We spoke to Sabrina Ghayour about her inspiration for creating the recipes with unearthed®, her latest cookbook, Sirocco (Mitchell Beazley, £25) and how she built up her career from running supper clubs in her home to becoming an award-winning chef and food writer, despite all the setbacks along the way…
You're a self-taught cook who started out with a blog and running a supper club from home. Did you always have a vision for where you wanted your business to go?
I always worked in restaurants, then I got into marketing. Then I was made redundant. Maybe it’s just because I really wanted to be in the kitchen, but I never understood that at the time. But getting to where I am now wasn't something I thought about; I just didn’t have a clue that this would end up being something that I did. Maybe also because of the degree of my first book, Persiana’s success. You could just not imagine how those things would happen.
Cooking is something that I’ve always done, thankfully, I think a lot of people just think that I just came out of nowhere and decided that I wanted to be a chef and that’s not true. I’ve cooked constantly for my whole life and I’m glad that I could make a career out of something that I love. But it just goes to show, sometimes when you do want something really badly, you can’t always make it happen, so sometimes the natural order of things is to just do what you need to at the time, and that can lead you to the paths that you need to take in life and the wisdom that you learn later in life rather than earlier.
Did you find it hard to keep going even when dealing with all the setbacks and negativity?
Oh, yes! As much as I’m a friendly, bouncy and bubbly girl, I also curled up in a ball and cried many times because I couldn’t put food in my fridge and I wasn’t used to not earning money. When I was made redundant, that was suddenly all cut off and I couldn’t buy things like food. I thought: ‘I’m in my mid-thirties and what a disgusting example to my mother I am’ of something that just went wrong. I really piled it all on myself and I’m the great over-thinker and psychologically, I’m my own worst enemy!
Was it the determination that got you through because you didn’t want to be in that place?
I definitely wanted to get out of that place and also, when you’re 35 and you’re faced with a challenge and you’ve done 100 hours a week in the restaurant industry, you’ve got to a point where you never want to do that again, so I didn’t even think that I had it in me, but when you need to earn money, you suddenly pull it out of the bag and I’m glad enough people came to my supper club to see I was the cook, the waitress, the cleaner, and the book author because I don’t even know how I did it. I still get people saying: ‘I don’t know how you did it' and I’m like: ‘well, I don’t know how I did it!’
Nothing lights a flame under your arse like the flame of poverty. I’m just so fortunate that, while I didn't really know what I was doing (maybe that was a gift, that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing) so I wasn’t telling people ‘oh no that’s not what I want to do’ I was like ‘If it earns money and it’s legal then I’m doing it!’ I did a little bit of everything and that was obviously supposed to be my path of sorts and I’m glad that it came to me later in life because if it would’ve come to me in my twenties, I don’t think that I would’ve known what to do.
At the beginning, I didn’t really have faith in myself because you just don’t know if what you’re doing is what people like so it takes a while, and it also takes wonderful tools like social media giving you that positive feedback. Yes, and it still keeps me going even today on Twitter I had total strangers saying to me: ‘you deserve it’ and I just had someone on Facebook message me saying: ‘Oh I just heard your radio interview in Australia, I don’t know your book or you or your recipes but you just seem like a nice person so I’m going to buy your book.’ It’s not something I would share publically, but it just gives me a kind of inner glow and little bit of a pat on the back.
Yes, I understand that. It’s like a reassurance from your audience, isn’t it?
Yes it is. I can go and go and go and work like a dog and pull it out of the bag, but a little bit of a pat on the back goes such a long way with me and my personality. I wish that I didn’t necessarily need that but it’s really nice because the biggest flattery is that I’m genuinely not being anyone other than who I am. I have good days and bad days and gobby days and grumpy days… in my twenties I would’ve pretended to be someone else because I thought that’s what people expected of me but now, I’m quite smug about it really! I don’t know how I got here in the first place, but it makes me feel happy!
How do you deal with the critics and the negativity?
I am a sensitive soul; I’m not going to lie. It doesn’t come across in my personality because I have a sharp tongue and a filthy temper, but when people are rude, that’s what makes me rude. I have to say I don’t really get trolled so I’m lucky, but then I’m very measured about what I put out there. I put out my personality, I put out my food, what I eat out and about.
I do involve myself in a little bit of self-promotion because I don’t have a PR company and I have to. lf someone is trying to aggravate me, I’m incredibly succinct at responding to them, ‘is this what you’re trying to say, let me clarify, before I kick off?’ Then they back off because most people are just wimps! I’m not a wimp; I’m a mentalist! There’s a whole lot of unnecessary energy going into proving myself, but the thing you realise when you’re older is that it’s just not worth it because if you’re trying to prove yourself to an idiot, you’re an idiot to try and make an idiot see things your way.
I don’t really have a lot of problems within the industry. There are definitely people who are perceived as my peers, people who I used to idealise, most of them women, and they definitely have shut me out since my success which I think is a sad reflection of them. Twitter reveals people’s real personalities and you can’t hide it if you’re a nasty jealous, spiteful person. I know that’s not personal because they do it to everyone and as you know, psychologically, that’s an imprint of what’s going on inside themselves and it’s very much about them and not me. But it hurts all the same because this person was once my friend and now they’re ignoring me and putting out spiteful tweets about you and I just confront them.
As my editor once said to me when Persiana first came out, she just said ‘Not everybody likes successful people, suck it up and deal with it because it’s their problem not yours,’ and I was just like ‘you know what, yeah she’s right.’ I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing because at the end of the day, my only concern is people cooking my recipes: do those recipes work, do they make them happy, do they feel inspired and feel that the book is value… yes. Bonus if they think that I’m nice because I responded to something or if they like my approach. It’s about what I do for a living and I only care about the people who buy the recipes and take them home. I’ve always said that other people’s opinions never paid my bills.
Do you enjoy teaching classes and public speaking?
Yes, I really do. The speaking is very nice but I still get really nervous before a class that I’ve taught a million times! What teaching others has taught me is how people’s minds work. Marketing is almost like psychology really – it’s understanding how to tap into people’s minds and understanding. It’s intriguing to get a variety of people through the door and understanding what freezes them to the kitchen and what makes them nervous to try things.
There are things that hold people back in the kitchen and if I can dispel those things, that's great. One of them might be: don’t be afraid just because Middle Eastern food has foreign names, this is just a pie and this is just a stew, and when you say that, people reply: ‘oh wow, I never thought of it like that.’ It brings that barriers down, then I take the experience of what I know people are scared or nervous of. That resonates with me because I’m not a natural baker and I had to work really, really hard to find recipes that I could just do in my head. Some people might panic that this recipe is a bit heavy on the fennel seeds, for example, so I pre-warn them in the book saying: this might not look like it will work but I promise that it’s supposed to be like this, don’t worry about appearance. My food isn’t perfection, it’s home-cooking, you know, you can cook it, I can cook it. If you didn’t have one ingredient, of course it’s going to look different, but it’s also totally OK. It’s just inspiration and ideas, I’m not too precious about it!
How do you feel about the label of ‘The Persian Girl’?
I’m flattered somebody’s still calling me ‘girl’ so I’ll take what I can get! I think that it’s wonderful. There is a lot of pride within the community and Middle Eastern people in general and that’s lovely. The other side of it is that whatever I cook, people say ‘Persian flavours'. I notice hashtags that people use and sometimes I'm introduced as ‘Queen of Persian cuisine’ or something. I think ‘OK, we now need to move to Middle Eastern because it’s not all Persian,’ but then again, who cares? It doesn’t really matter what you label things; what matters is that people are making Persian recipes who weren’t making Persian recipes before from Persiana and that really makes me happy. I’m always going to be proud of being British and Persian.
When I used to work in restaurants, Action Against Hunger approached us to see if they could hold one of their dinners at Lombard Street, so we bonded then. Then in 2007, they called me in to run their ‘Taste of London’ project because I was an event manager so I worked a summer there. After that, I had got in touch with unearthed® for something who supported me when I raised money for Haiti, and unearthed® have gone on to raise over £500,000 for Action for Hunger, which is amazing.
The product I've put my name to is the Olive and Feta Cheese mix. People need something simple so let's stir something tasty into pasta with chilli flakes and extra garlic, and let's just grab a pack of pastry and some extra feta and roll them up. They’re my two favourites types of olives and I’m a feta junkie! I also put lemon zest on everything, in everything and over everything, so it was quite easy to come up with really!
unearthed® and Sabrina’s Mixed Olives, Artichokes & Feta is a sumptuous blend of Greek Kalamata and Halkidiki olives, Italian chargrilled artichokes and crumbly feta with an olive oil, lemon zest and oregano marinade, £3.49 or 2 for £5 from Waitrose and Ocado. 10p from every pack sold will be donated to Action Against Hunger.
Main photograph of Sabrina: Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton