Interview with an Innovator

Oklava’s Selin Kiazim: 'Some people are into more subtle, ingredient-led food, but that’s not how I create'

Ahead of Oklava launching at Arcade Food Theatre, the champion of Turkish cuisine talks to Adam Bloodworth about introducing manti, baharat and other full-flavoured dishes and spices to diners.

28 June 2019
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Kiazim on Paper – CV

  • Trained under Peter Gordon at The Providores, later becoming head chef at his restaurant Kopapa
  • Left to trial her own concept via a series of pop-ups, securing investment to launch Oklava in November 2015
  • Opened a second spot, Kyseri, in 2018, serving sharing food inspired by the Turkish region of the same name

Selin Kiazim made her name on the London pop-up scene. Now, having opened two acclaimed London restaurants, Oklava and Kyseri, she’s decided to return to the format that first brought her success. 

“Being able to try different dishes and cuisines all under one roof is how I like to eat,” Kiazim says. “It will be great to bring some of our classic Oklava dishes to a new platform, as well as be able to have the space to try out new dishes and concepts.”

Oklava will be among the brands inaugurating London’s Arcade Food Theatre project this summer, marking Kiazim’s return to her street food roots. The latest food hall to open in the capital will situate her alongside offshoots of established names like Chotto Matte, which specialises in Peruvian-Japanese cuisine Nikkei, as well as Pastorcito, the latest Mexican spot from the Harts Group, and Tou, an extension of one of last summer’s most popular street eats, the Tata sando, a Japanese take on the sandwich.

In an age of restaurant closures, Oklava has not only remained popular, but stayed as much of a talking point today as it was four years ago when it opened. A rare feat, especially for a cuisine that isn’t an instant sell in London.

Kiazim found inspiration for her culinary style when training with fusion chef Peter Gordon at Providores, and – although she wouldn’t call her food fusion – says that she owes much of her success to his approach. She credits her prosperity to serving unique dishes that cannot be found elsewhere in London. Her rubbed cauliflower dish at Oklava and her beef shin with cherries at Kyseri epitomise a flare for making talking-point dishes that go against the grain.

Ahead of Oklava launching at Arcade Food Theatre, Kiazim reflects on how she works to keep things interesting across both of her brands, while expressing a hope that one day eaters will understand the true cost of restaurant dishes.

My earliest memories with food are in Cyprus, being with my grandparents around the dinner table. I was born and brought up in London, but we would go every year to Cyprus and spend a few weeks there, sometimes even longer. It’d be myself and my two older sisters, Mum and Dad, and obviously all the family over there. It would always be huge gatherings; my grandmother specifically is an amazing cook and was completely self-taught. Her garden was probably 10 times the size of someone’s allotment you’d find in this country and they grew beautiful things; it’s a sun-drenched country.

I got into watching cooking programmes aged 11 or 12. It was from there that I became obsessed with cooking. When I look back, those holidays in Cyprus were definitely a big part of my inspiration, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh god, I want to be a chef or a cook.’

At first, I wanted to become an interior architect. I was doing a year’s art foundation when I was 18 going on 19, but I realised it wasn’t for me and the lecturers didn’t like my work, and by that point I’d got into cooking anyway – I’d cook all the time at home and have my friends round for dinner parties.

I went to Westminster King’s Road College and did a three-year diploma in cooking. It was very much classic French cooking. I found the differences between my family’s cooking and the French cooking fascinating. For instance, at college they’d teach you how to blanche green beans then refresh them in iced water, and cook them until they’re al dente. I’d grown up with my family cooking in loads of olive oil with loads of onions. I would get a bit confused like, ‘Mum’s doing it wrong,’ but I’ve now realised it depends on what you’re cooking.

Rather than fusion cooking, I just want to be known for doing good food. I have Turkish-Cypriot heritage, and my food is always connected to my heritage, especially at Kyseri. I research all the time. Although I have a loose connection with the food, it’s certainly not where I was born or brought up. That said, it’s definitely where my interest is, and even a bit further afield: Middle East, Mediterranean, all that part of the world is my inspiration. Yeah, there’s a little bit of fusion that comes into it, but it’s just about sourcing good ingredients and cooking good food.

Middle Eastern food has kicked off over the past five years. It’s popular because it’s fresh, it’s spicy, it’s vibrant, and every country generally in that part of the world cooks over fire. There’s amazing grilled meats and grilled fish which people are quite familiar with too. It’s nothing that foreign, but it’s done really well and it has those slightly more unusual flavour combinations that are becoming second nature to people now.

Traditional Turkish desserts are really sweet, but mine are not. With both of my restaurants, guests order a lot of different flavours, so their palettes go from here to there. If you try to give someone something super sweet at the end of the meal, it’s just not going to work and actually, I always try and keep dishes a little bit lighter, so they nod towards the culture and the tradition of that dish, but don’t annihilate someone’s palette. As an example, our hand-stretched filo is stuffed with clotted cream, pistachios and a bit of sugar. You wrap it up and make it crisp. The syrup that dresses the grapefruit garnish is super sour on its own; it accents against the sweetness and balances nicely.

Until recently I’ve mostly worked on my own. But now I have a lovely chef called Ivan working with me at both restaurants. He’s really keen on pastries so we work on things together now. He has a Bulgarian background, so there’s loads of crossover with the food. We want to do the best possible version of a dish: what’s going to make everyone say wow?

I don’t want to serve people a dish they won’t understand. We are in London and people have to understand what they’re having. We do loads of training with front of house as well to explain the Turkish language, so in most dishes we try and reference a region or the actual dish title, so the food has that connection.

We serve two dishes from the Kyseri region of Turkey. One is the cured beef rump muscle, which we salt for four weeks, then rinse it and press. Then we put this amazing spice mix called chaimen that has loads of garlic, then we hang it up to dry in our meat fridge, then we slice that thin.

We’ve adapted the traditional Turkish manti dumplings to serve at Kyseri. You’re supposed to be able to fit 40 on a spoon, but I don’t like them like that because they’re too doughy and the filing is half the size of a pea. It can be delicious, but I prefer to do four nice big dumplings for a portion, so it’s more of a big dumpling-cum-filled-pasta. In our filling we put onions, parsley, sour cherries and fennel seeds so that gives it a really nice perfume in with the beef. Traditionally, it’s served with a tomato chilli butter, but we made a garlic yoghurt cream sauce with white wine and thyme so it’s really velvety. We make a tomato chilli butter we spend all day intensifying, then load it with loads of nut butter at the end – it’s the dish everyone comes here for, it’s the namesake of this restaurant.

Other than our signature dishes like the manti, the rest of the Kyseri menu is always changing. We travel to different parts of Turkey or Cyprus and use the best of what’s in season. I also get quite a lot of stuff from Cornwall at the moment, also Yorkshire. I’ll look at things and take an ingredient, and think about Turkish dishes that I know of with that ingredient. From that, I’ll start developing an idea and bring the Turkish influence into it.

We have a supplier we get all our Turkish cheeses, spices and peppers pastes from, I just wish I could get more of the cheeses directly from Turkey. Unfortunately, the EU stops that from happening right now. There are a lot of Turkish manufacturers based in Germany though.

I leave it quite organic to see which dishes will be the biggest sellers. The chilli roast cauliflower has become iconic at Oklava, we sell bucket loads of it – I believe in giving customers what they want if they go to a restaurant for a specific dish.

I remember creating the signature Oklava cauliflower dish. It was the first time I’d been to Istanbul, I went to this market and I picked up a spicy pepper paste that had been made in a village. This old guy made it and I spoke to him, bought some back home and some amazing pistachios. I was at home one day and opened the fridge and had a cauliflower, the pepper paste I bought back and maybe some parsley or something, so I just smeared it all over the cauliflower. I’d used the paste in various dishes, but I’d never thought of just rubbing it over something, normally it goes into a stew. I gave it a go when I cooked it and it was really good, so I started introducing it at the pop-ups. Fast forward to Oklava and the comment we get is, ‘I’ve never had cauliflower that good,’ because I think people’s perception of cauliflower is just the life boiled out of it, or cauliflower cheese.

People don’t expect cauliflower to taste like that. It almost becomes quite meaty. We want it to have bite, so it has this chew to it. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be as crazy or have as many supporters as it does, but I guess my experience from that – and the date butter with our baharat bread – is another example of something that was created in the pop-up days that people went crazy for.

It’s easier to create a dish with meat and fish than it is to get creative with a vegetable. But I think as chefs we relish that challenge. On both menus I’m always looking to have a balance in vegetarian and vegan dishes, as well as things that can be gluten-free. You need to be able to cater for all of that. You can get really creative producing amazing dishes that taste as good as meat or fish.

The food we create has often had little or no exposure in the UK. Some people are into more subtle, ingredient-led food, but that’s not how I create. I always say it’s about creating a party in your mouth: it’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s sour. I think it’s really important to have those levels, from my experience that’s what people are really into. A big part of this style I picked up working with Peter Gordon, who is completely fearless. Just because no one’s done cherry and beef before, who says it’s not going to work?

The main cost at my restaurants is the labour. People working all day long making fresh food, like our dumplings, is very labour intensive. Our duck is expensive too – it’s been dry aged for three weeks. So, in order to make profit, it’s about charging what we need to charge. It’s never about ripping people off, but in order to have the right ingredients, we charge what we need to charge.

I really would like customers to become more aware of the cost of dishes. With Turkish food, there’s a stigma that it should be cheap. We get this from Turkish and non-Turkish people. We’ll fairly often get the comment that we’re charging too much for our food, but our ingredients that we’re using, and where we’re based in London, and our rents, and the quality of our staff and training – that’s what warrants that price. I think people don’t have an understanding of that.

Chefs often don’t eat out enough. It’s expensive to eat out, but if you can, go and have a few plates of food somewhere where you’ve done your research. Find somewhere you’re going to have a connection to the food. It’ll help if you want to work in increasingly better kitchens, to better understand the food before you apply for a job.

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