Acclaimed Persian chef Sabrina Ghayour has just moved to Yorkshire after ‘falling in love’ with the county. Catherine Scott went to visit her in her new home and try out recipes from her new book Bizaar.
It was while staying at Tommy Banks’s Black Swan at Oldstead, that Sabrina Ghayour first fell in love with Yorkshire.
“I thought ‘I really like this place’. It was freezing but the sun was shining and I could really see myself living in Yorkshire. I fell in love,” says the British-Iranian food writer who has just published her fourth Persian inspired cookery book Bazaar.
Within a matter of months she had bought a house in a small North Yorkshire village near York with her mum. They are in the process of renovating the property, including plans for a bigger kitchen so that she can do the thing she loves most, cook for people.
“I’m not a procrastinator so if I want something I generally go for it. I have lived in London since I was two but have never owned anywhere. I am in my early 40s and I decided it was time I bought a house,” says Ghayour, who was forced to leave Iran with her mother during the revolution 40 years ago.
“The house isn’t what I expected to buy but it has an amazing garden and the elderly couple who lived in it before me were so lovely. It just felt right.”
But it wasn’t just the scenery that stole Ghayour’s heart. “Yorkshire people are amazing and I really want to be part of the community. It doesn’t matter what country you are from I think you have a job to fit in and get on with the people around you.”
And then there are the producers. She may have only been in Yorkshire for a matter of months but Ghayour is already familiar – if not friends – with a lot of local producers, inviting many to celebrate Persian New Year with her and her mum at their new home – cooking of course from her new book.
Staal Smokehouse, Haxby Bakehouse, Yorkshire Dama Cheese, Steenbergs – she is as excited as a kid in a sweet shop. Ghayour still spends half her time in London where she runs cookery classes that are booked up to five months in advance.
Although she has never returned to her native Iran since her family fled, it is clear she feels an affinity with her heritage which shines through not only her food but her lifestyle,
However, she admits it wasn’t always so. “I was only two when we moved to the UK. Mum had studied in England and my grandmother was here, so when we had to leave Iran, leaving everything behind, London was the natural choice.” Ghayour is clearly proud of the female side of her family with both her grandmother and mother being huge influences on her, but when it came to cooking, she says, they weren’t her inspiration.
“Like most middle class Iranian families we had a cook and so neither my grandmother nor mother cooked,” recalls Ghayour. “And so when we moved to London in the 70s it was the rise of convenience food and we embraced it.” And so her culinary influences all came from the television.
“I used to watch Ken Hom and Madhur Jaffrey from around the age of five and I was fascinated. I loved to experiment. We were lucky enough to have a Chinese supermarket round the corner from our house and so I took it upon myself to cook wanton soup – I was only five. It was a time of experimentation and I just loved it and ended up doing most of the cooking in the house, including Christmas dinner from a very young age.”
Although she loved cooking it never occurred to Ghayour that you could make a career out of it.
“It wasn’t a ‘respectable’ career. It’s not what parents hope for, especially if you are from another culture. They want you to have an occupation like a doctor or lawyer.” Ghayour was a bright pupil at school in Fulham but she had a ‘reality check’ when she failed to achieve top marks in her GCSEs.
“My family are really academic, my mum has a degree in political science, there was a lot of pressure on me to do well. But I had started enjoying myself too much to study. I wasn’t bad, but I was just having fun.” She went to college to study business and finance because ‘it was expected’. But she realised very quickly it wasn’t for her and so went into hospitality.
“I never thought about becoming a chef.” Instead she worked her way up in hotel management, learning virtually every aspect of the industry, before moving into events and marketing mainly for London restaurants. She worked for one of her clients for four years running their corporate events, but in 2011 she was made redundant and Ghayour’s world came crashing down.
“I had debts on my shoulders, my grandmother had died, I was 35 – it was a difficult time. I was lucky my mum had a flat in London so at least I had a roof over my head. It does affect you emotionally but that year really made me who I am. I was determined to fight back. You think you can’t do it, but at the end of the day you just have to get off your backside and take any job you can get to pay the bills and feed yourself. Push me into a corner and I will come out fighting.”
A turning point came for Ghayour when she heard that Thomas Keller was holding a London pop up of his famous French Laundry.
“I’d waited all year for him to come and then I found out that it was going to be in Harrods and cost £250 for a ticket so I thought it probably wasn’t sensible, having just lost my job. I joked on Twitter that I should do my own for £2.50 and call it The French Launderette. The next day it went viral.” Not one to miss a marketing opportunity and with offers of free produce and a venue if it went ahead with Ghayour giving the profits – more than £4,000 – to charity. It also led to her setting up her supper club Sabrina’s Kitchen specialising in Persian cooking which she taught herself. Numerous people who visited her supper clubs said she should bring out a cookery book, with the suggestion of deals which never materialised.
“I never really believed them,” she says. “My cooking is inspired by Persian cuisine, but it is really very simple home-style cooking. I never thought it would be particularly suitable for a cookery book or why anyone would want to buy it.”
But then one day a serious offer did come through and while shooting Persiana, Ghayour said she felt it was going to be something special.
“I always had a feeling that something would happen in my life and when we were shooting Persiana I just had the feeling that this book was going to be a big deal.” And she wasn’t wrong – Persiana – Recipes from the Middle East and beyond published in 2014 became a runaway success topping the bestseller lists and winning the Best Cookbook of the Year 2015 award from Food and Travel Magazine.
Persiana is also first cookbook to ever be shortlisted in Waterstones ‘Book of the year’ awards and has gone on to sell over a quarter of a million copies in the UK alone and is published in 14 different countries.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted how successful it would be.” But then came the ‘tricky’ second book. Sirocco was a success but not on the scale of Persiana. Feasts followed and this month her fourth cookery book Bazaar was published, her first foray into vegetarian food.
“I was asked to do a vegetarian book for my second book but I refused. Iranians eat a lot of meat and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. But as time has moved on I am personally eating a lot less meat and so I decided the time was right to bring out a vegetarian book but I very much look on Bazaar as a vegetarian book for meat eaters.”
As well as living in Yorkshire, Ghayour is already working here doing courses at the recently opened Cookery School at the Grand Hotel in York.
And she wants to work closely with local producers and suppliers as she spends more time in her adopted new county.
Sabrina Ghayour will be at the Durham Ox, Crayke, for a talk, lunch and book signing on Thursday. Tickets available in advance cost £29.95 from thedurhamox.com/sabrina-ghayour-at-the-ox