More and more of us are not just experimenting in the kitchen but also view themselves as chefs, chopping and creating dishes alongside the books written by the likes of Michel Roux, Nigella Lawson or Bill Granger. I love cooking but on occasion dream of having a personal chef at home, cooking for me five days a week and making my life easier. An expensive dream you would think, but what if I told you there is a woman who used to be a marketing whizz and is now the most wonderful self-taught chef who hosts supper clubs, makes TV and cooking show appearances and has a mouth-watering tweeter and Instagram feed? She also published a cookery book earlier this year titled Persiana which is not just going to make you fall in love with Middle-Eastern cooking but will ignite or reignite your creative passion for cooking – that’s what I personally credit Ms Sabrina Ghayour with.
Sabrina & I have a friend in common, Joudi, who kept on telling me about Sabrina, so together with my other half and our friends we ventured to National Gallery one cold December day where Oliver Peyton made rounds talking to people who came to taste Sabrina’s food. We enjoyed every morsel of the exquisite dishes ( not one of them was over-the-top yet, each one was a journey of ingredient discovery in itself ) and I finally got to give Sabrina a hug in person. Not particularly tall, with eyes as large as the ocean and dark mane of hair framing her face ( i can’t imagine the heat one must experience in the kitchen when cooking for a large room of people ), she almost shyly accepted our genuine compliments. We kept in touch via Twitter and I was privy to the news of her book being in the works, so when Divertimenti hosted a ‘Women in Food’ culinary salon moderated by formidably word-sharp Tim Hayward in May, I jumped at a chance to learn something new, as well as ask Sabrina to sign my copy of Persiana, which was already climbing to the top of the chart. There I saw a different version of Sabrina, more serious, deep in thought at times, dressed up in a chic dress and not the chef’s overalls. She expressed her thoughts carefully but very eloquently and yet you could see that she was holding back a little, while processing what was being said by other panelists.
Sabrina was born in Iran but came to England in 1979, as her mother ( ‘she is super cool’ ) was studying there. Growing up in a household where no-one cooked ( but encouraged by her mother ‘ go and play in the kitchen’ ), Sabrina took her first, tentative steps in the kitchen after watching the culinary greats like Delia Smith, Ken Hom ( his won-ton soup was one of the first dishes Sabrina cooked; she later also worked for him at New Oriental Group ) and Madhur Jeffrey and by the time she was 11 she became a household cook, delighting her family in home-made meals. She also worked at a newsagent, a sock shop ( all character building, according to Sabrina ) before she ended up working in restaurant and hospitality marketing business for 16 years ( ‘it’s a massive inside track if you want to freelance later’ ) but three years ago she lost her job in the City and ended up at cross roads-while she had no desire to go back, being idle wasn’t an option and not just because she had to earn her living. Then Twitter came into focus and as they say, the rest is history.
It never crossed Sabrina’s mind that people will take to Persian food the way they did, for reasons as varied as the rich flavoursome taste of Middle-eastern cuisines, which many consider to be complicated not just in terms of preparation but sourcing the ingredients as well ( rest assured, where there is a will, there is a way and in part thanks to Sabrina’s determination, foods from brands like Belazu are now becoming firm staples on the supermarket shelves but more on this later ). It has to be said that Sabrina simply loves feeding people, as well as food, taking a simple approach, alongside Elizabeth David who famously said ‘thriftiness is the mother of gastronomy’. One of the first chef’s to collaborate with Sabrina, as she was finding her footing on the cookery scene was Anna Hanson.
While some people consider Twitter a waste of time ( Sabrina mostly uses Facebook in order to keep in touch with the family ), Sabrina is its big advocate, viewing it as a marketing exercise, as well as an element of social responsibility once you represent something, an opportunity to talk directly to people across which you might have not come across in real life otherwise.
In the cooking world you also have to hold your own and earn respect in a very specific culture which has been forming for many centuries ( according to Sabrina, she swears more than men do but not when she is working in the kitchen). Compared to beauty or fashion industry, there is also a bigger sense of genuine camaraderie when it comes to chefs community ( that is not to say that they aren’t competitive ) and they seem to support, encourage and learn from each other. Nowadays chefs are considered to be modern rock stars but many of them seem to love what they do and push themselves so much harder, especially as there is no room for weakness in the kitchen, Sabrina is adamant about that. It’s more about assisting people, as well as being supported. It helps to have an understanding other half as well, to pursue this career track, where hours are ridiculously long and while Sabrina says that ‘you need to be happy alone’, she is blushing when she speaks about her Italian boyfriend, who is not only very supportive of her endeavours but also cheekily sometimes takes over her tweeter feed when his Italian culinary passion takes over.
Sabrina says that she knows her skill set and while you can’t be all things to everyone, what she tries to do instead is to show people what they haven’t done before or been somewhat apprehensive about, while making sure that there is genuine passion for her craft behind her words. She recommends building a platform and having a clear identity-once that is done, you build on it.
But forgive me, I veered off track, how did it all start for Sabrina and her now famous supper clubs and Persiana being published ? Having set things up for establishments like Lombard St and Tamarind, by doing their sales & marketing events, and having been made redundant, Sabrina was contemplating things when she heard that American chef Thomas Keller was coming to do his French Laundry pop-up in Harrods. Having seen the price of the hot ticket, Sabrina joked about doing one herself, but what she couldn’t foresee is that her idea would go viral. Independent wrote about it, suppliers came on board and thirty out of her 80 bookings went straight away. Sabrina was smart and made sure that everyone called to book, whether you were a mere mortal or a chef and as soon as the event was over, people started asking her, or shall I say bombard her with the question of when she will do a Persian feast. Sabrina thought about it but before committing to it, she made sure she shadowed someone hosting a supper club to learn the ins and outs of the process, which might seem easy but in reality its like a duck who looks serene on the pond’s surface, while she is paddling furiously underneath.
One of the charming things about Sabrina is that she doesn’t discriminate when it comes to food and simply loves it, whether is it Italian, Persian, Spanish cuisine and her particular-favourite Pan-Asian – she engages your tastes buds with a few words, a tweet or an Instagram photo taken as she cooks or travels.
A year after Sabrina started doing supper clubs, she approached an agent who told her to ‘go away, have an idea, as you can’t be everything to everyone and then come back’. In retrospect, Sabrina was very good at marketing but in reality she didn’t truly know what she actually really wanted to do professionally. She never considered herself to be the best cook, she didn’t keep recipes-she just opens the fridge door, examines its contents and experiments. The way that she approaches the cooking process is ‘I make food for myself and I am my own worst critic. If it turns out to be delicious, then it is the winning formula’.
It has to be said that Sabrina lives and breathes her work, as it is her true passion, you can’t fail but notice it they way she talks,writes or takes pictures of the food that she cookies and tastes when she goes out or travels. At times I wonder how she copes with the pressures and relentless pace, to which she replies that she has learnt her lesson and now tries to prioritize sleep but she won’t be taming her passion for food or cooking any time soon.
By the time Sabrina and I meet up so I can interview her more formally, in a great Greek restaurant a stone throw away from Selfridges, where you can eat delicious food, while seeing the world move by, Sabrina’s treasure trove of recipes, her book Persiana has already been published and has been steadily climbing the book charts. Sabrina glows with maternal pride but is equally surprised by its success and grateful for the attention her recipes and her food seem to be getting ( only a week before she made an appearance of Saturday Kitchen Live, alongside its host, chef James Martin ). She talks fast and furious, in between our mouthfuls of food, about meeting the readers, talking with her publishing team and doing a book tour. She says the biggest complement for her is when people tell her they make her recipes and even though she is somewhat apprehensive ( not that you would know it, she hides it well ) she also says that ‘whoever buys my book is my boss. I never wanted to be a poster girl, but Persiana is about me, it’s not me’. She has worked since she was 11 years old, so her success wasn’t overnight, making it more valuable and more solid, I contemplate that as I observe her, as she talks. She has a great support network, she respects her peers and learns from them, while teaching others with patience and generosity. One of my girlfriends, who bought Persiana upon my recommendation, one evening sends me several pictures, saying that once she started cooking she couldn’t stop, much to her family’s delight that evening. When I relay that to Sabrina she laughs and says that she sometimes can make/create 15 recipes a day when inspiration takes over. She is a huge cookery book geek, with encyclopaedic knowledge and equal thirst to learn new things, as she continues to evolve as a chef. The worst things about cooking? How about being on your feet 16 hours a day non-stop, alongside cleaning, especially after the super club – that’s definitely not something Sabrina looks forward to.
One of the things that I love about Sabrina is that she rises to the challenge every time, whether it is writing a book, sourcing new suppliers or giving advice when you ask her for it-she introduced me to I.O.Shen knives ( sharp, solid and something comforting to prep the food before cooking it ) and Belazu preserved lemons, without which I can’t image cooking my roast chicken now or the fact that I look for excuses to marinate my meats before roasting, using spices that Sabrina uses in Persiana ( my favourite recipes thus far Ras El Hanout Chicken Wraps with pomegranate molasses, Eastern mess with pistachios, basil leaves and rosewater, Persian Bejewelled Rice Morassa Polow and anything that involves meat and Sabrina’s spices. The book is divided into the following sections: – mezze & sharing plates; – breads & grains; -soups, stews & tagines; -roasts & grills; -salads & vegetables; -desserts & sweet treats. )
There is grit and determination to Sabrina, yet she is giggly and feminine and fun – something to admire and aspire to and not just because you are a budding chef or love cooking. Hail the strong female in the kitchen who knows who she is and where she is going, while offering help and support to those who need it along the way.
For more information about Sabrina, check out her blog, www.sabrinaghayour.com or follow her on Twitter & Instagram.