My UAE: Mealtime memories with restaurateur Amna Al Hashemi
When Amna Al Hashemi was contemplating which dishes to add to the menu of her new restaurant, Mitts and Trays in Dubai’s City Walk Phase 2, she sat down, closed her eyes and tried to think of the dishes that evoked her happiest memories. If these dishes stirred up good memories for her, she surmised, then they’d do the same for her customers.
Madras chicken curry was the first dish that sprang to mind on that day back in February. “I remember every Thursday when my mum was still alive, back when I was 15 or 16 years old, we used to gather as a family and my aunt would cook something very similar,” says Al Hashemi, who is now a 29-year-old mum of three children, ages 6, 4 and 2.
Al Hashemi’s mother passed away several years ago and Al Hashemi had to help her father raise her three younger brothers, who are triplets.
The Mitts and Trays menu’s grilled fish of the day reminds Al Hashemi of her mother-in-law, who still rustles up an Emirati-style catch-of-the-day meal for her once a week. “She always makes me brown sweet rice with grilled fish. I love that,” Al Hashemi says with a smile. “She sweetens the rice with molasses. I love her – she makes that dish only for me.”
The journey of how Al Hashemi came to open Mitts and Trays in August began not with main courses but with desserts. Four years ago, Al Hashemi, who until then had followed a career in PR and design, decided to teach herself how to make cookies in the kitchen of her home in Al Barsha. They turned out to be a big hit with her friends and family, so, in 2014, the budding baker decided to enrol in a professional pastry course at the International Centre for Culinary Arts, in Dubai’s Knowledge Village. “What made me join the course was that I couldn’t quite get the correct consistency,” she explains. “One day I’d do cookies that were crispy, one day chewy, and I didn’t know why.”
On the year-long course that Al Hashemi attended all day every Saturday, she learnt to master the basics of bread-making, hot and cold desserts, chocolate-making and pastries – as well as cookies.
With orders from friends and family coming in thick and fast, her next step was to establish an Instagram page – Mitts and Trays – to advertise her home-baked treats. “I was making and selling cookies, cakes, granola, profiteroles – basically whatever I wanted to bake,” she says. “They were tweaked recipes. Once I’d worked with a recipe a few times, I’d add my own twist to it.”
The cake that Al Hashemi is most proud of – and the one that now has pride of place as the signature dish on Mitts and Trays’ dessert menu – she named “Happily Ever After”. It’s a cardamom sponge cake with saffron-infused cream frosting, topped with pistachios. “This cake is made using egg whites, so the sponge is very light and melts in your mouth,” she says. “I added cardamom, saffron and rose water to give it an Arabic flavour.”
Al Hashemi’s Instagram business started attracting regular customers from as far away as Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, and couriers were ordered to transport her baked treats to homes. But after 18 months in business, Al Hashemi was finding it exhausting. “I was doing it all by myself,” she says. “I’d wash my own plates too. Our kitchen wasn’t designed to accommodate large orders – my oven was too small.”
But when Al Hashemi told her husband, Yousef, that she was thinking of quitting, he persuaded her to expand and delegate rather than give up. And so a restaurant location was chosen, staff were hired, and Mitts and Trays opened just six months later in August, with Al Hashemi opting for a “chic but cosy” concept of hand-crafted furniture with a living room-style interior, and a gazebo-themed outside area.
Al Hashemi’s father, who is an architect, was at first sceptical. “But he saw that I was very adamant. We’ve been through a lot together, me and my dad. Especially during my teenage years. He is my best friend. I think now, he’s proud of Mitts and Trays too.”
What’s your favourite book?
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I like novels, but I’m not a fan of romance.
Who is your favourite social media influencer?
I like those three guys from the UK, on the YouTube channel SORTEDfood (the FridgeCam Show). They inspire me a lot.
What hobbies do you enjoy, other than baking?
With three kids, you actually forget what your hobbies are. But I used to love doing graphic design on the computer.
What’s your favourite brand?
Jimmy Choo, because they’re the most comfortable heels I’ve ever worn. I’m short and I love my heels.
What animal are you most similar to and why?
A cat because cats have some fierceness in them, but still they’re cautious. I used to own a cat, but with kids and allergies, I don’t anymore.
What’s the most important lesson you teach your children?
Don’t change yourself for others. When you do something, own it. I try my best not to dictate what they wear. I like them to express themselves and not copy others: I always emphasise that.
What makes you the happiest?
Visiting family. Those family days are the nicest times for me.
Who is your favourite actor?
Tom Hanks. I love any film that he stars in.
Describe your management style?
Empowering. I don’t like hitting people on the head with hammers. Give them the responsibility, and then if they don’t do the job properly, you can teach them.
What food would you always rather decline?
Salmon wouldn’t be my first choice. The one in Mitts and Gloves is honey glazed, so that’s different.
What’s your favourite dish off your menu?
It has to be the slow-cooked braised short ribs, or the watermelon and feta salad.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
Anything that’s fried. I’d love to have donuts on my menu, but it’s a wholesome food restaurant. Maybe I’ll start serving baked donuts, but I don’t think they’re as good. Krispy Kreme are the best.