Her career has just begun, but already self-taught cook and writer Sabrina Ghayour has brought the magic of Persian food to the masses; Stephen Milton finds out how
When Sabrina Ghayour was six years old, she found herself enchanted by the culinary styling of Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom. ‘It was them and Delia who had the most airtime on the BBC,’ she muses in warm, clipped vowels, straining above the clink and clatter of Brasserie Zedel off Piccadilly Circus ‘And I couldn’t really connect to Delia as my culture included loads of dishes, it’s a very different style to do one pot.’
At seven, she had cooked her first wanton soup and by eleven, appointed herself the house cook for her entire family. Sabrina seems rather nonplussed at the danger posed by little hands in the kitchen. ‘We’re so spoiled now and treated like children and told it’s dangerous. Maybe with some hindsight, it wasn’t sensible to let me loose but I never cut myself,’ beaming proudly. It certainly laid the foundations for an exploding career as one of the pre-eminent voices in Persian cuisine. The one-time City executive turned crisis into opportunity when she was laid off from her marketing and events position three years ago.
A devoted foodie, she found herself dismally depressed on learning renowned American chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, creative head of NapaValley institution, The French Laundry – the one-time best restaurant in the world – was staging a pop-up at Harrods. And at £250 per head, a little too steep for a newly redundant employee.
‘I just couldn’t justify that. I was gutted. ‘So I joked on Twitter that I should do a pop-up called the French Launderette and charge £2.50. Somebody was like, ‘You can never do it, you can’t do it’ and I was like, ‘Please don’t say that, because it makes me want to do it more and more’. I’m a Capricorn after all.’
Through the power of social media, Sabrina, 38, was introduced to a number of wholesalers and suppliers looking to assist this daring venture, while The Times, Independent and Zagat provided invaluable exposure. Sabrina ended up serving 80 people at The Chancery, closed for Sunday service, while Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social covered the front of house, raising about £4,000 for Action Against Hunger. ‘The phone rang constantly; we even had calls from Thomas Keller. I thought he would surely sue but it ended up his own team was begging for seats.’
Established overnight as a bold new figure in the pop-up culinary hood, the innovative free-thinker worked on a number of successful events with heavy hitters, Anna Hansen, Alexis Gauthier and Masterchef’s Tim Anderson before calls for the taste of Persia grew louder.
‘They would say to me, ‘When are you going to give us Persian food’,’ she muses, blinking wildly. ‘It just seemed to make sense and came at a time when no one was popularizing it beforehand. So I like to think I had something to do with the trend over the last three years. ‘And I think the popularity and beauty we’re not very heavily spiced. We’re very light compared to other countries. We use citrus, tomatoes and herbs, so it’s like all the Middle Eastern food and flavours that you love, but actually slightly lighter and fresher.’
Benefitting from a largely untapped niche, is now a private chef and supper club host of hugely popular Sabrina’s Kitchen, while also staging classes from the Divertimenti cookery school and countless venues across the city.
For those who can’t make these events, she’s written her first cookbook, the sumptuously illustrated, Persiana, containing one hundred of her trusted and tried recipes. ‘I hold a massive amount of respect for the traditional recipes within the book, and they’ll always have a special place to me. But my favourite are the ones with Middle Eastern influence but then lightened and fused.
‘One is marinated feta, I really like that recipe and also my sour cherry and dill meatballs. Who doesn’t love meatballs? ‘And I’ve gotten a bit better at baking, even if pudding isn’t really a thing in Persian cuisine. I mean you have baklava but people are my pop ups want more. So I created new deserts, a pudding that has a little rosewater in it, loads of different nuts and a spiced carrot cake. For most, Persian food has been shrouded in mystery, but it’s some of the simplest and most affordable in the world.’
At just two years old, her family fled Tehran right before the ‘79 revolution. Sabrina has never returned. ‘For me, who hasn’t been there for 30 plus years, it may incur some questions like, ‘Ahhh, where have you been? Why didn’t you come back sooner? Where’s your husband? Where’s your father? Has he given you permission to come here?’ Things are still a little backwards there. ‘But for the tourist, it’s a beautiful place with stunning sights, fabulous shopping and wonderful skiing.’
After her parents split, her father moved to Los Angeles and Sabrina settled in between Earl’s Court and Kensington with her mother and grandmother. The South West enclave remains home and she adores the township atmosphere. ‘It’s a lovely neighbourhood and I’ve known some of these people since I was a kid. It’s a real village, with matching ambiance. You don’t get that anywhere else, where you walk down the street and people greet you with a ‘Good morning.’’
And while many will claim her home based Sabrina’s Kitchen supper clubs, as the culinary peak in the area, she has some personal highlights of her own. ‘I do find Kensington can be a bit of a desert, culinary wise. It caters for yummy mummy’s and kids; Giraffe, Strada, Wagamama’s. ‘But I do like Byron and Comptoir Libanaise. And in South Kensington, where it’s gone very pedestrianized, there’s a Fernandez and Wells. And I like the Thai in the Churchill Arms. You can see it a mile away, as it’s decked in flowers from tip to toe and when you go inside, it’s all war memorabilia and pictures and Churchill and pipes and army uniform. Then out of nowhere, there’s this Thai restaurant and it’s rammed, and you can only sit for an hour. Proper blow your head off spicy dishes and only locals know about it. If it gets any busier, I’ll never get in.’
With the Sabrina Ghayour empire ever increasing – ‘Well, it’s more a culinary building blocks of Lego blocks,’ she scoffs – surely opening her own establishment is the next step? ‘Never! I’ve seen very well connected, richer, more talented people than me, fail at that. As of now, I’m content with the current workload I have. Nothing has ever been planned, much of it has been accidental. I’m simply looking forward to the next step, whatever that may be….’
Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour is published by Mitchell Beazley, £25, Hardback