When we saw Selin’s instagram post about Laurence’s journey through her business, we knew that we needed to hear more about this inspirational story; an amazing example for fellow employers about how to hire for attitude – and teach the skills along the way.
“Laurance came to me looking for a junior sous role, I said, Look, I really need a sous & I have a good feeling about you. He said, OK, let’s do it. So we opened Kyseri (rest her soul) together & honestly had pretty much no staff for weeks on end. There was no-one out there & there certainly wasn’t a head chef out there. So a month in I said, Hey Laurence, do you fancy becoming head chef? He said, ABSOLUTELY!
What I’m trying to say is he didn’t have the most cooking experience, but that didn’t matter a bit. He came at it from the perspective of wanting to learn every aspect of the business. He wrote every single thing down. He was mature & composed at all times and when he got it wrong just took it on the chin & learnt from it – no ego, no nothing! … Laurence wanted to learn & I wanted to teach. Sure, it was bumpy at times but so rewarding for both of us”
Interview by Rosie Fletcher
Talking to Selin Kiazim and her former Head Chef Laurence Louie, you find yourself welcomed into their gentle and engaging energy. No egos or self-importance here, just good, thoughtful people. Though their culinary journeys began very differently, their partnership – full of triumphs and challenges – offers a gloriously inspiring story that has shaped the individuals, and professionals, they are today.
Selin’s calming presence belies herformidable talents as the chef and co-owner of the buzzy Shoreditch restaurant, Oklava. Her menu of flavour-packed Turkish-Cypriot dishes has a thoroughly modern edge, despite her background of classical cookery training. At the end of a three-year culinary arts diploma at Westminster Kingsway College, Selin met the legendary chef Peter Gordon during a competition. His subsequent tutelageprovided her with the strength and support that she needed to develop, and his attitude of empowerment is one that she has carried through to her own managerial style.
At the other end of the spectrum, Laurence doesn’t have any formal training. Growing up in a Chinese-American household, his formative years were infused with the cultural importance of sharing good food around the table – an integral part of family life – but his culinary journey didn’t begin until the ripe age of 27. With the goal of running his own restaurant one day, he gained some experience in the restaurants of his hometown before looking further afield. In 2017 he took a chance and emailed Selin to ask if he could come and “hang out” in her kitchen for a while and she took a risk on the unassuming Bostonian, giving him an intense bootcamp in what it takes to tackle the stove at one of London’s best restaurants.
It marked the start of a pretty magical partnership and is reassuring evidence that a single email is sometimes all it takes to seize the opportunities that are waiting out there. Laurence wanted to learn and Selin wanted to teach.
She acknowledges that by taking on a less experienced chef she was increasing her own workload, but in the long term it would pay off with an employee that she had a connection with, and one that reflected her own vision.
As a new chef and a new employee Laurence came at his challenge with clear goals, diligent organisation and the willingness to listen and be pushed. Meanwhile, Selin was finding her own feet as a boss and a manager, learning that she needed to be there for her employees at all times. As I listen to her, I am full of admiration for her dedication to allowing her staff to find their individual rhythm and flow. Laurence fondly recalls Selin telling him “You need to make this and this happen, talk to this person and cook this dish, but – use your own words.”
Cooking is a Craft
As I chat to Selin and Laurence it’s clear that this idea of being ‘too old’ to enter the hospitality industry is outdated. “Cooking is a craft that you can learn over time,” says Laurence, “but there are other aspects from your life that you draw on that are wholly relevant in a restaurant environment.” Selin agrees that Laurence brought an assured maturity into her kitchen: “Yes, it was a step in a different direction hiring and promoting a chef who didn’t have huge amounts of solid experience. But what is more important than anything is an individual who actually wants to work with you, who is willing to learn and cares about their workplace.”
Lounging back in his chair, Laurence’s strict side on the pass is hard to picture. He admits “It’s easy to be that guy that everyone likes, that gives everyone what they want. But it’s about learning when you can be the nice dude and when you have to be a hard ass!” Knowing when to allow for freedom and creativity and when to draw the all-important boundaries is of shared importance to the pair, as is recognising individuality in the team. As Selin says “Everyone has a different character and needs a different style of communication.” Amen!
Whilst they have both been tested, the pair have created a touching partnership and a shared sense of victory. It shows that a sparkling CV is not necessarily the winning ticket and a so-called ‘lack of experience’ can easily be made up for by a can-do attitude, a clear vision and, crucially, a pen and a fresh notebook.
Equally, Selin serves as inspiration to any leader who wants to create a trusting, open and honest team. As the boss it is you that gets to decide what kind of workplace you are building, how structurally sound you want it to be and how, by allowing employees to find their own style, you are ultimately creating a cohesive and connected unit.
Now to the important stuff….
Rosie: Tell me, what MUST we order when we come for dinner at Oklava?
Selin: I’m going to have to say, the Lahmacun (pictured), it’s very traditionally Turkish and, for me, it is the most perfect mouthful I could have.
Laurence: My answer is with a disclaimer that it is a given that you get the grilled hellim cheese… I’m going to go with the Şeftali kebab.
Rosie: Tell me about it…
Selin: It’s a dish of Cypriot sausages that we wrap in lamb caul fat, grilling the meat slowly over the fire so that it becomes smokey, fatty and juicy and everything good!