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Selin Kiazim: "People are trying, but there's still a long way to go"

The acclaimed chef talks to Molly Codyre about how a trip to New Zealand set the wheels in motion for her career, the power of fusion cooking and the dichotomy between male and female chefs on TV

As a New Zealander living an entire world away from home and writing about food, it’s surprising how often my home country ends up being woven into someone’s story in some way or another. More often than not, that connecting thread tends to be Peter Gordon, the legend of fusion cooking and seriously successful Kiwi export. I’m loath to centre a man in any woman’s story, but here, for Selin Kiazim at least, the early years of her career are tied up with Gordon and, by association, New Zealand.

Kiazim did a three year chef’s diploma at Westminster Kingsway College where, at the time, there was a competition for final year students. The prize? A trip to New Zealand, including work experience at one of Gordon’s restaurants. “I was literally still in my third year of college, so I was very very junior,” Kiazim tells me. “It was the furthest I’d been away from home on my own. I remember being very green and very shy.” The trip took her around the country, from Auckland to Wellington and Queenstown and, of all places, Masterton. We joke about the latter, a place which hardly needs to be on any visitor’s must-see list, let alone a budding chef hoping to gain culinary experience.

It was through her work at Gordon’s Auckland restaurant that Kiazim met the much-loved chef. “I remember being in his kitchen in Auckland and he was like ‘Oh, what are you going to do after college?’ I said I needed a job, but I didn't really know where to go. So I asked if he had any positions at The Providores, and he said ‘Yeah, we’re actually looking, why don’t you come and do a trial?’” She did, and hardly looked back. “From the moment that I met Peter, he stood out as a different chef. Everyone I had met up until that point, whether it was via work experience, or the chefs at college and stuff like that, I’m not saying they were bad people, but there was that typical chef macho this and that. I just felt like you get told off for doing anything. Whereas Peter was just this super friendly guy who treated you like an adult, which I was. So was everyone.”

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She spent two and a half years at The Providores, before moving on to help him open Kopapa, and eventually becoming head chef there. It was ultimately itchy feet that drew her away from the Gordon empire. We talk about the drive to achieve things when we’re young, but also the desire not to be, as she says, “an older chef stuck behind the stove, because you end up resenting it.” It was this combination of factors that led her to branch out on her own. “By the time I settled into The Providores and got into my groove as a young chef I thought 'I want to have my own place,'” Kiazim tells me. “I needed to learn how to do this and climb up the ladder in certain positions, I was very focused on that. I set myself the target of opening my own restaurant before I was 30.”

Once she’d ticked off that senior experience as head chef at Kopapa – she was only 25 at the time – she took the leap out on her own. “It was 2013 when I left there. And around that time the whole pop-up, supper club scene was really bursting. And I thought, okay, let me give this a go and see if anyone’s into the sort of food that I want to cook,” she tells me. “At the time I didn’t know that I was going to do Turkish food. I knew I wanted to cook over fire, because it’s always been an obsession of mine, but I didn’t know necessarily what sort of food to do. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that there were all of these different cultures and foods on the scene in London and it gave me the confidence to be like, well, why not do it with Turkish food?”

The more I thought about it, I realised that there were all of these different cultures and foods on the scene in London and it gave me the confidence to be like, well, why not do it with Turkish food?

If you’ve eaten Kiazim’s food you’ll know that while it’s anchored in Turkish cuisines, there’s something about it that transcends boundaries. To try and pin down various dishes and flavour profiles seems futile when Kiazim has brought her own spin to the ingredients of her upbringing. She partly attributes this to her time working with Gordon, and his unique ability to mesh flavours from various cuisines. “Growing up with my grandmother’s cooking and then going to learn about classical French cuisine, I was like I love food and I want to learn about food from everywhere,” Kiazim tells me. “Peter was the guy who had a little bit of everything in his pantry. It’s about cooking without boundaries – there’s no rules. That’s what I learned from him. It doesn’t always work, and I don’t cook in a huge fusion sense now, but I always use the example of if I think something needs a salty kick, maybe it’s not going to be salt that goes into it, maybe it’s going to be a bit of soy sauce or a bit of fish sauce or a bit of miso. You may not necessarily know it’s there, I may not mention it on the menu, but I think it just adds a certain dimension to the cooking.”

Even in a career where Kiazim was largely under the tutelage of Gordon – a chef known for fostering positive kitchen environments – and then at the wheel of her own ship, there have still been moments where sexism has crept in and difficult experiences have occurred. She tells me about being head chef at Kopapa when she was 25, and one co-worker in particular making things difficult for her, calling him a “slightly rotten egg”. I can’t help but get the impression that Kiazim believes this wouldn’t have been the case had she been an older man. Instead, he didn’t take her authority as a young woman seriously.

As Kiazim’s career has progressed and Oklava has continued to receive much-deserved attention, her profile has unsurprisingly risen. It becomes clear, though, when we start discussing being a woman in the industry, that with this higher profile comes two things: a clearer image of the industry as a whole, and more desire to speak about it. “I always used to say that when it came to being a woman in the industry, I don’t really have any particular stories but I know things go on,” she tells me. “I think in more recent years there have been clear instances where, being on TV, there are one or two who go on to become quite big, and I think a big part has to do with them being male. And the fact that people will be like ‘Oh, that’s the hunky chef with the tattoos’.”

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“I think we all know it goes on, but don’t really want to believe it,” she continues. “There are other quite well known female chefs that I know as friends, and when I speak to them about it, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I totally know what you mean.’ We all have our own stories, and none of us want to talk about it, because you don’t want to be known for that. It is really basic, it should just be about your restaurant and your talent, not to do with looks or whether you’re male or female or anything else. People are slowly trying to address these things, but there’s still a very long way to go.”

In keeping with her desire to not become an old, grumpy chef still slaving away on the tools, Kiazim now lives part time in Amsterdam. She remains hush hush about whether a project there might be on the cards, but says some distance from the rat race of kitchen work means she’s more creative than ever. “I have the mental capacity to actually really stop and develop dishes and push them to the absolute maximum,” she says. For a chef as overachieving as Kiazim that can only mean one thing: London diners are in for a treat.

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