Interview with Chef Leyli Homayoonfar – Leyli Joon and Co.
What was your first experience of cooking?
My mum and dad are both fantastic cooks, so food and cooking were always central to family life. It’s hard to pinpoint an early memory because we were just always cooking! However, my brother and I were completely in awe of Jamie Oliver when he first started The Naked Chef TV shows, we were around 13 and 15 at the time, we would tune in every week and then try and copy his dishes.
So that inspired you to become a chef?
I just fell into it, literally, I started as a waitress in a family friend’s Italian restaurant in Cardiff when I was around 15, one of my jobs was to make the desserts and I just loved the kitchen, I just wanted to learn everything, so I ended up staying there. I’ve always been surrounded by really great food at home, but restaurant cooking and the processes fascinated me.
Tell us about your training.
I worked my way around some great local restaurants in Cardiff, working under Tommy Heaney for the Bar 44 group before moving to London to pursue my career further. I worked in the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce (formerly Harvey’s where Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay started) and then worked for Jamie Oliver, working and training chefs at Fifteen before becoming his head chef and running his Cookery schools. There I also got the chance to work with and learn from brilliant Italian chefs like Gennaro Contaldo.
The last 5 years I spent working as a development chef and tutor for Waitrose, which was a hub of brilliantly trained chefs all from different amazing kitchen backgrounds. Leyli Joon & Co has been running since September 2017.
What are your chief influences, then?
Persian and Middle Eastern dishes and recipes have a huge influence on my food because it’s what I was brought up eating. It’s really interesting to see how popular the cuisine is now, whereas when I was growing up most of the ingredients weren’t readily available in the UK so we would have relatives bring over all of these exotic ingredients in suitcases when they would come to visit!
Being trained in kitchens cooking Spanish and Italian cuisine also has a huge influence, it’s hard not to love these cuisines where the dishes are so simple, but the quality of ingredients is key, I just love them. In most of my dishes you will find European cooking techniques with Middle Eastern flavours, or Mediterranean recipes with a Persian/Middle Eastern twist.
If customers had to describe their dining experience with you in 3 words what would they be?
Exciting, thought-provoking, intimate.
So, when you come home from work what do you like to cook?
Pasta, everything pasta! It’s my favourite thing to eat because it’s so comforting and it’s my favourite thing to make from scratch.
Any guilty pleasures?
Too many to mention (or dare to!) Poutine, also known as Caroline Street’s finest- chips, cheese and gravy!
Highlight of you career so far?
Appearing on live TV along with Michel Roux Jnr to discuss my supper clubs.
What is the greatest compliment you’ve ever had about your food?
The last supper club we hosted in Cardiff, we had a lovely elderly lady who had come alone all the way from West Wales- just because her grandson had been to one we’d hosted in London, and had loved it so much that she had to try it herself! She had to leave at 9pm to get the bus back- so we made her a doggy bag to take home.
What do you most enjoy about being a chef?
It’s the freedom to be so creative; there is nothing better than when an exciting idea pops up in your head, to then be able go through the process from start to finish, and finish by serving it to someone and seeing the look on their face; when the idea in your head has come to life on a plate, it really gives me a great deal of pleasure.
What advice would you give to any young person keen to start in the industry?
Well, be prepared for very hard work! Very early starts and very long days and nights- it’s not glamorous but if you find it’s your passion then it’s the most rewarding job in the world. To me it doesn’t feel like work because I love it so much, it’s an obsession and that mindset is key to making it. Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to look silly for not knowing something, every day is a school day and there is never a silly question in the kitchen. Great chefs have only learned from other great chefs!