Sabrina Ghayour

14th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noemie Reijnen

14th March 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noemie Reijnen

There is a feature in Sabrina Ghayour’s kitchen that she calls her “cupboard of doom”. Open it and you’re assaulted by a bewildering array of household items: crisps, cleaning products, champagne flutes, old china, lightbulbs, bubble bath, chopsticks, hairbrushes… They end up crammed in there because there’s so little storage space in this west London flat, where Sabrina has lived almost her whole life and in which, once a week, she hosts a hugely popular supper club. The fridge lives in her bedroom. Towers of cookbooks teeter Jenga-like in the hall. “It’s not conventional,” she says of her living arrangements – her mother lives here, as does Sabrina’s boyfriend Emanuele – “but then I think: what’s conventional?”

She started inviting strangers into her flat for dinner in 2011. The supper club is small – 12 people squeeze into the living room once a week to feast on a fold-up table – but it’s led to big things for its host. Sabrina’s first cookbook Persiana, which pays homage to her roots, steering an accessible course through Persian and Middle Eastern cuisine, was on the bestseller list for nine weeks last year. The response from readers has been overwhelming, she says: “On any given weekend I get up to 200 tweets, messages and emails from people around the world picturing whole feasts of Persiana dishes”

When we visit, exploiting a rare gap in Sabrina’s busy schedule, she makes us an inspired cavolo nero salad bulked out with store-cupboard staples. Though minuscule, her kitchen abounds with amazing ingredients; from obscure recesses she plucks preserved lemons, secret spice mixes and giant Portuguese tins of tuna. The word “riotous” describes Sabrina pretty well: she is hilarious on why she could never work in a conventional kitchen, on her disdain for coffee snobs, on her desire to grow old disgracefully and die in her favourite London restaurant.

After lunch we go for a wander around her neighbourhood, stopping for coffee at a local Italian deli. She’s a familiar face around here – the older shopkeepers and restaurant owners would remember Sabrina from when she was knee-high. We see the little park where she used to play as a kid and, on our way back up to the flat, she shows us some graffiti she once wrote in the lift. It may have its quirks – the fridge in the bedroom, the cupboard of doom – but this place feels like a proper home. It’s hard to imagine her ever moving out.

Continued below...

What got you interested in cooking?

I’m not really sure. My grandma had no interest in the kitchen, nor did my mother, but they were like, okay, whatever she wants to do. I was given my first cookbook when I was six – it was called something generic like French Cooking – and I started watching cookery shows on TV: Delia Smith, Madhur Jaffrey, Ken Hom. I was particularly interested in Ken Hom because there’s been a Chinese supermarket near my house forever…

So you grew up in this area?

I’ve lived in this flat for 36 years.

No! Really?

Yeah. First with my mother and my grandmother. My mother moved out for eight years to look after my grandma. When grandma died, mum moved back in. Then my boyfriend moved in. Three of us live here now. My mum’s not a normal mum. She’s a great mother but she’s more like having a cool flatmate who doesn’t bug you and is not a homebody at all.


Are you the homebody of the three?

I’m so the mum of the house. Those two always gang up against me: “She’s always moaning!” But the arrangement works. It’s not conventional, but then I think: what’s conventional?

Does your mum like food?

She loves food, but she’s a rubbish cook [laughs]. She’s incredibly difficult to please. My mum is not swayed by fine dining: “Two Michelins? That’s ridiculous for this much money.” She likes what she likes.

Does she like your cooking?

I tell you what, she’s pretty harsh. But she does like my cooking. She knows that one day she can have Brazilian food, then Jamaican, then Spanish. If she sees something on the telly, she points her finger and goes: “Ooh, you should make that”. And I’m like: “I’m not Heston, I can’t just pull it out of the bag”. And she’ll be like: “Figure it out, you’ll be fine”. So she obviously has a degree of faith in me.

I used to joke with one of my head chefs: “I would only take one of those frying pans and lamp you with it”

When did you actually start cooking for the family?

I was knocking up stir-fries and noodles by the time I was seven – it really wasn’t that hard. A lot of it was using Uncle Ben’s ready-made sauces and rice. And I can remember making cakes with my mum from Betty Crocker mixes. It doesn’t really matter what you cook when you’re a kid, just as long as you had fun in the kitchen.

Did you decide early on that you wanted to do something in food?

No, I had no intention of cooking professionally. It never even occurred to me. The path that I was on was events and marketing in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

That’s still connected with food.

I suppose so. I do like having my fingers in the food pie, so to speak. Quite a few of the chefs I worked for were like: “You should really be in the kitchen”, and I was like: “Nah forget it”.

Why did you say that?

I was in my mid-20s by then and I thought, I’m a bit grumpy to take your flack. I’m still a bit gobby, but not like I was then. I used to joke with one of my head chefs: “I would only take one of those frying pans and lamp you with it, so what’s the point?” [laughs] He’d say: “But seriously, you belong in a kitchen.”

Why would he say that?

Because I spent so much time around chefs looking and asking questions. I’d say: “I’ve got a date tonight, what should I cook?” And, minus the lewd suggestions, I’d take tips and make suggestions of my own and he’d be like: “Oh, wow, that’s a good idea.” He’s still my friend to this day[footnote]She’s talking about Herbert Berger, formerly executive chef at One Lombard St [/footnote]. When I finally did start cooking, he was like: “Ha, I knew it!”

How did the supper club come about?

I always used to say: “These supper club people, they’re all loons. I’d never set one of those up.” But then I lost my job during the recession and I was like: “Ah. I don’t want to go back into the restaurant industry. What am I going to do?” Not much thought went into it. I made a joke[footnote]In response to Thomas Keller opening a £250-a-head pop-up version of The French Laundry in Harrods, she announced her attention to do a pop-up of her own, The French Laundrette, for £2.50 a head [/footnote] and it kicked off on Twitter and I ended up doing my first pop-up. That was in October 2011. It was the blind leading the blind, which is the best way sometimes. At first I was doing Spanish and pan-Asian stuff, but then narrowed it down to Persian and Middle Eastern, because I guess that’s what people wanted from me.

Describe the supper club.

It’s very intimate – just 12 seats – and there’s loads of food: 10 dishes to share. The guests are a total mishmash of people from different cultures. I often wonder, how are these people going to get along, but they just do. They have a great time and then they roll out of the house because they’ve had so much food.

Sounds great.

Yeah, well, when in doubt, feed them senseless.

How often do you do it?

It’s every week. It’s taxing. The other day someone asked me: “So when are you opening a restaurant?” I’m like: “I’m not.” I worked in restaurants for 16 years. You can be rich, well connected, have the lowest food costs, and it can still all go tits up. Realistically I’m not prepared to be married to any job that 16-17 hours a day, six or seven days a week, with very little financial reward. Because let’s be honest, it’s really tough to make money in the restaurant industry, and I don’t need to have my name over a door. I like doing a little bit of everything: diversity keeps things interesting. I probably make more money in one night, even though it’s not a lot, than any restaurateur gets to put in their pocket after paying their staff, their rent, their food, and so on.

Do you have anyone helping you?

No. I’m the cook, the waitress, the cleaner, the marketing girl, the reservationist. My flat can’t accommodate another person – one more person and I think the ceiling or the floor or something will probably collapse. And I think people appreciate the experience all the more. People want to see you. If I paid £40, I would want to see whose food I was eating.

What else are you doing?

As well as the supper club, I do private catering and dining, cookery classes – I teach at Divertimenti and Leiths[footnote]Upmarket cookery schools in central and west London [/footnote] – and then I do food festivals and shows like BBC Good Food. I do little bit of consulting, a little bit of writing.


On supper club nights, do your mum and boyfriend vacate the premises?

At the start I would sit my mother down with the guests, but then she’d be whipping out the photo album and I was like: “No! You are never coming back.” My boyfriend just hotfoots it out of here.

On your nights off, who cooks?

For the safety of everyone involved, my mother does not cook. But my boyfriend is great. He’s Italian and really good with Italian recipes.

My guests roll out of the house because they’ve had so much food. When in doubt, feed them senseless

The classic stuff?

Yeah. I have to be realistic and say that living with me probably thwarts his confidence a little bit. He’s like: “I know my risotto’s not right”, and I’m like: “It’s great, what are you talking about? It’s your nerves bleeding into your food, that’s all it is.” But he makes great pastas, risottos, bruschetta, and sometimes that’s just what I want. The problem is that he doesn’t have the one-pot rule with risotto – and I’d rather cook than clean up afterwards. Whereas he’s great at cleaning up.

So it’s usually you doing the cooking then.

Yes, but cooking doesn’t have to be a big faff. I’ll come home after a 14-hour day and quickly grill some chicken in the oven or throw together a salad. I can put a meal on the table in 15 minutes most of the time. I can also just chuck a stew together the night before and have it ready for the next day. It’s all about planning. Sometimes I feel like a mother of two.


Any cooking tips you’d like to share with us?

If you’re ever doing mushrooms at home, put them into a scorching pan to get all the water out. Don’t stir them. Then, when the water has dried out, add the oil. Also, never wash mushrooms. If you must wash them, leave them for five hours in a tea towel to soak all the water up.

Do you eat out a lot?

When I’ve got time. Persians and Italians are big social animals, so yeah we do eat out a lot.

If I want Americano with 20 shots of milk and fake sugar in it, don’t give me gyp. I hate snobbery that comes in any business. I’m paying for it, don’t talk down to me

Any good places locally?

This area’s dreadful for food. Yo! Sushi in High Street Kensington is about as exciting as it gets. There’s Min Jiang at the top of Royal Garden Hotel, but who the hell is going to pay £80-100 per person on a regular basis?

Do you have a comfort food?

It’s hard to say because my repertoire is quite big, in the sense that my mum and I love flavours from around the world. So one day my comfort food could be jerk chicken, rice and peas. The next it could be a Persian stew or a shepherd’s pie. It’s usually something involving carbs. We’re not afraid of carbs in our house. Or butter.

Is there anything you don’t or can’t eat?

I’m not an insect person. People say: “Eventually we’re going to be eating insects”, and I’m like: “Yeah, but that’s not right now though”. I don’t care how it tastes – if it tastes like chicken, I’ll eat chicken, thanks. I’m also not the biggest fan of offal; however if you put some in front of me in a restaurant, I’m likely to eat it.

Are you a snob about food in any way?

I’m a coffee snob in that I hate going into wanky coffee places that won’t do coffee my way. If I want fricking Americano with 20 shots of milk and fake sugar in it, don’t give me gyp. I hate snobbery that comes in any business. I’m paying for it, don’t talk down to me. If you want to drink instant, who am I to judge? I get flack on Twitter sometimes if I buy cheese from Sainsbury’s. Bugger off! It’s a perfectly good cheese and it’s convenient. Sorry I’m not loaded enough to drive my Jag over to some fancy cheese shop in Chelsea.

On The Menu

Lunch with Sabrina Ghayour
London, January 2015

To eat:

Spicy cavolo nero and mushroom salad »
Kermani Gaz nougat

To drink:


How do you structure your day around food. Is breakfast an important meal?

I’d like to say yes. However I haven’t had it today and most days I never get the chance to – and by the time I do it’s lunchtime. I make breakfast for my other half more than for myself. He’ll go to the gym on weekends and I’ll make him a big old feta-dill-chilli-herb kind of scramble for when he gets back. I’m like, god I really should make one of these for myself some day.

So your day begins with lunch?

Yeah but even if it’s one o’clock I’ll start with crumpets. If I’m going out to a restaurant, I’ll usually go for lunch instead of dinner. I’m not really with the queue-outside-a-restaurant-for-donkey’s-years crowd. I can’t be bothered. I like my comforts.

So lunch is your main meal of the day?

What? No! Dinner is always the biggest meal in my house.

To find out more about Sabrina, have a look at her website





Posted 14th March 2015

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Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Noemie Reijnen

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