It’s no secret that over the past decade, London’s food scene has developed into a diverse meeting point for some of the world’s finest cuisines. It’s a place where diners can pretty much find food from anywhere in the world, from traditional Japanese udon noodles, Burmese mohinga and Cypriot manti to rustic Michelin-starred Italian dishes, on their doorstep. And with London chefs such as Selin Kiazim, Shuko Oda and Emily Brightman adding their own unique savoir-faire to the mix, it’s being served to the highest of standards.
‘Turkish food has a stigma of kebabs and mezze,’ says Selin Kiazim, co-founder and head chef of Turkish restaurant Oklava in Shoreditch, and Kyseri in Fitzrovia. ‘So it was easy for me to bring new dishes that people hadn’t heard of.’
Oklava – which serves Kiazim’s version of traditional Cypriot dishes such as Baharat spiced bread with medjool date butter and Imam bayildi (slow-cooked spiced aubergine) – opened in November 2015 after a series of successful supper clubs. ‘When we started, Laura [Christie, Kiazim’s business partner] and I had a vision of what we wanted it to be, and we stuck with that,’ she says. ‘We want to provide the highest quality of food that we can while in a casual dining environment.’
Kiazim is keen to assert that the evolving industry is about more than just the food. ‘My role is more than a chef; we are like second parents to some of our staff. They come from all over the world to learn to be great chefs in London and it can be hard. We look after our staff as much as we can.’ For Kiazim, this includes encouraging both her kitchen and front-of-house staff to take control of their wellbeing. ‘Work/life balance is so important,’ she adds. ‘Before, it had become the norm for people to work extra shifts over and over again – it led to a high number of chefs in the industry suffering from mental-health issues. Eventually you have to say enough is enough.’ Finding that balance is something that is clearly paying off for Kiazim, who last month launched Oklava’s residency at London’s newest gourmet food court, Arcade Food Theatre, at Centre Point. ‘We strive to push the boundaries when it comes to creating food because people really enjoy it. Oklava is in its fourth year now and people still come in and say, “Wow, I’ve never had anything like this before” and it makes it all worthwhile.’
Taking a more adventurous approach to food is something Koya founder and head chef Shoku Oda also believes is down to a shift in the industry. ‘There was a big burst about 10 years ago when the food scene got bigger and more diverse, and it’s still going on now.’ With Koya, Oda and her team set out to show London diners what Japanese food is really all about.
‘In Tokyo there is one restaurant for each type of Japanese food and when we started Koya, there really wasn’t anywhere in London doing that. We wanted to explain to London diners that when you specialise in one thing and make it fresh every day, the result is something delicious and adaptable. Once we got the noodles right, we worked on what to put with it.’ Much like Kiazim, Oda puts her own spin on traditional dishes, and part of what makes Koya so successful is Oda’s understanding of both Japanese cuisine and London diners. ‘The noodles are very authentic but the things that go with it aren’t. We do have some classics on the menu, of course, but we also have things that are unique to us in London.’ For instance, one of the most popular dishes at Koya is the English breakfast udon noodles with fried egg, bacon and shiitake.
Oda, who has two young children, also believes that finding a work/life balance is as key to the quality of the food at Koya as technical skill. ‘We used to have chefs who wanted to work double shifts all the time but it just doesn’t last and the quality of the food goes down when people do that. I want to make sure we are adaptable as much as possible to everyone’s lifestyle.’ Giving her staff breathing space, she says, makes for a more sustainable kitchen.
For Murano head chef Emily Brightman, the spotlight on wellbeing in the restaurant industry is a welcome move: ‘You’ve got to look after your staff; it doesn’t work without everyone. I think people get that now, which is important’. Brightman, who has previously worked alongside chefs Clare Smyth and Gordon Ramsay, was appointed head chef at Murano in June after joining the company in 2017. ‘Gordon was a massive part of why I wanted to go into cooking, and I’m inspired by Angela 100 per cent,’ she says. ‘We work together on the dishes at Murano. She has to be happy with what I cook but I like to think I can push what I’ve learnt and what I feel I can do to keep Murano moving forward.’
Brightman firmly believes that rustic, classic cooking should still be a huge part of the diversified London food scene. ‘We shouldn’t lose it at all. A lot of chefs nowadays are looking for the picture for Instagram. It’s not everyone, a lot of food looks good and tastes great, but to excel at what you do ultimately a dish needs to have it all.’
‘I’ve been cooking since I was young. If you love something, you don’t just do it at work, you do it all the time. Making dinner at home never feels like a chore. I feel very happy to be in the industry and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.’
All the chefs agree that hard work, passion and looking after your wellbeing are key to succeeding in the restaurant industry. The contribution of chefs like Oda, Kiazim and Brightman to the capital’s culinary scene ensures London is producing some of the most varied, diverse and delicious food in the world.