Fez Ozalgan
Images: Haydon Perrier

Meet the chef: Fez Ozalgan of Penelope’s

20 May 2024 | |By Annie Lewis

One of London’s leading head chefs discusses her love of fusion food and why cooking has always been part of her DNA

Fez Ozalgan is no stranger to the kitchen. Having grown up in London with her Cypriot parents, Ozalgan spent her childhood in their East End cafe cooking food that celebrated their heritage, from koftes and stews, to mezes and moussakas. 

Accordingly, when she left school at 16, there was only one passion she wanted to pursue: cooking. From there, her career went from manning a McDonald’s drive through to waitressing at the House of Lords and becoming a commis chef in Michelin-starred establishments. Today, she’s head chef of Penelope’s – the jewel in the crown of the Covent Garden-based Amano hotel – where she creates Israeli-Spanish fusion cuisine incorporating the flavours of her childhood. 

Arrive at Penelope’s and you’ll be greeted by innovative menus centred around seasonal produce, prepared in an open kitchen where you can spot Ozalgan nearly every day of the week. Highlights here include the lamb rump with homemade aji verde, the zingy chicken shawarma with mango amba, and the sea bream tartare (one of Ozalgan’s personal favourites) – and don’t miss the restaurant’s signature baklava cheesecake. 

But while her trajectory is impressive, Ozalgan would be the first to admit it hasn’t been easy. From cutting her teeth in the kitchen as a teenager – and in an industry where 83 per cent of all head chefs are men – to working in high-pressure situations at the House of Lords and Royal Ascot, we sit down to discuss her career so far. 

Tell me about your childhood. Did you always want to be a chef?

I did always have a passion for cooking but my first choice of career was to become a professional footballer so, once that fell through, becoming a chef was the automatic second move. I grew up in London, but my parents came from the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus, which automatically meant food was going to be a big part of my life. I have been cooking with my parents at their café in East London since the age of 12, marvelling at my dad in the kitchen.

What’s your earliest food memory?

Mine is from when I was very young – I was in a high chair (so probably still a baby of sorts) and being fed köfte by my mum. I know it sounds unbelievable but I really did have a monstrous appetite and love for food from an incredibly young age. My career was written in the stars really!

What restaurants did you work in during the early years of your career?

I worked at The Grosvenor Hotel and Orrery before I became breakfast chef at The Raglan Hotel in 2011. I then joined Jamie Oliver’s famous fire cooking joint, Barbecoa, where I spent six years as sous chef.

How did it feel to cook at events at the House of Lords and Ascot? Did you find the extra pressure stressful?

Very! However, I was very young and junior, so I always had senior people to lean on which helped relieve pressure, as well as enabling me to learn so many invaluable skills. 

What’s your advice to other women who want to break into the restaurant industry?

Don’t give up, be strong and don’t allow anyone to push you around.

What drew you to Penelope’s?

Mostly that it was an Israeli/Spanish fusion. I have plenty of experience doing both Middle Eastern and also Spanish/Latin. I do also find it can be boring sticking to only one style of cooking, and having the flexibility of working with two separate cuisines simultaneously allows you to be even more creative and keeps it interesting! It also offers those who visit a truly unique experience.

What do you love most about Israeli and Spanish food?

Both cuisines are very diverse but also are very rich in the variety of produce they use. I can have lots of fun with a number of ingredients, working out how to marry them together in the most complementary way possible. I have developed a love for fire cooking and find that both cuisines have dishes that work so well when grilled, so I’ve incorporated this when developing new menus.

What is your one other favourite London restaurant?

If I have to pick one, I’d go for Fallow. It’s just executed to absolute perfection, down to the smallest details. They even grow their own mushrooms in house!

Are there any other London chefs you're impressed with at the moment?

There are many, maybe too many to single any out! One I will say that always impresses me is Tim Dela Cruz, currently head chef at Smiths of Smithfields. His passion for food always motivates me – even when he’s cooking at home!

How do you spend your free time away from the restaurant?

Most of my free time is spent relaxing with my loved ones, my dogs, and watching Spurs!

What's your favourite dish on the menu and why?

The sea bream tartare is definitely up there – I love raw fish and this one is full of flavour. The baklava cheesecake is also one of my favourites as it was one of the first dishes I put on the menu. Another one is the lamb rump; I love lamb in general but complemented with the green picada rice and rich lamb jus, this dish is just so flavourful!

Visit amanogroup.com

Read more: The best summer terraces and pop-up bars in London