In full bloom

Photography by Nina Merikallio

Kozeen Shiwan is on a mission to revolutionise the art of gastronomy. We spend five feverish hours with him to find out how exactly this wunderkind is planning on making it happen.

“Like Picasso or Dali, I want to make an impact,” says Kozeen Shiwan and it’s almost as if the proclamation makes him shine a little brighter.

Some would say that this is big talk from a 27-year-old chef who only finished cooking school four and a half years ago, but Shiwan’s bar is set high. The former Head Chef of Ask, a Michelin starred restaurant located in the prestigious neighbourhood of Helsinki’s Kruununhaka, will not settle for anything less than perfect.
 
When Shiwan was seven and a half years old, his life turned around. Son of a persecuted Iraqi journalist, his family soon found their names on a kill list. After a stint in jail, Shiwan’s father discovered an undetonated grenade on the family’s front porch in Northern Iraq. Had the grenade detonated, the whole family would have perished. Tired of fearing for his family’s lives, Shiwan’s father sold everything they owned, packed Shiwan, his three siblings and his mother into a van and left. A year and a half later, they found themselves in Helsinki in the middle of a thick snowstorm. Shiwan’s grandmother’s garden of pistachio, fig trees and grapes that grew to the roof quickly changed to Mukkula, a drab suburb in the small city of Lahti, known better for its grey apartment blocks than cultural adventures.Everything had changed. Although the treasures from his grandmother’s garden were nowhere to be found in dark and chilly Finland, Iraq followed the family on their plates that were often filled with traditional Kurdish food: rice, beans, meat stews, Shish Kebab and sour yoghurt. In one of the grey blocks of flats, Shiwan started playing around in the kitchen, first assisting his mother, then developing a style of his own.

Tastes from his home country weren’t the only thing that was embedded into Shiwan’s DNA. Since an early age, he chose to push his boundaries to reach for far greater heights than most would’ve expected from him and cultivate curiosity in the footsteps of his father. He sees ambition as something innate — a natural part of him that’s impossible to shake off. “A need to strive for progress has always been present in my life. When I was a child, I simply wanted to be the best,” he reflects. A hunger for pushing the boundaries was first visible in young Shiwan’s self-made clothes that adhered to the rules of the hip hop wave of the 1990s as perfectly as possible and, later, a tireless pursuit of perfection in the form of not only creativity, but also money. “It’s not just about the money, but it has had a big role,” admits Shiwan. Working his way up from poverty while seeing relatives in Iraq carry enough cash in their pockets to buy a house on the spot, he grew up to idealise the perks of money, although not just for selfish reasons. “I’ve always strived for things I’ve never had,” says Shiwan and quickly continues, “but when I gain something, the people around me gain, too.”

Shiwan squints and draws a sliver of parsnip from a plastic box. He plays around with it, pretending it’s his left eye. Next, he picks up a bunch of edible flowers and sticks it behind his ear, posing for an invisible camera. Like an uncontainable boy genius or an excited teenager, he bounces around, mouthing along to the lyrics of his favourite rap songs. Speaking at a dizzyingly fast pace and with seemingly endless confidence, he is a force to be reckoned with. The more difficult the question, the more delighted he is. To him, the world is a challenge that drives him. A self-confessed perfectionist, Shiwan admits that he loves to do things the hard way and is never satisfied. It’s not like that bothers him, though. “I see stress and anxiety as a sign of progress,” he says, “a sign that I’m driven.” When he gets home to his apartment in Kruununhaka, a mere stone’s throw from the kitchen of Ask, he hangs up his jacket and gets to work — just in a different way than what you’d expect a chef to. When nobody’s watching, he tries to materialise the things he envisions. Thinking about ongoing projects fills his every waking moment — it’s a part of him that never sleeps. Visions of work fill his nights, too. “I got the inspiration for my famous potato in a salt jacket from a vision I had of myself walking across a burnt potato field. I saw a close-up of a scorched field shrouded by black smoke – I was walking alone, stepping on charred straws and grains.” Although his rhythm seems intense to many, to him, work feels like child’s play, with endless possibilities and challenges. “Rather than work, it feels like a beautiful process,” Shiwan states.

The process hasn’t always been so outwardly beautiful, though. Starting his culinary career relatively late, Shiwan spent a few years working beside his father in a restaurant he had bought in Lahti, a small town in Southern Finland. Shiwan grew up working 12-hour shifts in a pizzeria with his uncles, far removed from the cosmopolitan cities inhabited by devoted epicureans. When he discovered culinary school, it wasn’t far from an epiphany. “Becoming a chef made me blossom,” he says. “Food has given me an opportunity to discover and explore my creativity.” Four months after starting school, he entered his first competition — and won. After that, his confidence has been built competition after competition. At the 2017 Chef of the Year competition in Finland, Shiwan lost, but despite leaving the arena sans medal, he was rewarded with a compliment that to him, was worth more than a run-of-the-mill prize. “The judges told me that I’m way ahead of anyone in this country and that’s far more valuable than any medal I could’ve ever gotten.” And, while Shiwan isn’t shy to admit that he sees himself as a pioneer, it hasn’t always been easy to push forward with a vision that hasn’t been shared by many. “It’s draining to be ahead of one’s time,” he laments, “I’ve been labelled crazy more times than I would like to admit. Nonetheless, I want to leave a legacy and without breaking boundaries I’ll be forgotten.” He talks about his achievements with the pride of a dedicated craftsman and describes his nearly extraterrestrial-looking creations as “a mix of everything from the Stone Age, the legacy of Chinese emperors and Africa.” Ordinary gastronomy no longer satisfies him creatively, so he finds himself at an intersection between art and food, a distinction that he regards as old-fashioned.

Shiwan quietens down. He examines his creation like a doctor inspects a patient inflicted with a rare tropical disease. 

 
The object of his gaze is, however, not a malaria-ridden inpatient, but a beautifully white chocolate-covered Jerusalem artichoke heart. For an instant, time stops and the air is thick with concentration. Shiwan’s endless working hours are dotted with split seconds of stillness like this; moments lost in observation. He goes through life with his eyes wide open, seeing beauty everywhere around him, stopping to absorb it, chewing it up and spitting it out as one if his ornate creations. Lately, he’s been inspired by wood. “I’ve been noticing wooden things and trees — how they grow and how exquisite their trunks are.” Stumbling upon beauty is an everyday occurrence. “I see grace in seemingly unremarkable things, too,” he explains, “I might get lost in the hues of an odd carrot or the different shades of wild herbs. I can easily lose myself in the beauty of the ordinary.”