we wanted more than one restaurant,’ says Selin. ‘At Oklava we just scratched the surface of what we can do – Turkey is a massive country with an amazing culinary scene to explore. I think a good starting point for inspiration as a chef is thinking about what you like to eat! The manti dumplings and the cured beef pastirma are two things I love, so we started there and built a menu up around that.’ Kyseri closed at the end of 2019 to make way for Oklava Bakery + Wine, a new restaurant for 2020 that smashed its online crowdfunding target.

Selin’s restaurants achieve that most delicate of balancing acts – they’re both innovative and exciting without abandoning the inspiration that gave birth to them. At Oklava for example, they baked Selin’s grandmother’s traditional baharat bread every morning. Selin’s cooking has unquestionably made her the UK’s leading light for Turkish food. With any luck, she’ll leave just as powerful a legacy as her mentor.

In January 2023, it was announced that Oklava was set to close. The following summer, Selin announced plans for Leydi, an all-day Turkish restaurant in Farringdon, which will channel the spirit of Istanbul.