Sabrina Ghayour, award-winning author of best-selling Middle Eastern cookery books Persiana, Bazaar and Sirocco, a regular on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen and guest judge on MasterChef, came to my kitchen where I cooked her amazing baklava buns and we chatted till the cows came home.
Emma Did you train as a chef?
Sabrina No. Never. But I worked for 17 years in restaurants. I’ve worked in McDonald’s, Pret, I’ve done all the jobs in hotels from switchboard operator to running events and I spent loads of time waitressing when I co-ordinated functions, plus a lot of time in the kitchen. I can run front of house, back of house, I can look at a restaurant with bad service and know exactly what the problem is. There are very few roles in any hotel or restaurant I haven’t done.
E Has not being trained ever made you feel ‘less than’ in such a hierarchical industry?
S I don’t feel that way, because I know myself and what I’m bad at, and I’m perfectly open, because there’s no shame in not knowing everything about everything. They say that, in business, the people who are most successful are the ones that don’t have a paper education. Heston Blumenthal didn’t train and maybe, if he did, he wouldn’t be making spherical bubbles of salt and vinegar or whatever.
E Where do you get this confidence from?
S I’m a really hard worker, and I know what I’m capable of. I started work when I was 10, wrapping eggs in a Chinese supermarket for a pound an hour. I’ve always earned my own money and I’ve always cooked.
S I had to – my mother can’t cook to save her life. We lived in Iran till I was two, but when the revolution came, streets were being commandeered and women were being arrested if they weren’t covered up. My grandmother is a glamorous, fierce woman who always refused to be told what to do, so me, my mum and my grandma fled to London. In the UK, I was the one who cooked every family meal. The only thing that was always instilled in me was ‘have your own ship’. When things aren’t working, never depend on anyone else.
E Things stopped working so well in your 30s…
S I was working in event planning, but in 2011 I was made redundant for the third time. I was unhappy at work, unhappy with myself and broke. But the best things have happened to me when I’ve been in trouble. I’d lost my job, was £40k in debt and I started doing word-of-mouth catering jobs. That was when I realised it was the only thing I was really good at.
E Is that when you began your famous supper club?
S Yes, I started to think about doing a private supper club, and somebody told me I could never do it. I love a challenge, so it was the best thing they could have said. A famous chef was advertising a seven-course dinner for £250 a head, so on Twitter I said, ‘I’ll do a seven-course dinner for £2.50 – and give all the money to charity.’ People were like ‘What?’ It gathered momentum. I was inundated with offers to help, all via Twitter; farmers offered me food, a whole kitchen brigade wanted to get involved. We ended up with 80 diners, though we could have booked a thousand, and I made £4,000 for the charity. Boom, career formed.
E What happened next?
S I began smaller supper clubs in my living room, with no help, because I had no money. I’d start prep at 8am and finish at 2am. I’d charge people £40 deposits, make everything fresh, and put on more food than most human beings know what to do with. It was 27 hours of labour for every supper club, earning £200 a time. But I realised that people really wanted Persian food.
E How did that lead to your first book?
S In 2013 a publisher rocked up to dine – she came back a fortnight later with an editor. The next day I was offered a book deal. They said they wanted my recipes ‘and baba ghanoush’. I said, ‘No. Nobody needs another baba ghanoush recipe. I don’t want to be a slot-filler, that person writing another Middle Eastern cookery book.’ They said, ‘OK. Write whatever you want.’
E What does Persian food do to your heart?
S It takes me home. It doesn’t matter where in the world I am, or who has cooked it, in my head it takes me back to being a kid, to loads of family, to being sociable. That’s the thing about Persians, we’re incredibly excitable: a standard Persian party is eight guests, 18 dishes and enough food for at least 30 people. It would be rude if there wasn’t.
E Your books are insanely popular now, but you’ve said success can be a double-edged sword.
S You can’t be flavour of the month with everyone. I’ve always been Marmite for people, because I’m a woman who is often at the centre of a room, because I’m always chatting, and I’m noisy, which is intimidating for a lot of people. I’m Persian, I’m British, I’m a good cook, I’m a good laugh, I’m an absolute liability on a night out, and I’m a control freak. I’m really scrutinising how you make my baklava buns.
E I am particularly fond of the instruction to baste them with butter in the tray halfway through cooking. By the time they come out, they’ve soaked it all up.
S Yup. It makes them nice and juicy on the inside. You’re doing a great job.
E Now we drizzle them with honey. Here’s a suggestion: we could mix orange blossom water in with the honey before we drizzle it. How do you like them apples?
S I do like that, actually.
The buns are ready and Sabrina bites into one.
E So, how is it?
S Dream scenario, my mouth is full, I can’t talk. Though, jeez Louise, you say I’m bossy.
Find the recipe for baklava buns in the March 2020 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
Recipe adapted from Bazaar (£26, Octopus).
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.