Selin Kiazim’s journey to opening her own restaurant, Oklava, has been one of dedication, redemption and amazing cooking
Selin Kiazim, you feel, is on a righteous path. She tells a story of being at catering college and experiencing a moment of enlightenment, where she finally realised she was good at something, and since then it has been nothing but personal and professional growth.
“Within the first couple of weeks at college I knew for the first time in my life I was top of the class and was finishing [tasks] first, and I was always reading up on stuff. That was the moment when I thought, ‘This is what I want to do’ and I really pushed myself at it. I wanted to be the best.”
Her Kingsway course offered her the chance to cook competitively and she won awards, travelling internationally: “There are small competitions you do where you are part of a team and I really enjoyed it and did more and more – it took me to New Zealand, Mexico, Geneva and it was a lot of fun.
“I won young Spanish chef of the year after college. And national chef of the year.”
But this hadn’t even been on her radar growing up in north London, taking occasional trips back to her Turkish family’s orginal home in Cyprus. “I loved my gran’s cooking in Cyprus – she did a lot of baking and she had loads of animals. We went to Cyprus every year. I loved her small fried fish, dunked in flour and deep fried, with a salad of something from her garden with some bread she baked that morning.”
Let’s face it, most of the food we first taste is humble, and from the family, but to trace the genesis of Kiazim’s new, first restaurant, Oklava, in Shoreditch, back to grandma’s cooking is pretty cool. Could she ever have imagined such a thing?
“I never imagined something like this,” she says. “I never felt I was particularly good at anything and I had fantastic training and it’s just developed over time. I might have thought of opening a small place but not something like this, as big as this, well known and in the media; I didn’t quite imagine this would happen.”
Kiazim has been cranking out pop-ups, residencies, takeovers and the like
Kiazim has a high profile with those in the know because, for the last couple of years, she has been focused on opening her own place, starting by leaving her job at Kopapa and cranking out pop-ups and residencies and takeovers and the like.
Hard graft can be lonely, all the time focused on your goal, trying to think of nothing else. “It was mainly motivating myself. But doing those events, there’s some people that came to every single event and every time I would get feedback and it was more and more encouragement to keep going – if I wasn’t getting that I would have given up a long time ago.
“But it was the fact that people were encouraging me and were very excited by the thought of me opening a restaurant and I had support from friends and family members to keep going.”
Industry eyes have been on Kiazim from when she left Kopapa. Having joined Peter Gordon’s Providores after college, she worked her way up and then went to work at his then new opening, Kopapa, in Covent Garden graduating from sous chef to head chef.
Her decision to leave had personal ambition at its root, but you can sense Gordon’s influence on her: “He rubbed off on me in various ways. I have a huge appreciation of him and I thought if I ever do an opening there’s a lot of what I learned for him that I want to put in.
“I’m a strong believer in it all comes from the top and even though he can’t be in his kitchens all the time, day to day, Peter had bred in his head chefs and sous chefs to create the right mood: that friendly atmosphere and hardworking ethos. We wanted to create somewhere people want to work and make it enjoyable and rewarding for them.”
Indeed, Kiazim has employed three chefs she has worked with before, and it speaks volumes that they would want to join her on this journey. You sense they must have a lot of confidence in her and the restaurant.
But then, they are not the only ones. Some of the investors in the restaurant are regular diners at her events and her business partner, Laura Christie, former ops manager at Ember Yard, admits she hadn’t even tasted her food before they had put pen to paper, she just knew that Selin was the one.
“At the same time Selin was doing the pop-up [at Ember Yard], I was actually away,” says Christie. “But all the chefs were raving about how good it was.”
She had been thinking about starting her own restaurant, in some sort of kismet, based around wine from the Middle East. It seemed the stars were aligning. “I thought, ‘I’m going to send an email’ and we had a coffee and we pretty much wanted to do the same thing.
“We were both looking for the other half of the business.”
Christie also brought some investors to the table. So with two focused, experienced operators and financial backing, it was all up to the food. Kiazim is basically out on her own in terms of modern Turkish/Cypriot, serving up chilli-roast cauliflower with pistachios, Cypriot pastirma (sausage), grilled hellim (cheese), marinated and candied aubergine puree with smoked almonds.
For pides she is doing things her own way, with a spiced short rib, cemen yoghurt and green chilli pide, and another with braised octopus, ricotta, honey and capers.
But Kiazim is all about the grill – she guested at charcoal-fest Meatopia last year – and meats include lamb breast, chilli-garlic chicken (with a za’atar crumb and lime mayo), and lamb kofte and cutlets.
She makes special mention of the Lahmacun pide: “It’s tortilla-thin, topped with lamb mince and spices, onions and parsley baked so the edges are crispy and comes with salad and pickles. You put the salad in and roll it up with a squeeze of lemon.”
It is a fresh and bold menu, at once recognizable and new and exciting – and employing a lot of ingredients not widely used. “I’m trying to make an effort with whatever I can get my hands on and make a song and dance about the products. Why shouldn’t they take centre stage? And we’re doing the same with our Turkish wines, to promote them.”
So does she have a favourite new wine discovery? “There’s one called Arcadia red – it’s a blend using cab franc grapes. I had a glass of that on Sunday afternoon when we’d finished up. I was a white wine drinker but now I’m a convert. We visited the Arcadia vineyards near Istanbul.”
The two women undertook a voyage of discovery to Istanbul
Christie and Kiazim undertook a voyage of discovery together to Istanbul to get inspiration for the restaurant bits and bobs and its interior, which were sensitively incorporated by the team at Rise design.
“All the copper things, for bread and salt and pepper, we had a little old guy in the middle of a market make them for us,” says Christie. “Our bill trays are all antique Turkish, and the saucers for our tea cups we found in a junk shop. We even got some tiling in our toilets which we brought back from Istanbul.”
The heady combination of factors is sure to make Oklava a success, you feel. “The feedback has been amazing,” says Kiazim, “it just gives you such confidence that you are on the right track.” And the critics agree: Giles Coren says Kiazim is “one to watch” and Fay Maschler described the food as “compelling”.
Kiazim told me last year that she goes for food that is “big on flavour and a certain amount of originality. Sometimes I go to restaurants and the dishes that I’ve heard about before don’t really deliver on flavour and that comes down to looking at all the chefs and are the dishes being executed properly.
“What I would like from my restaurant is to make sure every dish has full-on flavour and I want every dish to be perfect. I want people to come to my restaurant and get a really high-quality meal.” Job done Selin.
74 Luke Street, London EC2A 4PY
words: Charles H // pics: Manuel Vazquez