SMALL TALK

Chef Selin Kiazim on opening her first restaurant Oklava

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Selin Kiazim on opening her first restaurant Oklava

Related tags: Middle east

The Turkish-Cypriot chef’s long-awaited restaurant, Oklava, opens this month in Shoreditch serving her celebrated modern take on Middle Eastern food.

How has Oklava come about?

My long-term plan has always been to get to a point where I can open my own restaurant. I have done pop-ups and events to try and make a name for myself.

I got lucky with my residency at Trip Kitchen & Bar (in Haggerston, east London), which was the first real opportunity to start cooking my own food. I did a one-day takeover of the kitchen at Ember Yard (in Soho) and that’s how I met my business partner Laura Christie. She was the operations manager there and, although we didn’t meet at the time, she heard of me. Her ambition to open her own Middle Eastern restaurant tied in with mine. It was a match made in heaven.

What restaurants are on your CV?

I worked at The Providores (Peter Gordon’s restaurant in Marylebone) and then with him at Kopapa (in Covent Garden) for just over two years. I started there as sous chef and, a year later, took over as head chef.

Peter has been my mentor since I left college, I’ve only really worked for him. I’ve learnt an incredible amount about food from him but he’s also a great example of someone running a restaurant and dividing their time well. He’s a very good businessman and very good with people.

Why did you decide to open you own place so early on in your career?

I saw a potential gap in the market. There are chefs who are opening up restaurants serving food from various places around the world and doing something less traditional and becoming very successful. Once I saw the opportunity, I went for it. I’ve got so many ideas and I want to do things my way. It’s definitely a gamble but I wanted to take that chance – hopefully it will pay off.

Describe Oklava:

It will have 46 covers, with 14 stools around the bar, and will take reservations. I’m going for a clean, modern look with a nod to the Middle East; some lights are made with copper and there will be a bit of Turkish tiling, but it won’t be in a clichéd Ottoman style. I wanted to create somewhere that produces consistently high-level cooking. I like to cook food that’s full of flavour, there’s no particular subtlety to my cooking. I like big bold flavours and I like cooking over charcoal.

And the style of food...

We’re serving sharing dishes tapas style so there will be snacks, salads, meat, fish and also a pide (Turkish flatbreads) section. Turkish food in London typically revolves around the kebab and piles of meat at really good prices, which everybody likes, but Oklava will serve small tasters of a wider spectrum of food. There will be traditional dishes but not everything we serve will be Turkish. I will also use ingredients from the Middle East and the Mediterranean that I can put my own slant on.

What’s on the menu?

We’ll serve a traditional lamb and beef kofta wrapped in lamb caul fat, grilled over the barbecue and served with salad and fresh bread. There’s a dish I did at Carousel (a pop-up in Marylebone) with lemon sole, but I may use seabass, that comes with a caramelised shallot purée with pomegranate molasses, and I’ll also serve lamb cutlets but using a traditional Turkish flavouring called çemen (spiced tomato paste) as a sauce for something a bit different. 

There’s also a stone oven in which we will make our own fresh breads. Having Turkish heritage, I believe that the bread the Turks produce is the most amazing stuff and I want to be baking at that kind of level.

What will the prices be like?

We plan to have an average spend of about £50 a head. With tapas, some nights you can have a few snacks and it not cost much, but a full-blown meal will cost more. We are using the best possible ingredients we can get hold of, which will be reflected in the price.

Is sourcing authentic Turkish ingredients a challenge?

A lot of the dried stuff is fine because it’s imported from Turkey but fresh things are harder to source. I’m jealous of Spanish and Italian chefs who can get amazing cheeses and meats from their countries because they are part of the EU. I can’t do that. I will use a similar British or Mediterranean ingredient when I can’t find an authentic one but I’ll also look at making some things myself.

Tell us more...

One of the things I’m looking at doing is a pastourma. It’s a bit like a bresaola but it’s covered in a spice mix made from fenugreek, cumin, garlic and paprika. You can’t get that directly from Turkey so I’ll either produce it myself or get someone to make it to my spec.

Will Turkish wine be a feature of the menu?

We will have a predominantly Turkish wine list. A lot of work has been put into Turkish wine during the past 10 to 15 years to really improve it. Turkey is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world and has some fantastic indigenous grapes, of which we’ll be picking out some of the best. Our ambition is to be able to help Turkey develop its wine presence in London – the more people serve it in their restaurants, the more it will become available and prices will come down.

Related topics: Venues, People, Restaurants, Small Talk

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