Her love affair with food began when she was just 6 years old. Inspired to recreate some of the dishes she had seen on television by celebrated chefs Ken Hom and Madhur Jaffrey, Sabrina Ghayour pored over cookbooks searching for recipes to try out in the family kitchen.
“The first dish I ever created was actually a Cantonese dish of wonton soup! Ever since I was given my first cookbook, I’ve just loved cooking, and reading cookbooks repeatedly from cover to cover. I can’t tell you what it is about them but I guess they are a window into other cultures, other people’s kitchens and weird and wonderful ingredients from around the world,” Ghayour said.
Born in Tehran, Ghayour moved to London in 1979 at the beginning of the Iranian revolution. Her parents separated around the same time — her father moved to Los Angeles with his new wife, while Ghayour, her mother and grandmother settled in west London.
“They don’t cook, so when I started pottering about in the kitchen, my grandmother would always say: ‘Darling girl, why do you want to cook? Why don’t we just buy a readymade meal and save you all the hassle?’ It always made me laugh — she saw cooking as a chore and never knew why I loved it so much,” the 38-year-old said laughingly.
Even as her passion and culinary repertoire grew, Ghayour wouldn’t have the opportunity to capitalise on her skills until, after working in events and marketing for restaurateurs for 15 years, she was made redundant in 2011.
“It was around that time that Thomas Keller was doing his £250 [Dh1,550]-a-head pop-up version of The French Laundry in Harrods. I was hoping to go, it was out of my price range, so I joked on Twitter that I’d do my own version, called The French Laundrette, for £2.50 [Dh15] per person instead,” Ghayour said.
Within hours, she received more than 30 bookings on Twitter, so she began to make arrangements. Ghayour found a restaurant, which let her use its premises on a Sunday when it was closed and agreed to provide her with the ingredients. Then she got another stroke of luck — Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social team offered to do her front-of-house services.
“In the end, I served more than 80 people and raised more than £4,000 for Action Against Hunger, an incredible charity I’ve been working with for more than ten years now. My grandmother always taught me about being charitable and how important it was to give back when you can,” she said.
As a result of the success of The French Laundrette, Ghayour began hosting supper clubs, which led to private catering opportunities and then organising Persian cooking classes.
Ghayour told Weekend Review the secret to her success: “I ensure I deliver a consistent high standard of food, service and good value. For example, when it comes to the supper clubs, they are a social experiment ... food isn’t the only aspect of the evening, it’s really about who comes, the ambience and how people get along. As my dinners are quite intimate, with a maximum of 12 people, everyone always tends to hit it off.”
Ghayour noted, however, that as a self-employed chef, food writer and hostess of Sabrina’s Kitchen Supperclubs, it had been tricky balancing her professional and personal lives.
“There are many blurred lines and I cannot afford to switch off at any hour of the day ... which is harder for my loved ones. It’s frustrating for them at times, although they understand it’s just what I need to do to survive. But I do sometimes just need to be reminded to relax, as sometimes you honestly do forget!” she said.
Ghayour added that “this journey has been eye-opening, inspiring and educational. If you’re smart, you push yourself to learn from everything and everyone around you. Food culture and trends are constantly evolving but looking back, I have finally managed to stop, take a deep breath and be proud of my achievements.”
Even as she enjoyed her success, little did she know that her culinary path would take yet another turn — the prospect of having her own cookbook published.
“Strangely, ‘Persiana’ almost wrote itself! Octopus Publishing came to my Supperclub and loved it, and offered me a deal within a week. As I had been doing supper clubs for two years by then, as well as teaching and catering privately, the bulk of my recipes had been tested, written up and kept on my laptop, thankfully, which did make things quite a bit easier,” Ghayour said.
‘Persiana’, which will be released in June, is a collection of 100 recipes. They feature Ghayour’s take on traditional Persian and Middle Eastern flavours, with the aim of demystifying them and making them more accessible for those from other cultures to try out and enjoy.
“When I first taught myself how to make Persian and Middle Eastern food as a teenager, it was all about authenticity and getting the balance of flavours right ... but now I tend to make changes to simplify the cooking process, because, let’s face it, we can all be lazy, right? I also made slight modifications to further enhance a dish or make it more accessible,” Ghayour said.
When asked if she had any favourite dishes or comfort foods, Ghayour seemed torn: “Oh gosh, that is a tough one. My mood dictates much of what I eat but I can tell you, the older I get, the simpler and less complicated my tastes and preferences become. A good bowl of noodles can do wonders for me and lots of interesting salads with simple grilled meat are a favourite. Nostalgic foods are usually anything I ate as a pupil or at home, things like Pot Noodles, Birdseye Crispy beef pancakes or fish fingers.”
There are several Persian and Middle Eastern dishes that count among her favourites, whether Persian Ghormeh Sabzi stew, which is lamb, herb, kidney bean and dried limes with rice, or Iraqi Kibbeh Halab — moulded rice dumplings stuffed with minced meat and deep-fried.
“Ghormeh Sabzi has been my absolute favourite ever since I was a child ... its smell sums up my childhood in a culinary sense. My grandmother’s sister, who’s married to an Iraqi, is a great cook ... some of my best childhood memories feature endless Kibbeh Halab, which always bring a smile on my face ... although a good old English roast is pretty hard to beat too!” Ghayour said.
Ahead of the official launch of her cookbook, Ghayour is busy as ever, preparing for television appearances, lining up collaborations with fellow chefs and restaurants, along with public-cooking demonstrations. So how does she relax?
“My favourite hobby is sleeping! Something I don’t get to do very often. Any rare time off I get is usually spent doing laundry and housework or catching up on the mountains of admin work that needs my attention. I do like the odd lazy day, walking around my area with my boyfriend, sometimes cycling around Hyde Park or going to the movies,” Ghayour said.
She also revealed that she had taken a holiday in Thailand a few months ago to rest and recharge for the days ahead, which she admits will be the busiest part of her career so far.
“I love travelling and am a total travel junkie. Anywhere and everywhere, I want to see it, do it, love it and experience it. But with the book coming out, I’m not certain when my next break will be, so I made sure I got as much rest as possible while in Thailand!” Ghayour said.
The accomplished chef also acknowledged that in spite of the stress and hectic days, she always feels incredibly blessed to have achieved so much in such a short time.
“I always dreamt of one day having my own book published but I didn’t really think I would become a chef, so I’m still kind of in shock about the whole thing really! That’s the beauty of life’s little twists and turns ... you simply never know what you will be doing or where you will end up next. Isn’t it wonderful?” Ghayour said, smiling.
Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.