Selin Kiazim: food for thought

The co-founder of Turkish restaurants Oklava and Kyseri shares how she adds a unique twist to the food of her heritage and takes a fearless approach to cooking

Food and Drink 28 Aug 2019

Chilli roast cauliflower is one of Kiazim's most popular dishes
Beef and sour cherry manti, yoghurt sauce, tomato-chilli butter and pine nuts at Kyseri

I fell in love with cooking from quite a young age. I became obsessed with watching cooking programmes and reading cookbooks. I got really into it cooking at home and having dinner parties for my friends – I drove my mum mad with all of the dishes.

I grew up eating Turkish-Cypriot home cooking. Most Sundays we’d have a barbecue and have family around. It is a traditional thing to have a barbecue on a Sunday. At the time I never really appreciated my heritage, but now the tastes and flavours from my childhood are very much an inspiration for the dishes at Oklava. 

We’d go to Cyprus every year on holiday and my grandmother would cook everything from scratch and grow all of her own vegetables, so being able to reflect on that and appreciate how fortunate I was to grow up eating things like that has been a huge inspiration.

Turkish food has a stigma of kebabs and mezze, but it’s so much more than that. So when we started Oklava, it was easy to bring original and new dishes that people hadn’t really heard of to the table. I always really try and cook food that I want to eat. When I go to a restaurant I want to eat food that is an explosion of flavours in my mouth and I just can’t wait to go back. We strive to push the boundaries because people really enjoy it. Oklava is now in its fourth year and we have regulars and new people coming to try it and when people say, ‘Wow, I’ve never had anything like that before’ it makes it all worthwhile.

Kyseri is mainly inspired by central regions in Turkey and the rest of the menu is a lot more experimental for me, because I’m always learning and looking further into Turkey and into the Middle East to find dishes from my heritage that I can create my own version of. One thing I learnt from working with Peter Gordon is to be fearless about cooking. I’ve worked very hard at Oklava and Kyseri to do the absolute best version of every dish that I can. Beef and sour cherry manta with tomato chilli butter and yoghurt sauce is our mainstay at Kyseri. A lot of our customers are Cypriots so it’s really important to give them a dish that is absolutely the best version it can be.

Laura and I set out a vision of what we wanted our company to be and we have stuck to that. We may be part of the casual dining scene but we provide the highest quality food that we can and we look after our staff as much as we can. My role is not just about being chef, we are almost like second parents to our staff. Some people come from abroad and trying to settle in a new city can be a huge challenge for them. Chefs should care more about their own lives and their own wellbeing. I certainly do, now more so than ever. Work/life balance is really important. Before, it had become the norm for people to not only work their normal shift, but also to take on regular extra shifts and people were doing that over and over again. There comes a time when you have to say enough is enough. Everyone ended up with mental health issues and I think that’s a big part of a shift we’re seeing in the restaurant industry.

We’ve just opened a residency at Arcade Food Theatre in Tottenham Court Road alongside some other great restaurants. We’re serving some dishes from Oklava (chilli roast cauliflower and our künefe dessert) and we’re really excited to also be bringing some new dishes. The star dish is the iskender lamb and beef kebab with tomato chilli sauce – the meat is drizzled in lots of brown butter, with yoghurt on the side. It’s a very traditional dish from Turkey, so I’m excited to do my version of it.

I love going to places where you can have a little bit of food from a few different places in one space with a great atmosphere. When chefs enjoy their cooking it really shows through the food. It’s so important for chefs to fall in love with the food. I would always advise people to learn your craft and look after your wellbeing. When I worked with Peter, I worked in every single section of that kitchen until I could do no more, then I moved on.

I’ve also learnt to stick up for myself, and not let people take me for a ride. When you work hard in this industry you are automatically respected. I am very fortunate to do something that I love every day.;