Sabrina Ghayour moved to Yorkshire two years ago after falling in love with the county following a stay at the Black Swan in Oldstead. “My friends all thought I was mad,” she says. “My business was in London (she has a cookery school and supper club) and they couldn’t understand why I would want to leave the city to move to a small Yorkshire village. But when the pandemic hit they all suddenly realised that I’d made the best move.”
The past year has been one of mixed emotions for the Iranian-born chef, whose most recent cookbook, Simply, was published in the middle of the pandemic last July.
Although she was a confirmed singleton with no intention of finding love when she moved north from London with her mother, Ghayour recently became engaged and plans to marry later this year. “He’s not a Yorkshireman, he’s a Geordie,” she says laughing. “Although I am working on him – he’s a Yorkshireman in training.”
Another big change is that she has two stepsons aged eight and 12. “Suddenly it went from being me and my mum to five of us,” says Ghayour, although the two boys spend half the time at their mother’s.
The wedding is due to take place at Chelsea Town Hall where the likes of Judy Garland and Wallis Simpson got married and there were rumours that George Clooney had intended to marry Amal Alamuddin there.
“My mum has recently moved back to London and a lot of my friends are there,” she says. Although the couple will marry in London, they do intend to make Yorkshire their home. “He’s extremely relaxed and laid back,” she says of her fiancé.
But while she has found love, Ghayour says she initially struggled with the first lockdown. Like for so many people, her work slowed, she was no longer able to travel between Yorkshire and London and her trips abroad had to stop.
“I normally spend more than about half of the year abroad,” says the 45-year-old. “Also my work dried up in a big way. I had to refund all the bookings for my supper clubs and cookery school, which was a huge financial loss for me, and I had no idea where the work was going to come from.
“But then, once we all started to get used to the ‘new norm’ and companies realised that we did have the technology to allow us to work from home, things started to come in again.
“But I still felt very low, which is not like me. I am normally an extremely positive person who just gets on with things. Then one of my friends said ‘you are a social butterfly and you’ve had your wings clipped’ and they were so right.”
Ghayour works with Waitrose filming online recipes and videos. “I was nervous at first but I completely trust the film crew as I have worked with them for a long time. I am lucky in a lot of ways as there aren’t many people that cook Persian food and so I am in demand.”
Ghayour was born in Tehran but left when her family fled Iran when she was just two, settling in London with her mother and grandmother. Strong women are a feature in her life.
But cooking wasn’t necessarily their strong suit and so Ghayour taught herself to cook by watching the few TV chefs that were around in the 1980s, such as Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom.
Although she enjoyed cooking she never saw it as a career, instead studying business and finance at college. But she realised very quickly that this wasn’t for her and went into hospitality.
She worked her way up in hotel management before moving into events and marketing, mainly for London restaurants. However, in 2011 she was made redundant, leaving her with a lot of debt.
She moved back in with her mother and was determined not to be beaten. “I am a real believer in the fact that everything happens for a reason,” she says.
“I was determined to fight back. At the end of the day you 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.”
After a number of jobs she decided to launch her own supper club specialising in Persian and Middle Eastern cuisine. The club proved an immediate hit and then a book offer followed.
“My cooking is inspired by Persian cuisine, but it is really simple home-style cooking. I never thought it would be particularly suitable for a cookery book – or why anyone would want to buy it.”
Ghayour couldn’t have been more wrong. Her first book, Persiana, published in 2014, became a runaway success, topping the bestseller lists and winning Best Cookbook of the Year 2015 from Food and Travel Magazine. It is also the first cookbook to be shortlisted in Waterstones’ Book of the Year awards and has gone on to sell more than a quarter of a million copies in the UK and been published in 14 countries.
Since then Ghayour has written four more best-selling cookery books, the most recent, Simply, coming out last summer. Until the pandemic she was a regular guest on television cookery shows and at food festivals.
But the pandemic has changed all that. Although work is coming in increasingly, Ghayour says it will be a long time before things get back to normal for her.
“I am still not happy being around too many people and I am turning down more work than I am accepting at the moment,” she says.
“I won’t be doing food festivals any time soon even though I love them and they are lucrative. I just don’t feel happy in crowds.”
The same goes for public transport, which is why she hasn’t been on our screen so often. “I did do Saturday Kitchen recently but I was travelling to London anyway. But before then it really wasn’t essential for me to go down there and so I didn’t. I love Saturday Kitchen and I feel very safe as they are all so respectful and careful about social distancing and keeping you safe.”
Having said that, she is looking forward to going back to restaurants, so long as she feels safe. “I really miss eating out – it helps with my own creativity,” she says.
“I can’t believe that so many restaurants and jobs will have been lost due to the pandemic. It is our duty to support them when they reopen, even if it is just going to a local cafe for a coffee. The hospitality industry has been so badly hit by what has happened, we need to support it.”
Simply: Easy Everyday Dishes by Sabrina Ghayour is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £26, www.octopusbooks.co.uk
Recipes from Simply will be free to collect everyday this week in the Yorkshire Post